The first day of school is an exciting and important event in a child’s (and family’s!) life. For children who use a mode of communication other than speech, along with the preparation of books and uniform will be the need to help prepare the school to support the new pupil’s communication system.
Augmentative or alternative communication (AAC)
Everybody communicates in their own way. For some, this might mean using a mode of augmentative or alternative communication (AAC): ‘a set of tools and strategies that an individual uses to solve everyday communicative challenges’
(ISAAC). AAC supports include signs, communication books and communication devices. Having access to a method of communication enables the child to interact, express their wants and needs and build relationships. AAC supports can be ‘high.tech’ or ‘low.tech’. Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), speech output devices and some Apps are aided forms of AAC. Lámh manual signs are unaided, i.e. using Lámh signs doesn’t involve anything other than the person’s hands and body.
For someone who has experienced difficulties with communication, AAC support can make a vital difference. Using a form of AAC can mean having the opportunity to experience more aspects of life, i.e. ‘participation, achievement, independence, inclusion and fun’ (Locke).
The AAC system that some children and adults use is the Lámh manual sign system. Lámh manual signs (or key word signs) have been developed for use by children and adults with intellectual disability and communication needs in Ireland. Manual signs can support communication in the following ways: Signs, being visual, can be easier to remember than what is heard. Signs emphasise small differences in spoken words, for example between ‘sleep’ and ‘sweet’ or ‘dog’ and ‘doll’. This helps the child to pay attention to these differences and so understand better what is happening in the classroom.
Signs can be easier to imitate. These attempts give an opportunity to match the spoken word to the sign and so to achieve better understanding of the word and possible practice saying it. Early attempts at words are often unclear. If the person uses a sign as well, communication partners can interpret correctly and give a positive experience of communication so the child is more likely to try again. A tactile, as well as a visual way of remembering the word, i.e. you can ‘feel’ yourself making the sign. Using signs takes the focus off speech. The child who is not under pressure to talk may be more likely to establish spoken language skills at their own pace.
There are 500 Lámh signs, used to sign key words in a sentence. Speech is always used with Lámh signs. Some Lámh users may use sign for a period of time and then may drop the signs when their speech develops, or they may use Lámh throughout their lives. Lámh is based on Irish Sign Language (ISL) and on natural gesture.
Lámh users may use a larger or smaller number of signs. They may use a number of signs themselves and comprehend those signs along with other signs. Lámh signs may be used along with sounds, words and other modes of communication.
Lámh at school
The child who uses Lámh will have been supported by a team that has included a speech and language therapist. They will already have a communication programme or plan in place which will provide useful guidance to those now supporting them in school. Families will be experienced in using the child’s communication system, and will play a key role in providing initial and ongoing information to SNAs, teachers and others.
In the classroom, if those around the Lámh user can become familiar with Lámh signs and use some signs themselves, the child will have the opportunity to participate in school life from the start. Along with school staff members, peers are also communication partners and can be supported to learn about their classmate’s communication system. They are often enthusiastic signers, as well as being interested in learning about Lámh. The role of the communication partner is important:
‘Communication is a cooperative
undertaking and the successful use of
augmentative and alternative
communication (AAC) systems is as
dependent on the communication
partner as it is on the user.’ (Murphy
Sign users are more likely to use sign with someone they have seen signing. The most effective way to use signs is to include them in day-to-day activities and routines. This is a signing environment, where sign is part of everyday life. This is more effective than setting aside specific ‘Lámh time’, which can lead to having signs only being used during this set time by a limited number of people. Using Lámh in context also ensures that the signs being used are relevant and will support the child’s communication:
Use signs in natural contexts, e.g. at circle time or when giving instructions to the class.
Offer opportunities for making choices, to encourage sign use, e.g. red crayon or blue one.
Try structured opportunities for sign practice within routines, e.g. ‘forgetting’ to give the child their book so that they need to ask for it.
Introduce topics of conversation that will be of interest to the child.
e.g. talk about their pet (based on Beukelman & Mirenda)
Where those creating the signing environment at school can access support and training, a signing environment can be put in place. One of the tools that can be used in the classroom is the Lámh.a.Song DVD, which includes well-known songs for young children such as Old MacDonald and The Wheels on the Bus, performed using Lámh signs. These songs are usually used in classrooms with gestures and actions to accompany the words, so it is easy to ‘swap’ Lámh signs for those gestures and actions.
If a child is a Lámh user, families will know which of the 500 Lámh signs their child is using and can introduce some of those signs to those in the school. Families may have already attended the Lámh Family Course run by the child’s speech and language therapist or service provider. SNAs and teachers may be shown some signs from the child’s speech and language therapist or support team.
In addition to information specific to the Lámh user, a Lámh course such as the Module.One Lámh Course, is where signs can be learned and sign materials are distributed. An average of 1,400 staff members from various disciplines attend Lámh staff training each year (based on training delivered in the past four years, see www.lamh.org). Lámh training focuses on communication, the signing environment and encouraging sign use, as well as the mechanics of signing. Teachers attend Lámh training organised by local service providers where the child receives their supports such as speech and language therapy, or by the Special Education Support Service (SESS) www.sess.ie . SNAs and other support staff attend training organised by service providers, family support organisations or other groups.