The purpose of step 4 is to establish a communication system for each child in your class. Brainstorm when staff can model communication opportunities during the school day. When can your students have the chance to 'talk' at school?

I have a 'lot to say in this step, so be ready! Ha! Did you know that everyone communicates? Even our pets communicate with us! Everyone finds ways to express wants and needs. You may know how some students are feeling without them saying a word. This is their non-verbal communication. Our job is to transition their non-verbal communication into expressive, functional communication for others to understand.

Here's what we're talking about today: 
1) Hierarchy of communication & understanding 
2) Components of language in a self-contained class
Choice Board
Labeling Everything
Core Vocab Boards
Assistive Tech: High Tech devices & Switches
3) Individual Communication System
4) Self-Contained resources for enhancing communication


It's important to understand students comprehend communication at different levels. Like their individual schedules in step 3, some students had schedules with words, others needed objects or photos. The same goes for their communication system. 

Our hierarchy of communication is:
  • objects
  • mini objects
  • actual photos
  • picture symbols
  • line drawings
  • text

Components of Language

Students need symbolic understanding. They need to learn that pictures or words represent an object or concept. The pictures or words have communicative meaning
  •  the student learns the structure of communication
  •  communication occurs between 2 or more people
  •  the pictures, or communication, control the behavior of another person
  • (initiating a request)

For that to occur, we have to recognize that communication skills get more complex. 
  • Basic communication skills
  • Shared focus
  • Early gestural complex (look, point at, reach for, give to)
  • Multi-modal communication (eyes, gestures, voice, body)
  • Unaided versus aided communication

Some students may not need much support. Using the environmental labels and staff modeling. For others, we need to create communication opportunities that encourage effective communication. 

We're going to start with the basic checklist resource. This will help us determine each student's communication system. 

-How do my students communicate? 

Some of your students may come with different types of devices. Others will be at different skill levels with communication. We're going to meet them where they're at. Then expand their vocabulary to new levels so they'll be more expressive by the end of the school year. 

Do they have:
-Core vocab board, AAC-low/high, uses Sign, produces verbal approximations.
-Do they need a Word wall or dictionary? 

You probably have students that won't have a communication system in place. You may also know little to no information when they walk in on the first day of school. If you aren't sure what the communication needs of some of your students are, start observing. The goal is to establish a system for them this year, and it will take time. 
Starting with a labeled class, core board, and choice board is a great start!

Building the individual communication system

Next, use the Communication basic checklist to see how they communicate basic words. We are going to start with low-tech communication. This includes objects, pictures, and clipart. If students don't have a communication system and have limited skills, start by adding icons throughout the room. Teach students to request items while you model and reinforce them. In conjunction, use the choice board from step 3. 

Don't forget to ask for help!

The Communication Basic Checklist will help you determine what level of support you as a teacher need. This is where you can lean on your AT (assistive tech) service or your speech and language team to get help. 

With your student's communication levels identified, let's talk about ways to enhance communication on campus.

Analyze the Environment
Have you labeled everything in class with a picture and ‘word description’? What about areas outside of your class? Labeling encourages students to request and comment on the activities they are participating in.

Identify opportunities to emphasize communication. 
Use any opportunity you can to encourage communication. Even a simple please or thank you builds expressive communication.
What does the student love?
Use interactive, easy stop/go activities

Sabotage Environment. Move reinforcers around to new areas, or further higher up so students can't reach them. Have them request the item. When students want an item, they'll learn to request it, because it's motivating!

get creative with different sensory input

Don't forget to Model the use of communication tools (low & high tech). 
Whatever method of communication your students are using, model, model, model. The more you can show them how to communicate, the faster they will learn it!  Always have a child's voice with them throughout the day! (high/low/etc.)
even simple functional skills are great for communication

Want to watch this post instead? Check out the video!

Self-Contained resources for enhancing communication 


We talked about implementing the 'choice board.' Making choices is an effective intervention. It increases the active participation of individuals with disabilities. The choice board is a great way to encourage students to communicate. It gives them a choice between at least 2+ items/activities/reinforcers, etc. 

Learn more about the importance of choice and how it builds into communication here

Also, use the choice-making strategies while conducting a positive reinforcement survey. This can help you determine the students' favorite things (other than our go-to of technology and food). 

As students' vocabulary skills increase, you can begin creating a picture exchange book for them. You're going to use the most requested icons (from the class or choice board) and put them in their book. Use a binder with velcro to store all the images or text. It's suggested that the students be able to discriminate between 50 different items.
choice boards can be more than just pictures.
Get creative with your devices & objects.

AAC: Augmentative and Alternative Communication. 

 AAC is any item or service that helps to compensate for a person's severe expressive communication disorders. AAC is any device, system, or method that improves the ability of a child with a communication impairment. AAC helps them communicate. The purpose of AAC is to increase a child's ability to achieve various demands from their environment. 


The formal Picture Exchange program, PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System). If you can, request your district to train on it, or get a copy of the PECS manual since there are lots of steps. The picture exchange book can have real images, clip art, or words, depending on their skill level. 

The beginning steps need 2-people for prompting. That does NOT mean, you can't put an effective communication system in place without it. As you see, there are plenty of other strategies and resources that promote communication! 
Use your words. What do you want?

Here's an idea of how it's done:
1. The front of the binder should only have a spot for 2 choices to start. 
2. When he/she grabs one toy, find that picture icon, and place it on the binder in front of the student.
3. Position the PEC's book between the communicating student and the communicating staff member.
4. Place a second staff member behind the communicating student to prompt the student when needed.
5. Wait for the child to reach for the toy and have the prompting staff member physically prompt the student to grab the picture icon and hand it to the communicating staff.
6. The communicating staff member will say, "Blocks" and hold up the picture icon while handing the child the matching toy.
7. Allow the child to play for a minute or two, and start again by taking the toy away and saying something along the lines of "my turn.”
8. Wait for the child to reach for the toy, and repeat the steps to requesting the toy through a PECS

Also included in the PECS are PECS Phases and a 4-step error correction.
Assistive Technology
What if my student can't manipulate those little visuals? What if they need something more concrete? 

Use objects and switches. This is a great way to teach students to communicate their BASIC wants through preferred objects. For students who need objects or auditory input, AT gives them a vocal cue when they press the switch or device. 

Practice with the student making requests for their desired item by using the switch to the item. Don't forget to follow through- if they request something- hand it to them! It is very important to respect their request in the early stages of communication!

The other end of a communication system is high-tech communication devices. This can be any iPad, tablet, or computer. Different technologies for special needs can provide voice output communication. 

Also, if it is a device you aren't familiar with, let the parents know! They are usually glad to show you how they use the device with their child. Keeping it consistent between home and school will further the child's communication progress.  Depending on the complexity of the device you may need training from related service staff or local regional experts. I have had some cool devices! Eye gazers or nerve sensor devices. Technology opens up a world of opportunities.


78% of the words we use daily are drawn from a core of fewer than 400 words. The majority of words used in sentences are NOT pictured producers. Therefore core words are NOT easy for our students to produce an image to match the word. For example, only 1 word is a picture producer in the following sentence: “I went on a trip and saw a mountain.” What is it? 

Core vocabulary boards need to be consistent across places, topics, and activities. Like with our work systems and our schedules, the core boards are set up left to right. They can have color coding to maximize the cognitive organization of grammar. 

You can promote the Core vocab board by using motivating items and objects. When students make requests, they are expanding their communication. Ask open-ended questions throughout the day to give them opportunities to talk.

Core board, song choice board & sentence strips for requesting songs!

A few examples to identify expressive vs. receptive communication: 
Receptive: visual supports, schedules, social stories, first/then board, understanding statements, directions, questions, stories, etc.

Expressive: spoken words, written words, pictures, sign language, communication board, comments, body language, vocalizations

Make core vocabulary boards activities based or situation-specific. Use expressive vocabulary. Be aware of changing vocabulary (i.e. I'm pumped (excited, or I'm pumping gas)). Also, don't have to rely solely on visuals. Encourage total communication to include gestures, signs, vocalizations, and or high-tech systems.
Depending on the student's level of communication, simplify your sentences when communicating. For example, if you say, 'It is time to go to PE". You may point to 'go' or 'PE' or 'go PE' or 'time go PE'.

Tips to use core boards: 
Use class core boards to practice modeling among students and staff. Increase opportunities for repetition. 

Model what you expect and slow your rate of speech to enhance comprehension

Don’t feel the student needs to identify a symbol before they can use it. 

Teach in a functional environment. See the resources list: ideas to promote communication

Create a language-rich learning environment (lots of labels, lots of modeling)

Provides receptive language base with the expectation that expressive language will follow

Be at eye level with the student

WAIT for them to respond. When you think you've waited long enough, count out 5 more Mississippis. 


Use open-ended q's

Sometimes our systems fail when we don’t include content that the child cares about. Be sure to create boards for different situations and activities 


Make a list of the various communication needs of your students. Do you have all the necessary images, devices, and skills to communicate with them? If not, reach out to your related services to get support. 
Thanks for joining another step of the Self-Contained Basics Course. If you want to see the full video, visit my mentorship Patreon "Kolo Says." Grab more freebies & info on my Facebook group & email. Lastly, let me know if you need clarification, have questions, or have concerns. ____________________________________________________ 

>Step 5: Behavior Supports