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Snack Time: Communication & Interaction

Using Snack time to enhance communication.

Snack time can be a great opportunity to develop a number of key skills for our pupils. Given the regular nature of mealtimes in school settings and the inherent positive nature of mealtimes for most children, this activity is an outstanding context for social communication intervention (Gauverou 2017). Primarily this presents a daily opportunity to focus on developing communication whether this is AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) or based on verbalisation and spoken language.

Often we are teaching children both communication and social interaction skills. AAC use has been shown to improve both communication and social skills in autistic children and those with developmental disabilities (Flores et al 2012). AAC interventions and devices that include visual symbols, images etc may be effective and motivating due to the visual strengths of some children (Schuler & Baldwin, 1981).

Each child will have unique communication preferences. A core part of provision for AAC users is allowing a pupil to communicate with their peers. Click To Tweet

Additional Skills – EHCP

In addition snack and indeed lunch times provide opportunities to practice the following skills. These are often present in children’s EHCP targets.

  • Turn taking
  • Social interaction
  • Expressive and receptive language skills
  • Following instructions
  • Life skills
  • Making healthy choices
  • Waiting
  • Social role valorisation

Peer Communication

Each child will have unique communication preferences. A core part of our provision for AAC users is allowing a pupil to communicate with their peers. For this reason if one child in the school community uses sign it is essential that we all sign. It is important to teach other pupils to communicate via signing. Likewise if symbol exchange is used then a pupil will benefit if their peers recognise the fundamental principles of this interaction. The strict structured nature of pure PECS systems can be a bit of a barrier to peer to peer exchanges. We require flexibility and function over perfection here. 

What snack time looks like for each class will vary but there are a number of common approaches that will be useful for all classes. Below are a number of ideas that you could incorporate into your sessions. The amount of time communication enhancing snack time sessions will take vary depending on the communication needs of the individual pupils.

For high quality communication support do not rush the session. Allow time for pupils to process and learn the routine. The capacity of others to wait will also influence how this is designed for each class and a parallel programme around waiting may be required.  Conversely, social skills interventions that take place within the child’s natural classroom routines lead to higher intervention, maintenance, and generalisation effects (Bellini et al., 2007). Anyone familiar with AAC use knows that children typically engage in multiple requests during food times. This is because they are motivated to ask for preferred foods. The following ideas for activities can encourage children to widen the communicative potential of snack/lunchtimes. 

Considerations

It is so important that when you develop a communication rich snack time routine the items available are motivating to the child. If the child doesn’t want the items on offer they won’t engage. This is an excellent group activity, in my experience it is more effective if children see the purpose and value of joining the group or a peer for this. Especially for children unused to making exchanges with peers a lot of modelling and encouragement may initially be required. 

There are a number of other things to take into account.

  • Motivation level of food/drink items.
  • Functionality of communication – images or symbols
  • Skill development i.e independence, numeracy, communication
  • Classroom Routines
  • Special diets – Intolerance
  • Sugar – teeth/behaviour! 
  • Roles for each person i.e communication partners
  • Timings – Initial sessions will take longer
  • Capacity for waiting
  • Processing time – Some children need more time to process offers/requests
  • Seating arrangements – Many children may be at the grabbing stage, best not to sit next to a slower eater!

Routines

Typicality and routine in classroom management is essential for the smooth running of snack time learning sessions. There are 3 basic skills that need to be embedded (or at least practiced) prior to snack times becoming effective learning opportunities. Fortunately an effective classroom should focus on these skills throughout the day. 

Suggested Snack Time Communication Activities.

Play with your food.

animal biscuits freddo aac

When I was younger one of my favourite snacks were Cadbury animal biscuits. Nowadays these come in small (100 cal but 6g sugar!) bags which can be great for use in the occasional AAC session.These are a great resource for creating a communication rich snack time. In one study parent-child communications with similar (American) snacks were found to enhance the children’s imagination. This finding is consistent with other behavioral observation of children, which shows a tendency for communications to stimulate active utterance by children. (Wantabe 2017). Communications linked to snacks may have a beneficial effect on cognitive functions such as imagination and communication skills in children.

animal biscuits aac freddo autism

Consisting of a Lion, Monkey, Elephant, Hippo, Crocodile and at the moment freddo the frog. These are perfect for linking with science topics, conversation starters etc. You could consider printing the resource below and laminating for use as a place mat. The child could place the animal in the habitat, you could role play scenes etc. 

Possible questions to extend communication during this activity could consist of: 

  • Which animal would you have as a pet? 
  • Where do they live?
  • Have you ever seen the animal?
AAC communication board animal biscuit snack time
Animal Biscuit Communication Board

Snack Chat

I really like to use easy to make, reusable and flexible communication boards or cards. These can be created around individuals children’s interests (e.g, favorite foods, books, toys), classroom topics (e.g Egypt, Under the sea, human body), The community (e.g local shops, facilities). Basically anything you can think of. Snack Chat boards can include a question, such as “What do you like to play with?” and images relating to that topic. I mainly use widgit symbols but some children prefer images and it can be really powerful for memory/recall to use photos of places you have been together.

It is important to present all information visually. No expressive language is required. We can adapt these in infinite ways to increase or reduce the number of images the child needs to process. They do not have to be child specific. However if you use choice boards with a child these need to be clearly different. Adult modelling is important here. They should be generic enough for any child in the class to initiate conversation, comment, or respond to peers. 

Shopping snack chat board aac
Shopping Snack Chat Board

Above I mentioned Social-Role Valorisation. These boards help develop feelings of membership in the classroom/social group by facilitating communication and interaction. Follow up questions could include “Can you remember what pets your friend has?” Download the free PDF boards below.

Snack Resource Monitor

Before we move onto the Snack Captain activity a simple introduction to social communication within mealtime routines is to encourage each child at the group table to be responsible for a specific item. For example, one child may have the role of cup monitor, while another child is responsible for the water jug, yet another plates. To establish a routine where everyone at the table is responsible for 1 item, teachers can create meaningful opportunities for social communication. Instead of asking a teacher for something, children are more likely to ask one another, leading to more peer initiating and responding. Perfect! It is worthwhile adults monitoring any potential power imbalance here and to shape interactions into positives i.e modelling of, but no demanding of please and thank you from peers.

Snack Captain

The pinnacle of communication rich snack times. Snack Captain requires practice of the skills above. Snack Captain is a role of great responsibility but also great for boosting self esteem. A child assumes the role of central communicative partner. They will be the holder of the food. Depending on the level of communication of the other children they will either ask, pass a sentence strip or get up to the captain and use their AAC device to request chosen items. That child needs the self control to prioritise their peers requests over their own. In my classroom this role rotates between children on a weekly basis. I tried daily but that did not allow the routine to become embedded. I found it helps to identify the snack captain with an apron or at least a reinforcing visual.

This activity does work best if the available objects are presented on plates in front of the captain with a little distance between them and the rest of the children. Maybe even a seperate table depending on what skills you are teaching. To expand the snack captain role or use with older children the exchange could be with money to start embedding maths skills. If a child is on a special diet I recommend putting a box with their picture on.

Snack Captain AAC SEND interaction

Here is a suggested routine.

  1. Display 3 snacks in clear plastic boxes (to prevent grabbing)
  2. Staff positively comment, verbally reinforce what is available
  3. Drink pre-poured into coloured cups (for those on PECS stages with attributes)
  4. Keep snacks the same each day (Custard cream, apple slice, raisins)
  5. Each child makes a request to the snack captain for their preferred snack
  6. Snack captain honors request (may need prompting – do not take over though)
  7. Children encouraged to self identify if an error has been made

I would love to hear how you use snack time to enhance communication.

Using snack time to enhance communication AAC SEND

References

Berlin, K.S., Davies, W.H., Silverman, A.H., Woods, D.W., Fischer, E.A. and Rudolph, C.D., 2010. Assessing children’s mealtime problems with the Mealtime Behavior Questionnaire. Children’s Health Care, 39(2), pp.142-156.

Frost, K.M., Koehn, G.N., Russell, K.M. and Ingersoll, B., 2019. Measuring child social communication across contexts: Similarities and differences across play and snack routines. Autism Research, 12(4), pp.636-644.

Hendy, H.M., Seiverling, L., Lukens, C.T. and Williams, K.E., 2013. Brief assessment of mealtime behavior in children: Psychometrics and association with child characteristics and parent responses. Children’s Health Care, 42(1), pp.1-14.

Margaret Flores, Kate Musgrove, Scott Renner, Vanessa Hinton, Shaunita Strozier, Susan Franklin & Doris Hil., 2012. A Comparison of Communication Using the Apple iPad and a Picture-based System, Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 28(2), 74-84, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.3109/07434618.2011.644579

Marshall, J., Hill, R.J., Ziviani, J. and Dodrill, P., 2014. Features of feeding difficulty in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. International journal of speech-language pathology, 16(2), pp.151-158.

Schuler, A.L. and Baldwin, M., 1981. Nonspeech communication and childhood autism. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 12(4), pp.246-257.

Thiemann-Bourque, K., Brady, N., McGuff, S., Stump, K. and Naylor, A., 2016. Picture exchange communication system and pals: A peer-mediated augmentative and alternative communication intervention for minimally verbal preschoolers with autism. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 59(5), pp.1133-1145.

Watanabe, Y. and Ikegaya, Y., 2017. Acute effect of parent-child communications using animal-shaped snack foods on cognitive performance: A pilot study. Journal of Neuronet, 39, pp.1-6. http://neuronet.jp/jneuronet/001.pdf

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