Recently, I’ve had many toddler and preschool teachers ask me how the children in their classrooms with complex communication needs (CCN) can be better integrated into classroom routines. One routine that I’ve worked on a lot has been the “circle time” or “group time” routine. I LOVE when I have the chance to work with my kids during circle time because it’s a time of day that can be very easily modified to offer so many naturalistic and motivating opportunities for communication across a variety of communication modalities (e.g., speech approximations, signs, picture choices, voice output devices, speech-generating devices). It’s also usually a high-engagement time for many of the kids I see, as most of them are highly motivated by singing and/ or reading activities.
When working on integrating kids with disabilities into childcare and preschool classrooms, I try to use a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) approach whenever possible. If you haven’t heard of Universal Design for Learning, it’s worth checking out the CAST website’s Universal Design for Learning pages as well as online resources from the National Center on Universal Design for Learning. UDL comes from the architectural concept of “universal design,” which refers to the concept of designing and constructing buildings with the access needs of people with disabilities in mind from the beginning, rather than first constructing a building with only the needs of people without disabilities in mind and then adding accessibility features after the fact. The idea is that if the needs of people with a diverse range of abilities and accessibility needs are considered from the beginning, accessibility features can be better integrated and time and money can be saved. Universal Design for Learning is a similar concept; the philosophy is that curriculum activities and classroom routines should be planned with the needs of all children in the classroom, including those with disabilities, in mind. This helps teachers and peers to include children with disabilities in activities more easily and naturalistically, rather than requiring teachers to plan special, separate activities for the children with complex needs while simultaneously trying to meet the needs of the rest of the children in their classroom.
The framework of Universal Design for Learning uses the key principles of “multiple means of representation,” “multiple means of action and expression,” and “multiple means of engagement,” (National Center on Universal Design for Learning at CAST, 2012). This basically means that information should be presented in multiple ways so that children who have difficulty perceiving information (e.g., due to vision, hearing, cognitive, or language needs) can access it, and that activities should include multiple ways of participating and demonstrating knowledge so that children with disabilities can be active participants and demonstrate their skills. Below are some examples of how these 3 key principles can be incorporated into singing/ music circle time activities with toddlers and preschoolers.
Multiple means of representation:
The most common way that information is presented during circle time singing activities is auditorily, via speech and singing. Some children with disabilities, particularly children with hearing, receptive language, or cognitive impairments, may have difficulty understanding information presented via speech alone. One easy way to modify circle time activities to be more inclusive to children with disabilities is by pairing speech with signs and gestures. I will often recommend that daycare and preschool classrooms begin by implementing a “keyword signing” approach. The Kid Sense Child Development Website’s Keyword Signing overview is a good resource for learning about this approach. Basically, “keyword signing” refers to the concept of signing the “key” (main) words in each sentence while simultaneously speaking the sentence. To use keyword signing at circle time, try introducing the activity by signing along with speaking. For example, you can say “it’s time for circle” or “it’s time for music” while signing the keywords “time,” “circle,” and “music.” Keyword signing can be incorporated into songs by signing the key words within songs. Below are some keywords that I focus on modeling signs for during popular toddler/ preschool songs as well as links to “baby sign” videos for each keyword from the Baby Sign Language Dictionary website:
Multiple means of action and expression:
In many classrooms, toddlers and preschoolers express themselves during circle time by using spoken words to request songs. Children who do not yet speak also benefit from opportunities to make song choices in order to practice requesting and increase their symbolic communication skills. There are a wide variety of ways that children can do this, but some of my favorites are as follows:
Sign Language: If signs are being modeled during songs, some children who cannot speak but have adequate fine motor skills for signing may be able to use signs to request favorite songs or fill in words within songs.
Pictures: Photographs and/ or picture symbols or even drawings can be used to represent each song (e.g., Spider for Itsy Bitsy Spider, Bus for Wheels on the Bus, Star for Twinkle Twinkle Little Star) as well as specific lines within songs (e.g., pictures representing wheels, wipers, doors, lights, horn, etc. for Wheels on the Bus). These photographs and picture symbols can then be used to allow children to make song choices. Depending on the motor skills of the children, space constraints in the classroom, and preferences of the teachers within each setting, picture choices can be presented either by holding the choices in front of each child or by presenting them on a wall-mounted felt board and having each child come up to the board to make a choice on their turn. For children who cannot move their hands, pictures can be presented on an eye gaze board (i.e., clear piece of plexiglass or a cardboard frame held in front of the children at eye level to allow them to look at pictures in order to select them.) For children who benefit from voice output, photographs and picture symbols with corresponding recorded/ synthesized messages representing song choices can also be programmed into mid-tech voice output devices and high-tech speech-generating devices.
Objects/ Tactile Symbols: For children who don’t seem to understand or can’t see photographs or picture symbols, objects can also be used to represent songs and parts of songs. For example, a toy bus or steering wheel can be used to represent “Wheels on the Bus,” a plastic spider can be used for “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” a toy boat or boat paddle can be used to represent “Row Your Boat,” etc. Children with vision impairments should be encouraged/ helped to feel these objects with their hands in order to make a selection. If needed, objects can be presented one at a time, and children can be taught to give a “yes” response (smile/ vocalization/ eye contact/ tapping object with hand) to make a selection. To increase comprehension, it may be helpful if these objects are also used as props during the song (e.g., all children get a toy/ cardboard steering wheel to use during Wheels on the Bus, and then one of these wheels is used as the symbol to represent the song when it’s time to make a choice). Both object and picture symbols can also be used for “multiple means of representation” by presenting these symbols to children with disabilities to help them understand the choices made by other children in the classroom.
Multiple means of engagement:
In many classrooms, children’s engagement during circle time largely occurs by sitting together on the floor, visually attending to the teacher, and filling in words or singing entire lines within songs. Some children with difficulties with attention, impulse control, and comprehension may have difficulty sitting and attending to activities. Additionally, children who do not speak may not have the opportunity to participate socially by singing along to songs. Below are some ideas for providing multiple means of engagement during circle time music activities:
Flexible Seating: The “flexible seating” movement is currently popular within elementary school classrooms as a way of redesigning classrooms to meet children’s diverse learning needs by providing a variety of seating options (rather than requiring all children to sit at desks or tables). Toddler and preschool classrooms generally have a greater variety of seating options throughout the day than classrooms for older children, but there are not always multiple options available during circle time. Children with atypical muscle tone, sensory integration disorder, or difficulties with attention may benefit from a variety of seating options beyond sitting directly on a rug or mat. Having adaptive floor seats like the Special Tomato Floor Sitter or Firefly GoTo and Floor Sitter accessory, as well as sensory-friendly options such as beanbag chairs, floor cushions, or Wiggle Seats may be helpful for meeting children’s diverse seating needs. Some children with vision or cognitive impairments as well as many typically-developing children may benefit from anything tangible that marks a defined seating area, such as an individual rug or mat for each child (maybe even with a photograph of that child attached to it). However, be sure to work closely with physical and occupational therapists to determine the best seating needs for each child with a disability in your classroom.
Instrument or Prop Play: Most young children have difficulty sitting and attending passively to activities, as this is not yet a developmentally appropriate expectation for one to four year old children. To be honest, passive attention to activities is a skill that even I haven’t totally mastered yet :). Some kids may attend better and be more willing to participate in circle time activities if given instruments to play or props to use during each song. There are a wide variety of instruments that are accessible to children with disabilities, including switch-adapted musical instruments such as the adapted instruments available from Enabling Devices. The new Skoog device from SkoogMusic is also an instrument with amazing accessibility features for a wide variety of disabilities. Hand bells that strap to children’s wrists, large maracas that can be loosely grasped, and bongo drums may also be accessible to many children. I’ve found that many kids with significant physical disabilities are also still able to strum my ukulele, as it requires significantly less pressure to strum a ukulele’s plastic/ nylon strings than a guitar’s metal strings.
Simple Voice Output Devices: I love using single-message voice output devices like the BIGMack by Ablenet and sequential-message voice output devices like the Step-by-Step by Ablenet or BigTalk Triple Play by Enabling Devices to allow children to fill in parts of songs. Inexpensive, simple single-message recordable devices are also available online and at times in toy stores, such as these Recordable Answer Buzzers from Learning Resources. Key lines or words from songs can be recorded onto these devices, and children can activate the buttons to “sing” parts of each song. This can be useful for increasing social participation, practicing switch timing skills, and working on turn-taking, initiating, and language comprehension. I find it works especially well to record lines that are repeated frequently within songs (e.g., “EIEIO” in “Old MacDonald,” “all through the town” in “Wheels on the Bus,” “ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah” in “If All of the Raindrops,” etc.). I also like to record high-excitement, high-interest lines, such as the scream at the end of the “alligator” version of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” (“and if you see an alligator, don’t forget to scream!”). For children who cannot use their hands to activate a voice-output device, these devices can be attached to switches mounted by a child’s head, foot, finger, etc. Ablenet’s QuickTalker S may also be useful for children with particular types of motor impairments in that it is activated by proximity rather than pressure, meaning that the child just needs to get their hand (or foot or other body part) close to the button in order to activate it rather than exerting pressure to push down on it. The therapy team for individual children (SLP, OT, PT) should be consulted to determine the best access method for children who have difficulty activating simple voice-output devices directly.
With the right resources and a little planning, circle time can be a fantastic opportunity for children with disabilities to be active participants and to practice and show off their communication skills across a wide variety of communicative modalities. Check back in a few weeks for a follow-up article addressing AAC and AT during group reading activities, too, and feel free to comment below with your own ideas about circle time engagement and universal design for learning!