Teaching peers to understand how their classmates communicate

If you’ve been following TISLP for a while, you’ve probably seen reviews about incorporating preschool peers into therapy with children who use AAC. Do you want to try involving peers, but work with older kids with complex needs? Here’s a way to start: In this study, typically-developing teens learned to interpret their peers’ presymbolic communication behaviors—after a training lasting only 15 minutes!

Wait, what do we mean by presymbolic behaviors? Think facial expressions, eye gaze, vocalizations, and body movements. These behaviors can be challenging (even for us as SLPs!) to decipher. It makes sense that middle-schoolers might struggle with them, too. If typically-developing peers misinterpret their fellow student’s behaviors, it would be pretty difficult for them to engage in meaningful interactions—and isn’t that the end goal? 


The researchers worked with families and teachers to define the presymbolic behaviors unique to three different students. They captured each student’s two most frequent behaviors (and other non-communicative behaviors) in very short video clips. Peers watched a series of the videos, tried interpreting the behaviors, and got corrective feedback when they misunderstood. Peers who completed the training were significantly better at understanding behaviors, and classroom staff noticed that the quality of communication between the students improved, too

Want to hit the ground running? The clinical implications section outlines some considerations for how you could choose (and define) presymbolic behaviors to target. Keep in mind that the study was just trying out this approach to peer training. So while we can’t yet say for sure that these skills would transfer to authentic interactions, this is a starting point in helping typically-developing peers better understand their classmates with multiple disabilities.

Holyfield, C., Light, J., Drager, K., McNaughton, D., & Gormley, J. (2018). Effect of an AAC partner training using video on peers’ interpretation of the behaviors of presymbolic middle-schoolers with multiple disabilities*. Augmentative and Alternative Communication. Advance online publication. doi:10.1080/07434618.2018.1508306