TIES TIPS Communicative Competence

TIP #2:
Using Collaborative Teams to Support Students with Significant Communication Needs in Inclusive Classrooms

TIES Center | TIES Inclusive Practice Series (TIPS)


Including learners with significant communication needs in the general education classroom will require additional planning for general and special education teachers as well as related service providers. These include speech-language pathologists, physical and occupational therapists, and vision/hearing specialists.  Coordinating the work of these service providers and leveraging their expertise can result in a high quality experience for all the learners in an inclusive class.


A recent review of the literature (Kleinert, Kearns, Liu, Thurlow, & Lazarus, 2019) on the implementation of Augmentative Alternative Communication (AAC) in the inclusive classroom found team planning and collaboration to be an evidence-based practice that demonstrated positive results consistently across the cases examined (Biggs, Carter,& Gustafson, 2017; Hunt, Soto, Maier, Muller, & Goetz, 2002; Rhodes, 2016). In addition, integrated related services delivered in the classroom as opposed to a separate classroom have resulted in high quality service delivery (Downing, 2004). 


Augmentative alternative communication (AAC) refers to communication methods (other than oral speech) used to express thoughts, needs, wants, and ideas (Kleinert, Holman, McSheehan, & Kearns, 2010).


Team planning requires the gathering of the service delivery team, including educators and related service providers, on a regular basis to discuss student progress, problem-solve challenges, plan lessons, and determine appropriate supports and accommodations needed to implement the lessons and maximize student participation. A “regular basis” can mean weekly to monthly, 5-10 minute meetings to touch base or 50 minute meetings for extensive planning. Teams should develop a schedule based on, whatever can be successfully maintained by all the team members.

The implementation of team planning for communication in the inclusive class includes a number of components.  These include scheduling the time, leading productive meetings, problem-solving difficult challenges, implementing a strategy for ongoing staff communication to address student needs between meetings, and integrating the delivery of related services. Electronic participation, such as teleconferencing or phone conferencing, can be useful alternatives when physical presence by all team members is not feasible. Planning specific to a student may also include the parents who can participate in person of by electronic means.

Scheduling Time

Scheduling time to meet is likely the biggest hurdle for collaborative teams. However, this practice will result in saved time and improved efficiency, not to mention increased effectiveness on the part of educators in how they work with each other in supporting students. Prioritizing the set aside time is essential. One strategy is to commit to a monthly team meeting and a five-minute weekly “stand up” meeting to address items that come up. Sample strategies for freeing team member time for team meetings include hiring a permanent rotating substitute teacher, using non-teaching staff and paraprofessionals, sharing activities for two classes, and implementing distance technology or conference calls (Causton & Tracy-Bronson, 2014).

Productive Meetings

Productive meetings begin with an agenda and a time structure for team training and collaboration (see Sample Team Meeting Agenda PDF). Agenda items may include, but are not limited to, planning the next unit or lessons so that the target student’s communication and participation tools and devices enable active communication, seating and room arrangement solutions to accommodate wheelchairs or other equipment, service delivery solutions for “all hands on deck” lessons, and communication strategy modeling.  The following strategies can be helpful:

  • Use rules and protocols to frame how the team will work together. Group rules include strategies for staying on task, using an inquiry approach, using data and evidence, and managing time (see the Setting Team Rules and Protocols PDF sheet).
  • Create action plans and meeting notes that specify the actions and team member assignments for follow-up responsibilities.
  • Complete follow-up responsibilities, implement interventions and recommended strategies.
  • Evaluate the team’s work together in terms of completion of the agenda, completion of previous follow-up items, and implementation of collaborative practices across the team.
  • Practice personal reflection on individual collaboration skills and seek to continually improve (see Team Behavior and Actions Analysis (Individual) PDF and Team Behavior and Actions Analysis (Team) PDF rating form).

Problem Solving

If an agenda item requires a problem-solving approach, using a protocol for problem solving is a helpful strategy.  Such protocols include the following: 1) Identify and clarify the problem, 2) seek solutions, 3) prioritize solutions, 4) determine action steps, and 5) assign responsibilities (see the sample Problem-Solving Protocol PDF). As with other meeting protocols, using the meeting strategies listed above will improve the results.

Ongoing Communication

In addition to strategies for successful meetings, teams may want to implement a strategy for interim and ongoing communication.  For teams using integrated service delivery, a simple ticket strategy – located in a specific place to protect student privacy – where questions, comments, or other requests are placed as staff move in and out of the classroom can be useful.  Electronic documents may also serve this purpose. Using strategies for ongoing team communication allows team members to think about potential solutions to problems prior to the team meeting, which could also improve efficiency.

The integration of related services into the classroom will improve the team overall, supporting a shared understanding of the context in which the student is working. In addition, all service providers learn to use strategies that work for the student. For example, the physical therapist uses the student’s AAC device to communicate with the student. The image shown here displays a class schedule indicating a variety of options for integrating related services including language arts, drama, social studies, even math.

Schedule showing sample daily activities with their associated instructional priorities for speech-language support.

A sample of a schedule indicating options for supporting a student's communication in the classroom. This strategy could be used across all components of a student's schedule, including academic time (language arts, math, science, music, etc.),  nonacademic time (lunch, recess, etc.),  extracurricular activities (school clubs, crossing guards, etc.), as well as with different related services such as the support of gross and fine motor activities by physical and occupational therapists.

Example: Team Collaboration in Action

Tyler is a young boy who communicates through multiple modalities, including using his “Talkie,” an AAC device. Listen to his team of general educators, special educators, related service providers, his mother, and external facilitators as they share their three-year journey to support Tyler and his communication in the general education classroom.

What did the team learn about how to best support Tyler? What did they learn about themselves and the power of collaboration?

Supporting the AAC User in the Classroom

Video from the Web version of this publication:

Supporting the AAC User in the Classroom:

Supporting the AAC User in the Classroom with Audio Description

Video from the Web version of this publication:

Supporting the AAC User in the Classroom (AD Version):


Implementing regular team meetings that include related service providers will improve the effectiveness and efficiency in the inclusive classroom as it taps into and maximizes the expertise of the all team members. This collaboration directly benefits students with significant communication needs, but also can support other students as well. Successful teams maximize their planning time together by creating an agenda, problem-solving, using team norms, and evaluating their work together.


  • Woods, C. (2019). Struggling with Collaboration? Start with Yourself. ASCD Express: Ideas from the Field, 15(22). Retrieved from


  • Biggs, E. E., Carter, E. W., & Gustafson, J. (2017). Efficacy of peer support arrangements to increase peer interaction and AAC use. American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 122(1), 25–48.

  • Boudett, K., & City, E. (2016). Meeting wise: Making the most of collaborative time for educators. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

  • Causton, J., & Tracy-Bronson, C. (2014). The speech pathologist’s handbook for inclusive practices. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.

  • Downing, J. (2004). Related services for students with disabilities: Introduction to the special issue. Intervention in School and Clinic, 39(4), 195–208.

  • Hunt, P., Soto, G., Maier, J., Müller, E., & Goetz, L. (2002). Collaborative teaming to support students with augmentative and alternative communication needs in general education classrooms. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 18(1), 20–34.

  • Kleinert, J, Kearns, J., Liu, K. K., Thurlow, M. L., & Lazarus, S. S. (2019). Communication competence in the inclusive setting: A review of the literature (No. 103). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, TIES Center.

  • Kleinert, Jane, Holman, A., McSheehan, M., & Kearns, J. F. (2010). The Importance of developing communicative competence (No. 1). Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky. National Alternate Assessment Center.

  • Rhodes, A. L. (2016). Effects of a collaboratively developed peer mediated intervention on the social communication skills of students with complex communication needs in inclusive classroom settings (Vol. 36). Retrieved from

  • Sonnenmeier, R. M., McSheehan, M., & Jorgensen, C. M. (2005). A Case Study of Team Supports for a Student with Autism’s Communication and Engagement within the General Education Curriculum: Preliminary Report of the Beyond Access Model. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 21, 101–115.

TIPS Series: Tip #2, June 2019

All rights reserved. Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:

  • Kearns, J., Kleinert, J., & Vandercook, T. (2019). Using collaborative teams to support students with significant communication needs in inclusive classrooms (TIPS Series: Tip #2). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, TIES Center.

TIES Center is supported through a cooperative agreement between the University of Minnesota (# H326Y170004) and the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education. The Center is affiliated with the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) which is affiliated with the Institute on Community Integration (ICI) at the College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota. The contents of this report were developed under the Cooperative Agreement from the U.S. Department of Education, but do not necessarily represent the policy or opinions of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Readers should not assume endorsement by the federal government. Project Officer: Susan Weigert

The National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) leads the TIES Center partnership. There are six additional collaborating partners: Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North-Carolina–Charlotte, and University of North Carolina–Greensboro.


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