How Washington State’s Teacher of the Year Is Supporting Expressive and Receptive Communication for Students at Home

How Washington State’s Teacher of the Year Is Supporting Expressive and Receptive Communication for Students at Home

By Amy Campbell

In this Voices From the Field piece, the National Center on Intensive Intervention (NCII) talks with Amy Campbell. Mrs. Campbell has been teaching special education for 12 years in the Camas School District in southwest Washington state, working with students who experience moderate to profound impact from expressive and receptive communication barriers as well as other disabilities or conditions (e.g., Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism). Mrs. Campbell works with multiple forms of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) and teaches in a special education program that promotes inclusive experiences, referred to as the Integrated Communication Program.

NCII: What were your thoughts or concerns when schools first closed due to the COVID-19 crisis?

Amy Campbell: My immediate concern was for my students’ well-being, for the health and wellness of their families, and for families’ ability to create learning experiences where they and their kids both feel successful. In my classroom and in my school community, we focus on providing accommodations, modifications, and strategies as ways of overcoming barriers created by disabilities so that we can create opportunities for access and engage all of our students in learning.

When COVID-19 hit, I realized that we haven’t necessarily given enough information for parents to deliver supports at home. Now, there has been a shifting of roles. Our team is working with families to prioritize what direct services we need to provide at school and what supports families can provide at home. We need to make sure we‘re getting the right materials and information to families so that they can feel successful doing what we do to support their child’s learning at school. I want families to feel like they have the skills, abilities, and resources to be able to implement the same supports at home that we provide at school.

NCII: What were some of your initial efforts to support your students and their families learning at home?

Amy Campbell: I started making YouTube videos on March 14. After we got out of school, I started filming right away. I love being able to make YouTube videos of me teaching or just me talking to the camera with a few ideas in mind. I wanted my presence to be available to my students as a comfort and as a familiar face. They could be in my classroom with me even if they weren‘t physically there.

I also wanted to take time in these videos to show the strategies, accommodations, modifications, and behavioral supports that we use with kids in my program every day to demystify and model for families. It’s a way of showing families that we are not perfect—we’re just trying, too. For example, I made a very goofy single-take video demonstrating how to model language on an AAC communication device and taking very long pauses to show families the time and energy it takes (learn more). I also try to be intentional with our families about how and why we use strategies like a visual schedule, plus offering some printable resources.

My paraprofessionals are now making video clips where they can model strategies for families too. We’ve been training our paraprofessionals virtually on the strategies we use to improve the inclusive experience for children so they can support families as well. Many of our paraprofessionals have had no professional training in teaching, but they want to be able to support our students so much that they will try everything to keep our students succeeding. Being able to normalize and demystify the strategies we use with students has been very powerful for our paraprofessionals, too.

I also wrote a blog post about modeling aided language that focuses on families who have a nonverbal child using an AAC device. There’s an intense concern for families right now around how to support nonverbal kids who are getting modified speech services at home but need access to language aids and modeling similar to what they would get at school. Being able to model language on that AAC device allows us to speak the language of our students to our student, with the goal of having them feel safe speaking it back to us as they learn where the buttons are.

This whole experience has just made me believe that we are capable of more than we know. The strategies that work to support students who have barriers to learning, all of these strategies for sensory, opportunities for visual organization, and strategies for positive behavior support– these things are going to include increased learning for all children. They‘re going to increase access and make learning more accessible. You can never over-accommodate; you want to create engaging learning opportunities without changing the standard, just changing the access. Parents can pick and choose what to use based on what they need; if their kids are starting to get a little fidgety, that might be time to implement a sensory strategy.

NCII: How has your approach shifted, and do you have anything planned for the future?

Amy Campbell: I think the YouTube videos got the ball rolling, but what I‘m really excited about right now is the synchronous learning opportunities and experiences we‘re able to provide, where I can collaborate with parents in real-time through Google Meet, along with other teachers and paraprofessionals. As we‘re dealing with COVID-19, my families’ experiences need to be validated moment to moment. My approach has shifted to more present, real-time interactions to make sure that we‘re hearing what families have to say and targeting specific struggles they are having.

We have had conversations with students about what they want to work on and then talk to the parents about the choices they can offer their children. Parents see first-hand how engaging it is for students to have a choice in their instruction, and they can see what is working and what is not. These conversations also help parents feel okay about trying different things and realizing how we’re reacting to wrong answers. It gets emotional—some things we get to see students do at school parents have never seen their students do at home. For example, now [that schools are closed], parents have to teach these kids writing even if writing is hard for them or their child doesn’t write on their own; but, when we can guide them virtually, it brings back their child’s experiences with writing at school. I’ve seen parents in awe of what their kids can do; it’s so powerful for the student to realize they can work at home and for parents to see how we guide students through assignments.

I don‘t know what next year is going to look like, but I am thinking about how to create more opportunities for parents to learn about strategies and get to know each other. I’m thinking about how to build community for our families so they aren’t limited to just watching YouTube videos on strategies. Moving forward, I want to help families feel more like team members.

NCII: What advice would you give to other teachers who want to create digital resources for families?

Amy Campbell: The thing that helped me was not picturing the world watching but picturing my students watching. When I’m making a YouTube video, I imagine that camera is one of my students so I remember to put in a sensory breaker or set a timer. I may not [be] feeling comfortable teaching in front of a crowd of people, but I will do it for my students every week. The work we do in our classrooms, the way we show our children we care, and the way we connect and build relationships is what makes us educators. If you are nervous, I would recommend making the YouTube link private, only sharing the [link] with your families, and picturing your students when you’re filming. Also, don‘t be afraid to ask your families what would help them. I‘ve learned that I can make a lot of assumptions about what families need in any moment, but as I‘ve continued to have real-time conversations with parents and caregivers and students, I‘m finding out where I can be more specific and targeted with the resources that will serve them in that moment.

NCII: You are the Washington State Teacher of the Year 2020. Congratulations! Has this recognition made you think any differently about what you share or how you interact with the broader education community about your work?

Amy Campbell: Serving community is my heart, and advocacy is my passion. I hope that I can speak up on behalf of students who have disabilities and their families and demand that our country and community make space for the voices of our vulnerable populations. The things I’m talking about doing are all about access and opportunity; these are the gaps that impact the educational system. We talk about an equity, but it’s the opportunity gaps that are creating achievement gaps. We don’t have wrong students; we have systems that aren’t quite there yet to meet their needs. The conversations I hope to facilitate are around normalizing accommodations, modifications, access, and opportunity for students who need a little bit something different. I think we’re learning right now, during COVID-19, that we all need something different and that’s okay. I hope that these conversations will inspire other people to start thinking about where they can make space for dialogue around different needs and where they can make space for people to speak up about what’s going to help them achieve success. I don’t want to be anybody’s voice, but I do want to keep asking those questions. I don’t want access to become a privilege.

For me, being able to provide language is a social justice issue. If we don’t teach children the language they need to communicate, then they won’t be able to access their education. We also need to make sure that we’re empowering parents to learn the alternative language of their kids alongside their kids and are able to model how to use that language in the world. It is okay to take that AAC device to the grocery store and talk on it because the whole world should see us talking on AAC devices. As the Washington State Teacher of the Year, I take an AAC device with me everywhere and use it in public because we need to show that. Even I don’t always use the AAC device perfectly: Sometimes I can’t find all the words. But the glory is, when a parent is slow at learning how to use the AAC device, they are giving their child exactly what they need to participate in that learning.

I don’t always have the answers, but if anything can start a conversation, I want to be there.

About the author

Amy Campbell
Amy Campbell
/ Helen Baller Elementary School in Camas, Washington

Amy Campbell is a teacher of students with significant learning challenges at Helen Baller Elementary School in Camas, Washington and the 2020 Washington State Teacher of the Year. In her position as a teacher of students with significant learning challenges, she collaborates with staff, parents, and community to develop individualized plans that focus on each student's unique skills, abilities, and interests to help them find their place among their peers in the school community. Amy has a passion for supporting students with unique learning needs and focuses on students’ possibilities, potential, and opportunities rather than deficits.

Amy believes all children can learn, and to achieve her vision of academic success for all she implements innovative strategies geared to students' strengths. She develops ways, through collaboration with general education teachers, to integrate her students into their communities. She believes in the power of inclusion, where everyone can participate in learning together and experience diversity as an asset. Amy's personal life mission is to change the way people view people with special needs and change the way people with special needs see themselves.