Safeguarding: Using AAC for Non-Verbal Pupils

Why Developing Communication is a Safeguarding Priority

it is essential you ensure developing child voice for non-verbal pupils is a top safeguarding priority. You cannot overstate the importance of providing children with opportunities to demonstrate choices throughout their education. In early years education, this is acknowledged through EYFS documents (Early Years Foundation Stage). If you provide choices throughout the day you recognise a child’s right to be listened to (United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child UNCRC).

AAC and Safeguarding for Non Verbal Pupils

Promoting children’s voices in school cannot happen without also providing choice and control. Self-advocacy and control are of equal importance in special education. You could say more so given the additional challenges children with SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) face in being heard. Fortunately, there are now many resources available for promoting the voice of children with communication needs. However many of these rely on adults to provide the initial set up and access to them. This access can be withdrawn and controlled to an extent that should concern all those advocating for children with SEND.

Communication lanyard autism and communication aac

I strongly believe in a voice for every child, every child should have access to a communication system. AAC users and non/pre-verbal, or those with significant expressive or receptive language needs need to be given a voice. Education should be centered around teaching skills that will lead to increasing their ability to self-advocate. This will only be done if the adults value the child’s voice and legitimise their communication style.

This is not a communication target, it is a safeguarding necessity. 

Without an effective way to communicate how can a child raise safeguarding concerns? How can they explain what happened or ask for help? Often a child without a valued communication system must rely on their actions. It is easy to label these actions as challenging behaviour. Without a strong advocate and culture of skill teaching the restrictive practices may begin. 

I dont like symbol safeguarding communication and non-verbal child voice

We as professionals, parents, carers, advocates must prioritise valuing the voice of the child. A child will only feel they have value if we prove we value what they have to say. Often a choice is one of the first elements of child voice addressed once the child can discriminate between objects or options.. For example, Which toy or activity do you want? PECS focuses on exchanging a picture for a motivating object. It may be a talking mat with likes and dislikes. This is just a start and we need to ensure they are provided with explicit teaching with the aim of allowing the child to share opinions, emotions, question and most importantly say “no”. Facilities to indicate/say/communicate “I don’t Like”, “Stop” and “No” should be available at all times.

Giving children a voice that we show them we value is a hugely effective way to promote self-esteem. Indeed without this how can we expect the child to want to engage with us? Have you ever heard of a child described as being in their own world? If so then we have not shown them we value their input into ours. Without valuing their voice we will never create a shared world. We can share space with them but for a true human connection, the child needs to know we want to enter their world and we prove this by listening to what they want to share.

AAC communication PODD book example

 How to recognise a setting that values a child’s voice.

  • Symbols/Pictures included in all resources accessed by the child. These are very often Widgit software and allows support for pre-readers. These are essential in now and next or choice boards.
  • Active listening. The adult will repeat back and clarify their interpretation of the child’s communication
  • Motivators available. Having a box of stimulating items linked to children’s interests shows the child’s voice is being listened to and planned for.
  • Posters/displays for children are accessible through simplified language, symbols, etc
  • Accessible areas. Can the child access toilets etc without having to rely on an adult?
  • The value of independence is evident.
  • Learning journals or home school books filled in with the child and not removed from them if they want to see what has been written.
  • PECS books or communication boards accessible and visible to the child at all times. These should never be tidied away or just used for snack time!
  • Choice boards and other AAC ways for children to choose what they want for snack or lunch.
  • Honor interaction styles, no forced eye contact no demands for a child to “use their words” when stressed.
  • Investment in technology such as eye gaze that is set up, works and accessible. 

Using AAC to Support Safeguarding Non-Verbal Pupils

Example Widgit Communication Safeguarding Board disclosure non-verbal AAC
Example Widgit AAC Communication Safeguarding Board

Here are some ideas for using augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) to support safeguarding of non-verbal pupils:

  • Create visuals/symbols for pupils to use to report feelings of unsafe or worried. This could include basic emotions, body parts, and people/situations that cause concern.
  • Develop a safe person/people symbol page for pupils to identify trusted adults they could go to for help, such as teachers, parents, counsellors.
  • Make communication boards with basic choices pupils can make, such as “Yes, No, I don’t know” to answer safeguarding questions from teachers.
  • Produce personalized safety plans for each pupil using their preferred AAC methods. Include what to do/who to tell if they feel unsafe at school, home, or in the community.
  • Incorporate safer/not safer vocabulary to describe unsafe touching, secrets, situations, etc. Practice identifying these through role plays.
  • Teach pupils to seek assistance from a named person on their communication board if they have concerns for their safety or a peer’s. Role model appropriate reporting behaviors.
  • Monitor pupils for changes in communication patterns, behavior, or interaction with AAC that could indicate an underlying safeguarding issue. Document and follow up appropriately.
  • Provide ongoing safeguarding education through social stories, video modelling, or other visual methods appropriate to the pupil’s AAC system and abilities.

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