Back to school – but are you ready to talk about it?

Two Way Street schools

School grounds

Recently I attended a planning meeting for a client’s transition into a mainstream Reception class (the South Australian equivalent to Kindergarten). We talked alot about how to best prepare him for school and all of the things we needed to put in place AT school, but when I thought back about my daughter’s first year of school, (and the following years), it was the after school conversations that were also really important.

Starting school is a major time of transition for us as parents as well as our children. For the first time, they are spending a significant amount of time away from us and we are dying to know what they have done, thought and experienced throughout the day.

  • Are they ok?
  • Do they like their teacher?
  • Are they worried about the other kids?
  • What interesting or funny things happened?

In subsequent years, we gradually get a clearer picture of the process but the subject matter gets more complex. Although most parents find that getting their child to talk about school is not as easy as it seems, it does of course pose extra challenges for children who use AAC and are still developing their language and communication skills.

So today, when I was chatting to my client’s mum after the school meeting, I suggested they begin a routine at home that creates a habit and models the process of talking about your day. Of course, we can never know what to expect from our kids, nor can we ensure they will always tell us the things we want to know (as far as I know, no parent has figured this one out), but we can create a situation where they are given the opportunity, where talking about your day becomes a family routine, and where their favourite people in the world are doing something that they might want to learn to do too (sharing with each other – not just the what, but also the good, bad and ugly).

I decided to modify an idea that I have used previously to encourage conversation at dinner time.


Original dinner conversation place mat.

These are just a simple place mat (print and laminate) with some conversation starters. Click here to download a pdf.  There are lots of options you can use on the place mat.  We chose to limit the starting one to 4, but make yours with as many as you like, and as simple or complex as you like  depending on the people in your family.

Other ideas might be:

  • ‘My favourite thing today was…’
  • ‘I’m really excited about….’
  • ‘Something I’ve been thinking alot about is ……’
  • ‘In the news today…..’

For school children, you could try something like this one (click here to download a pdf)


Dinner place mat with a school focus.

Then of course you have to help your child learn to use them! It’s just a tool not a magic bullet.

Here are some of my suggestions for implementing them. The amount of modelling and scaffolding you use will depend on the individual:

  • Just start by using them yourself and show the child who uses AAC what they are all about.
    • Model indicating that you want to say something,
    • Model choosing a ‘conversation starter’ from the place mat,
    • model how you think about what to say,
    • model how you can tell about it using their AAC system,
    • and if they seem excited about it, let them take a turn or model how they could tell their news (if you know what it is)
  • Of course if they are already initiating use of their system, you are good to go. You might just want to model some more creative responses if things get a bit dull 🙂
  • Some children might just need experience in taking their turn without the pressure of selecting the words on the spot. Try setting up an ‘errorless’ pages on their device using the 4 sentence starters as the buttons and each night you can change the message underneath.This speeds things up if there are others at the table who are not so good at waiting for their turn (like little sisters or brothers !!)
  • It’s important to co-plan the messages ahead of time so that it really is their message and not yours, and that they know what the button will say when they press it! (Imagine being asked to take a turn in a conversation and not knowing what you were going to say!)
  • You could also co-plan before dinner time and then use a sequenced message device or app, or make a video of their turn as a time efficiency, or as a way that they could independently take their turn. Then just one or a few hits of an iPad or switch could share their stories. This could be particularly good if partner assisted scanning is needed and the partner is busy eating their own dinner!! As as added bang for buck, you could then share the video with others like grandparents who may not be at the dinner table but would still love to hear what’s going on at school. Facebook messenger, text or email videos are a great way to stay in touch.
  • Once they get some practice and confidence, you may see more spontaneous messages with their system, and you could start encouraging them to make comments or ask questions when another person takes their turn etc.

This version is just a simple starting point, but goes beyond common mealtime boards that often contain only”more”, “finished”, “yum”, “yuck” and the names of food items. It can also promote a fun family sharing time together.
For older children and adults, here is a link to some cool place mats I found on the web

I’m sure with all of these ideas you can modify these or make your own to suit your family.