What do children really think about their communication aids?

What I learnt talking to kids using a Talking Mats approach – Georgia Burn

To research the outcomes of our Kids Chat pilot project, we interviewed five children from the project to determine whether or not they considered their non-electronic communication aid a success or not.

Each child that we interviewed could not communicate by speech alone. And, because we were asking them about unfamiliar concepts, we used an interview method similar to Talking Mats to make sure these children’s opinions were heard.

To use a Talking Mat:

  1. Place a single topic card that describes what the conversation will be about at the top of the board.
  2. Put a top scale of 3-5 categories underneath g. “I like it,” “it’s OK,” “I don’t like it”.
  3. Create a series of option cards about the topic.
  4. Ask an open-ended question to find out how they feel about a topic
  5. Encourage the individual to place the option card under one of the top scale categories.

As we wanted some really quite specific answers, a few of our questions were probably considered ‘closed’ rather than ‘open-ended’ questions. Therefore, the strategy we used was based on Talking Mats, but slightly adapted for what we needed.

Prior to the interviews, we asked the support network around each child to practice the Talking Mats procedure.  Some were able to do so, but others found this challenging as it was the first time they had seen and used a Talking Mat.

At a surface level, a Talking Mat looks easy to complete.

Carpet board? Check.

Top-scale? Check.

Option cards? Check.

Have the child place option cards under the top-scale, take a photo, and you’re done!

However, while interviewing each child, the high level of skill needed to use a Talking Mat became very apparent.

First, the children had to be aware of the top-scale at the top of the board. For some children, this was a challenge – and being present during the interviews made it very clear to me why.

When do we ever present a carpet board with 3 cards on it to a child with complex communication needs, and ask them to place other cards underneath the top-scale? Rarely, if ever! We instead condition children to take a card off a carpet board to make a choice. Therefore, many of the children we worked with were keen to pull a top-scale card off the board and hand to the interviewer.

To understand the idea of a ‘top-scale’ as three cards not to be touched, and that these cards represent distinct opinions and categories that other cards will be placed underneath, which represent their opinion – is a cognitive shift that is unique to a Talking Mats board. For some children it became apparent that this skill needed to be practised and reinforced before the Talking Mats tool could be used successfully for its purpose.

Reflecting on the interviews, I realised that Talking Mats is an important technique that needs to be taught at schools and reinforced as a valued conversation method throughout people’s lives.

I believe it has the power to facilitate the active contribution of many who would otherwise have decisions made for them. This is especially relevant for the NDIS where participants are provided choice and control over their plans and need to be supported to make their own decisions.

Georgia Burn is a Speech Pathologist at Scope’s Communication and Inclusion Resource Centre (CIRC) and is presenting at the AGOSCI National conference 2017. Georgia has completed her Foundation Training in Talking Mats and is preparing for her Accredited Training in June 2017. To speak to someone about how you can use Talking Mats, contact circ@scopeaust.org.au