Teachers Toolkit for Students with little or no speech

This was the final session at the Advocacy Sector Conversations forum held at the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre on 27 November 2018.


Communication Rights Australia developed this toolkit through a collaborative process with educators, speech pathologists, students with communication support needs and their families, and the Victorian Department of Education. It provides teachers with the latest information and practical step-by-step recommendations for supporting students with little or no speech,   to reach their highest potential both academically and socially. Monique Sweetland steps us through the scope of the resource.



Useful Links

Resources mentioned in this session include:


Transcript & Audio


This is the last speaker of today and this is Monique Sweetland from Communication Rights Australia.  Communication Rights Australia collaborated with educators, speech pathologists, students with communication support needs and their families, and the Victorian Department of Education to provide teachers with the latest information and practical step-by-step recommendations for supporting students with little or no speech, so that they may reach their highest potential both academically and socially.

I bring to the podium Monique, thank you.

Hi everyone, thank you.  I’m changing the tone a little bit.  There won’t be much discussion of NDIS in the next little while for better or worse.  I’m going to talk about this new resource that we’ve developed and launched in end of July this year.

It’s called the Teachers Toolkit for Students with Little or No Speech and it’s available on the website, actually, I don’t think you can see the web address at the bottom it’s www.studentswithnospeech.org.au .  The project commenced in 2017 with a grant from the NDIA ILC Program.  It was intended to be a three-year project that’s what the proposal was for but we were funded for 18 months in the wisdom of the NDIA.   In any case, we have managed to get it up and running.

The project, the impetus for it was an increasing number of advocacy cases in the education space.  Obviously, dealing with matters to do with inclusive education, lots of cases that were coming to us of children/students in mainstream and special schools facing barriers to accessing full education in terms of academic participation as well as social participation, exclusion from camps, specialist subjects that kind of thing.  The whole gambit of situations that I’m sure everyone is aware of.

There was certainly and still are many situations where the very involved advocacy is what’s needed to change perspectives and prejudices perhaps.  But there was certainly a growing number of cases that we were becoming aware of where there was a keenness on the sides of families, students and schools to make things work for students with little or no speech.  The schools and the teachers in particular felt they didn’t have the training they just really didn’t know where to go to get assistance and didn’t have time to research all the different avenues where there are available information.

That was the impetus for the project, to really bring together in one place the information that teachers in particular need to know.  Not just what to do in the classroom but who to go to outside of the classroom to make sure their students are able to get the supports they need and for them to put the supports in place in the classroom.  There was a lot of talk for the need of a proactive tool to compliment the reactive tool of an advocacy that’s our core business.

The process involved Communication Rights Australia and RMIT developing the project proposal and essentially, it was establishing a reference group to guide the direction of the project.  I think Natalie already went through the different people and organisations we had involved in the reference group so I won’t read them all out but it was a really great collaborative group.  We found it a really productive series of meetings.  A lot of great guidance, we were able to connect with a lot of different people and lots of shared perspectives obviously.

The goal the reference committee agreed to for the project was for it to be a free and really easy to use practice resource particularly for teachers and especially those new to working with students with little or no speech.  To help teachers specifically understand the issues commonly faced by those students and the kind of supports they need.

The focus of the toolkit is obviously students with little or no speech, so students who are using alternative augmentative communication often.  There is a lot in the toolkit in the content that’s relevant to students with disabilities across lots of different disabilities.  It’s quite applicable in other circumstances and you can drop into the website at different points and I will get to how you navigate through it in a moment.

In addition to being a resource for teachers, it’s actually a great resource for students and families themselves to support their own journey through schooling if they’re identifying that their self-advocating or obviously for advocates to know of the different steps or different organisations or programs that might assist different assessment tools that are available and more suited to some students with little or no speech.  There is a lot in there that is useful for non-teachers as well to know.

I probably don’t need to go through the common issues and supports that students with little or no speech face and need but this is just a quick overview.  Obviously, there’s many other types of issues that come up and the supports obviously need to be very individualised.  These are the really common things and we really wanted to get some key messages across to teachers specifically around assessments being done, using assessments that are suitable for students with no speech.

It was great to have the Victorian Department of Education involved in the reference group because the project has followed updates to guidelines for assessing psychologists that finally recognise alternative assessments.  Even though there’s been that acknowledgment of more appropriate assessments for students with no speech within the Department’s guidelines that wasn’t widely known or distributed through schools.  To be able to include information about that in this kind of resource to get it direct to teachers, we’ve got some good feedback about that.

Other key messages are around behaviour as a form of communication.  A lot of issues as I’m sure everyone is aware of with students or schools responding to student’s behaviour in non-productive ways and students behaving in a way because they don’t have an access to functional means of communication.  There’s a section in the toolkit specifically on behaviour supports and explaining briefly about positive behaviour support and reinforcing that message about access to functional means of communication is being key.

Limited knowledge about alternative and augmentative communication is another common issue.  Again, there’s quite a bit of information in the toolkit around that.  Also, understanding the role of speech pathologists and understanding that speech pathologists with AAC expertise are a particular kind of sub group of speech pathologists and a lot of speech pathologists haven’t had a lot of training around AAC or people with communication support needs.

We’ve got reflective that a lot of the subscribers to the site are speech pathologists which we didn’t really anticipate originally but as we were developing it it kind of made sense.  That’s a great result too.

Just a quick overview of the content, the content is broken up into eight different topics.  The first is a background on inclusions so that covers the legal framework, international laws, national laws and state laws and it also covers a different program like the different funding programs for students with disabilities and the different states.  It covers rights to access education, rights to user communication method of your choice that kind of overview.

There is a bit of a discussion in that topic about the interaction between the education system and NDIS and that interface is still slightly blurry in some situations but as a living resource as this is our plan is to continually refine information like that to provide that clarity in that area.

The second topic is communication methods so that’s providing a background for people new to AAC about what AAC means, the different devices that people might be using, different systems and also how to access those.  There’s quite a bit of discussion about the role of speech pathologists in that section.

The third topic is student profiles, which is pretty much all about the message of how important getting to know your student is which is very common sense obviously but tips to make it simpler for teachers who have got a very busy classroom and new students each year.

We’re wanting to obviously make it quick and easy for them and give them tips about transferring profiles from year to year so that when a student moves from one class to the next the teachers don’t have to start again and the student doesn’t have to start again with filling everyone in on where they’re at and what they’re up to.

The fourth topic is individual learning plans and reasonable adjustments.  There’s some templates and examples of the different kinds of adjustments but again an emphasis on how individual, all of that needs to be.  It’s really about knowing your student, having the appropriate assessments done so the teacher knows where to set goals, how to measure progress and all of those things.

Then there’s a few topics, which are not necessarily relevant to all students.  There’s social supports around social inclusion and when this might be relevant, a sensory processing topic.  A lot of students with little or no speech we’ve been working with have autism and sensory challenges are a bit issue for a number of those students.  We’ve got some videos on there that help explain what it can be like and ideas for helping students manage their sensory processing issues in the classroom or in a school setting.

Then as I mentioned a behaviour support section, which is talking about the requirements around positive behaviour, supports and really where to go for help because teachers can’t know everything and do everything.  A lot of it is about who is the right person to access at this point if you’re facing this issue, whose your best contact.

Then the last topic is implementation tips in the classroom.  Day to day implementation, talking about lesson planning, how to develop a lesson plan that is inclusive for all your students regardless of where they’re at in terms of the year level curriculum or a modified curriculum or how they’re accessing the curriculum.  Examples of apps to use, teachers are loving the apps and the video tips.

They’re the eight topics.  Aside from the topics, another key part of the toolkit is we call it the Teachers Checklist, which is really an alternative way to navigate through the content.  You can either go via the topics or you can look through the checklist.  It’s really a list of questions that are answered by different parts of the content.  I think I’ve got a slide later on; the checklist page is the second most highly viewed page of the site so far.

We’ve got a lot of feedback too from teachers that that’s been a really helpful way for them to access the information that they need really quickly because there’s just a question, which says do I know about restraint and seclusion requirements.  They just click on that and it takes them straight to the paragraph about it or what if my student doesn’t have a speech pathologist, those kinds of questions.

Then additionally there’s links to different organisations, other resources, lots of different training options and over time, we hope to obviously update all those links and references.  I’ve just put in here a note on the geographic kind of scope of the site.  It did initially start as a Victoria wide project so all the content was Victoria specific but having said that obviously a lot of information and approaches and strategies around inclusive education are universal and not jurisdiction specific.

Where there were State references, we have been able to broaden the content and we’ve included now information relevant to all the different States and Territories.  Particularly in the background section there’s information on the different State based rights, State based programs and policies.

Also, we reference the different enquiries and reports that have been undertaken over the recent history into this area of inclusive education.  There’s obviously a lot and in some States and Territories, different issues have been raised so that has been kind of summarised nationally in that background section.

This next page is more for teachers so I might just let you glance through those.  It’s probably more specific to teachers than advocates.

In terms of how it’s been received, we launched the end of July and pretty much we’ve been focused on developing the content and refining all the technical features and functionality, which is completely new work for us as advocates to be in.  That’s taken up a lot of our focus.  We haven’t done a whole lot of promotion or kind of moved into the space of starting to do workshops around that kind of thing.

Given that we’re really happy with how much traffic it’s seen, there’s been over 10,000 page views since the beginning of August.  With the goal of it being free and as easy as possible to access, the decision was made for it not to require users to subscribe so that’s optional.  We’ve now hit I think we’ve got 370 that was Friday and it’s been posted on a Canadian and American AAC website so we’ve now hit 400 subscribers just over the weekend, which is great.

It’s a growing number of users each day.  What we haven’t really been able to delve into yet is how long people are spending on it.   This is a breakdown of the subscribers.  Just getting back to what I mentioned about speech pathologists signing up, higher numbers than we expected.  The way it’s set up, you don’t have to identify the kind of category you fall into when you subscribe.  That’s why the four numbers here don’t add up to the total but as a representation, 55 Allied Health professionals and I know they’ve been five to ten more since I put these numbers together.

Just an interesting reflection on whose finding it useful and given the role of speech pathologists in schools where there are students with little or no speech we think that’s a real positive.  We’ve certainly got most of our direct feedback from teachers who are indicating they’re finding it helpful.

I’ve got a bit of a breakdown of State usage and different countries.  We’re obviously hoping to see the usage across the States and Territories even out but that hopefully will come over the next year when we start to focus more on going out to different schools, hitting the ground in other States which we haven’t done at all and really promoting it elsewhere.

This is the most frequently viewed pages.  The checklist is the second most frequently viewed page.  That’s pretty self-explanatory.  In terms of where to now, just as I was saying we are wanting to really raise awareness and increase the use of it across as many schools as we can.

We are exploring accreditation of the resources, a professional development resource for teachers.  Speech Pathology Australia have also expressed an interest in some kind of partnership opportunity because they’re really keen on the benefit of it for speech pathologists.

Currently the speech pathology course for under graduates doesn’t really cover AAC at all or at least any great extent.  Even to identify speech pathologists with AAC expertise there’s no specific qualification or accreditation that is able to differentiate.  It would be a great opportunity to be able to explore if this could assist with that.

As I said, it was funded for 18 months.  We’re nearly at the end of that period and the end of that funding.  There are going to be challenges with us having the capacity to do the continual improvement and updates but we are committed to doing that.  We welcome feedback from anyone whether you’re a subscriber, or a teacher or not feedback is really welcome.

We are hoping to potentially secure some grant funding in the future and it’s great to hear that next round of funding is now open so I think you know what we will be putting in for.

Please check it out.  I’m sorry you can’t see the web address.  I’ll just tell you again its www.studentswithnospeech.org.au and just to reiterate that it has been set up with a focus on students with little or no speech and those using AAC but there is a lot in there that is applicable or could be applicable to students with other types of disability.

We really hope that it helps all these students get the most out of their education, enjoy their schooling as well as learn and get the academic and social benefits and to help teachers feel more comfortable and confident to teach students with little or no speech and to know they can achieve everything they want.

Thank you.

Hi, I’m Ruth.  My young man is 21 and he’s one of these young people.  He went through the SES Special Developmental School System, which was very problematic with all this speech stuff.  Obviously, what you’ve done is too late for him.

Good to hear that DEET are on board but I guess my question is how mandatory is it?  It is a basic human right, communication we all know that which has been a law for years and years but we know perfectly well they don’t do it.  I guess the other thing I see is a very problematic in at all and have you got any suggestions on how to address this.  It is people’s choice on how they communicate and when you’ve got a vast array of communication ways, how do teachers do that or address that issue and schools address that issue?

We know perfectly well that most speechies don’t have AAC.  My young man is very lucky now and he has one that does.  Since he has left school, it’s been great.  I guess those issues, have you thought the big picture how we’re going to address all of this?  It’s great having this toolkit but if you can’t put it into practice because of other roadblocks that are there, what’s the point of it I suppose?

Well that’s a really good question.  This obviously is just one part of a much bigger picture.  Initially the reference group did discuss right from the outset whether the resource should be developed with the Department as a mandatory tool for teachers and the decision was taken to not go down that path to try to ensure it was as accessible and viewed as positively by teachers as possible.

As it has developed and as we’ve got more feedback from teachers, it is still early days, there does seem to be a sense that developing it into a professional development course for teachers would be the way to go.  That wouldn’t necessarily mean it’s mandatory obviously.

This project there is some work going on within the Department and we don’t have a whole lot of information about it, but looking at what changes can be made to the teaching degree, what modules that kind of thing can be added to the degree to better prepare teachers for working with students with communication disabilities.

In time possibly something like this could be – we would love to see this resource modified in some way perhaps incorporated into the actual under grad teaching degree.  Discussions around that have been going on for a long time well before this resource was developed and there’s a lot of hurdles to getting that happening unfortunately.

The other progress that is being made, I think I referred to it earlier; there is a project again through the Victorian Department of Education around training the psychologists.

Sorry to interrupt you that’s a big problem in itself.  That again is my young man.  This ridiculous IQ testing for students who can’t even do it and why do we need to IQ test them anyway they’re relating IQ as being the same as an intellectual disability which it’s not, we know that.

You talk about you didn’t want it to be too much of a big stick I guess that you had to mandate it.  We know perfectly well it’s changing the culture and if the special school system can’t get it right what hope have we got for the mainstream schools.  Unfortunately, that’s the case in the system as we stand at the moment.

I guess I then come back to how committed are the Department to actually start encouraging, strongly encouraging, not just go here it is you can do it whether you want to or not because we know a lot of people won’t do it unless they’re kind of strongly encouraged to.

I think that’s why we are trying to continue those discussions with the Department to make progress there.  My sense is that there’s a lot of work being done outside of the Department I guess.  That’s why things like partnerships with Speech Pathology Australia or going straight to the Universities and trying to get this kind of information direct to the professionals or those in training without having to navigate the Department and their expectations or the way they want information distributed or not, that might be a better quicker way to address those gaps.

If you’re going to re-train the workforce who’s going to pay for it and is that, then the partnership you need to have with the NDIA or the NDIS.  Who is going to pay for retraining and that’s what really is at the moment going to have to happen, retraining people in the way they do things, which costs money.

In the few examples where there has been some really good approaches I guess taken by schools in supporting their students with little or no speech the NDIS hasn’t been part of it.  The school and the Department have come to the party and paid for that training or for speech pathologists to come in and train the teachers in the class.

There is still that blurriness between the interface between NDIS and Education, but certainly our position and I know a lot of other people working in this space and in some schools, and within the Department to an extent, see clearly that the right to an education is dependent on the right to being able to communicate.  And the Department of Education is responsible for enabling students to access their education.

It just then follows that it’s the Departments responsibility to fund whatever is needed to get the students means to communicate in place whether that’s a device for training the teachers, via speech pathologists or speech pathologists coming in and working with students in the classroom setting.  That is the model that we certainly advocate for.

In some cases, the NDIS is overlapping a bit and sometimes people are just if that’s what’s working and that’s the quickest way to access a device for example then that’s what’s happening.  I think it’s pretty clear from the Departments point of view that a right to communicate is integral to a right to education.

Hi, I actually work as an integration aide and I’m really glad that you’re putting this tool kit together.  I understand that you could only touch on a few things and you’re specifically targeting more non-verbal students.  As an integration aide, what I’m often confronted with is overcrowded classrooms with open plans and teachers who have too much on their plates.

My question is are you hoping that this tool kit can be used to identify which students need funding because sometimes I see students who either aren’t funded at all and should be or are not getting enough funding for the nature of their disability.  Do you hope to get that outcome and how do you plan to measure it?

That’s a really good question actually.  We do address that in the tool kit.  One of the questions directed to teachers is do I know what funding is available for my students, do I know if my students are accessing that funding.  There is a bit of information given about the different programs.

I’m sorry I haven’t got the website up to navigate through as we’re talking but you can have a look yourself it’s pretty easy to navigate.  We are hoping to I guess make sure that the teachers are aware of the different funding programs that are available.

Certainly for the kids that we work with and the schools that we work with those students are already accessing funding.  It’s quite a different question whether the funding is enough and I don’t know we’ll get to a point where it’s ever going to be enough for many of the kids who access the funding for students with disabilities.

One thing that we point out too and I think it goes back to something that Ruth said, a lot of kids are funded under the ID category for example but they’ve got autism for example and they’re not funded under autism.  If you’re funded under the autism category, there is no need for a cognitive assessment.

A lot of the schools certainly in the past were telling families well you’ll get more funding if you go under ID then under AAC, which is not necessarily true, and there’s all these other issues of dignity and identity and recognising who a person is.

We’re not capturing data on that kind of thing but we do address the importance of the teachers being aware that there are specific funding programs and what those funding programs are intended to cover.

I was just asking about more specifically about identifying students more readily.  I know it’s easier if there is a significant speech barrier because you’re catering to a very specific demographic.  But with other disabilities that might be easier to camouflage or maybe you can’t answer that question.

We have actually had a couple of people ask that kind of thing and suggested that the tool kit might include something like an information sheet on what to do if you think your student or your child might need additional supports.  We have felt that it is slightly outside of the scope of this particular project.

Hopefully the background information at least on communication support needs and what that might look like and the kinds of disabilities that often are associated with communication support needs might provide enough information in terms of being able to identify those students.  I hope that helps.

Thank you very much Monique.  It sounds like a really exciting tool kit and I really hope schools embrace it and use it and improves education outcomes for students with disability.

Now I would like to hand over to Natalie again.

Okay, we’ve come to the end of the day.  It’s been a long day but been very rewarding.  On behalf of DARU and everyone else, I would like to thank everyone who attended today and the presenters.  I want to express thanks to the Expression Australia for operating the live stream and Michael for providing all our audio needs.   Thank you to our wonderful Auslan interpreters.

On just a personal note, I would really like to thank the organisation DARU for taking me on.  I got a phone call about a week ago saying would you like to present at this seminar and it was very last minute.  They took me on and it’s been very fun and it’s been an amazing learning experience.

Thank you and safe travels home.



Date published:
Tue 27th Nov, 2018