Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Communication Corner: Initiating Requests

Many classrooms offer choice boards and prompt students to select an item. This is a great communication support, but this does not always lead to the student learning how to initiate a request for functional communication.  Some students become very prompt dependent. It is important to teach initiation. It may be with a verbal word, a sign, a picture or a voice output device. Regardless of the mode you are trying to teach, take some time to help your students request without a prompt. Today's Communication Corner has some great examples of how you can facilitate initiating requests in your classroom.

Entice instead of Prompt

To facilitate a request without prompting the student, you must entice them. This starts with knowing what is highly motivating for the student.  Interact with the desired item, within view but out of reach.  The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) is a great process to use for developing initiation. The process starts with teaching the student to hand a picture of the desired item to the communication partner in exchange for the item itself. Initially, the focus is on the initiation of the exchange so there is no need for the student to discriminate between pictures. There is no prompting, only enticing, watching and waiting. As soon as the student reaches for the desired item, a silent physical prompter can be used to guide the student’s hand down to the picture to then give to the communication partner (the one with the desired item).  Only then does the communication partner provide a verbal model of the request (remember, there is no verbal prompting). By exchanging a picture for a tangible item, the student quickly learns the power of a picture. Even if you do not plan to use PECS as a communication mode, this is a great process to develop the foundational skills for communication such as joint attention, communication exchange and of course, initiation. You can use pictures, photos or even objects/wrappers to represent the desired item.


Object PECS
Christine Scarborough
Tecumseh Elementary, Xenia

Activity Board
Jackie Vollmer
Driscoll Elementary, Centerville

If the student demonstrates picture discrimination you can begin presenting more options.  If your student is not able to discriminate, you will need more intensive training using correspondence checks and error correction. You can learn these procedures at a PECS training from Pyramid Educational Consultants. They are currently offering online workshops. Click on the image below to access an overview of PECS from the National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders:

Choice Board
Pam Ellender
Mad River Middle School, Mad River

I want... Strip
Angie Kleinhans
Stebbins High School, Mad River

I want... Strip
Brittany Bush
Spinning Hills Middle School, Mad River

As you continue to introduce additional pictures, create a book to provide your student with a central location to access all their pictures. Make sure the student has the ability to visually scan across all pictures. It is beneficial to create a color-coded communication pages with pictures arranged by category.  The student will need direct instruction and modeling to learn how to navigate to the desired picture. By having the ability to access a communication book or device, your student can initiate any request (not just what you are presenting on a specific choice board).

PECS book
Karyn Smith
Tri-Village High School, Tri-Village


Model and Shape the Behavior

When teaching a picture exchange, the physical prompter shapes the behavior by waiting for the student to reach for the item then physically guides the student’s hand down to take the picture for an exchange. PECS also uses a shaping process with its 4 step error correction procedure to develop picture discrimination. You can use shaping for other modes of communication. For example, if the student is producing sounds or word approximations, you can reinforce a purposeful attempt to verbally request the item. Continue to model and expect a little more each attempt to shape the behavior closer to the desired outcome.

Some students communicate with sign language. They may struggle with the fine motor skills necessary to produce a variety of fringe words such as specific food items or toys.  Consider focusing on simple core words to request such as “want”, “more”, or “go”. These core words can be modeled repeatedly across different activities.   


If the student is unable to speak, sign or physically exchange a picture, consider other ways to access communication. The behavior can be shaped using simple cause and effect to get highly motivating objects or activities. For example, every time the student hits the button or gazes at the picture, the adult engages him in a motivating activity.

Switch and Eye Gaze Board AAC Supports
Ann-Marie Small
Driscoll Elementary, Centerville

An important part of shaping the initiation of communication is modeling. Modeling is different than prompting. It shows the student what to do rather than telling the student what to do. Modeling is something you do all the time to immerse the student in the behavior that is expected. Modeling is particularly important for students using a nonverbal mode of communication. Look at the difference between modeling input between a verbal child and a child using a device:

  • Verbal communication- a typical 9-12 year old has been exposed to 36,500 hours of verbal language (Korsten, 2011). It takes approximately 1 year for a child immersed in verbal language to begin speaking. 
  • Communication device- If a 9-12 year old child is only provided a model of communication using the device twice a week for 20-30 minutes, it would take that child 700 years to gain the same exposure to his mode of communication that a verbal child experiences (Korsten, 2011). We shouldn’t expect a child to immediately learn how to use a device with limited exposure.

For more information, click the image below for an awesome resource from Saltillo:

Modeling is important!  You can model using the student’s device, a similar app on your iPad, or print a copy of the core page.

Wall poster matching AAC device
Allie Clements
Schnell Elementary, West Carrollton

The video below does a great job illustrating the importance of modeling language and use of AAC.

Teach Navigation and Traveling

If a student is communicating using a device or picture exchange, it will be important to teach traveling to get the message to the right person. Be sure that the device or book is kept in a location where it can be quickly found by the student.  Add a strap to make it easy to travel with across the environment. You may need to directly teach the student to independently get the device or book, take it to the communication partner and get their attention to hear or see the request. We often see teams focus on only training in a structured environment sitting across the table. This is not functional. Taking the time to directly teach and reinforce the student’s ability to travel and persist to make their request, will go a long way!

If the student is using a device, make it easy to carry and use on the go

AAC on-the-go
Carrie Prickett
Jane Chance Elementary, Miamisburg

Reinforce or at least acknowledge the Request

In the beginning, it is extremely important to acknowledge and reinforce all attempts to initiate a request. Once it is clear that the student knows how to spontaneously request, you can limit or delay the request. Use a visual tool such as a countdown or a visual contract to communicate clear expectations.

Visual Countdown

Visual Contract

"Closed" Sign for Free Play Area
Angela Crum
Parkwood Elementary, Beavercreek


Collaborate for Consistency and Generalization

Eventually, your student should be able to initiate functional communication across the day. To make this happen, collaboration between team members is critical. Make sure all staff members working with the student know how to model, entice, shape and reinforce the target communication skills.  Determine the best way to share target vocabulary, student progress and tips for facilitation. Some teams have the ability to talk on a regular basis while other teams communicate using email or a shared Google document. Visuals for staff can be helpful such as a wall poster with tips or sticky notes for more specific reminders.


AAC Programming Clipboard for classroom staff
Ann-Marie Small
Driscoll Elementary, Centerville

AAC Device Charging Reminder for classroom staff

AAC & Communication Facilitation Reminders for classroom staff
Jackie Vollmer & Ann-Marie Small
Driscoll Elementary, Centerville

For more information on teaching students to request, check out our previous blog post:

Communication Corner: Request Items or Activities

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