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How to Track Data Using Circles of Communication

"But how do I track my data? "... is the most common question I get from speech-language pathologists (SLPs) after teaching them to shift their focus from structured language activities to targeting engagement and interaction when working with kids on the spectrum.

We know that in order for children on the autism spectrum to develop novel, flexible language we need to strengthen their foundational skills: regulation and engagement. Without improving a child’s attention, ability to connect with others, and intrinsic motivation to communicate, we will see kids the spectrum using mostly rote language. If we can improve the child’s desire to connect with others, we will see major improvements not only in foundational skills, attention and engagement, but we will also see improvements in their language and higher level cognitive skills.

The way we improve a child’s desire to connect with others is by focusing on engaging the child through play. And while we see the benefit of play (we know that children learn through play, and we know that we are addressing the child’s long term goals through play), we can still sometimes get lost in the terrifying world of data collection.

Taking data is part of our job. And for most funding sources, we are required to have measurable goals.

SLPs often come to me and ask me how they can take data on these very engaging, play-based sessions. And the answer is simple: Through tracking circles of communication.

This is part of the Floortime approach.

Now let's talk about how to track progress using circles of communication.

Children on the spectrum who are higher level might have goals that are easy for you to take data on, like answering WH-questions. However, for children who are lower on the spectrum, children who lack attention and engagement, we need goals that are going to allow us to do what is best for those children and what will help them progress: focus on their ability to connect.

Counting circles of communication is simple - although widely misunderstood and miscalculated.

Let’s talk about how to count circles of communication.

Take this situation for example.

Child: Open bubbles [child extends arm to hand therapist bubbles].

Therapist: [Open bubbles] Here you go [hands bubble back to child].

What do so many of our kids on the spectrum do next?

They grab the bubbles, looking only at the bubbles, and walk away.

Guess what? The therapist just got used….as a tool. The child was not interacting with the therapist for the sake of connecting, but was using the therapist’s hand as a tool to open the bubbles.

Many SLPs would misinterpret this as a circle of communication. Child initiates (opens the circle), adult responds (closes the circle). [Buzzer sounds]. NOPE. That’s not how a circle of communication works.

In order for the circle of communication to be completed in that situation, the child would have had to acknowledge, in some way, that the therapist responded his request. It doesn’t have to be verbal (you don't have to wait for a “thank you for opening my bubbles”), it could just be a facial expression, or a glance - the child has to acknowledge the therapist in some way.

Circles of communication of communication work like this.

Person A: Opens the circle by initiating.

Person B: Continues the circle by responding the Person A.

Person A: Closes the circle by reacting to Person B.

So why are circles of communication goals great for kids on the spectrum? Because they allow us to focus on engagement and interaction.

How to Get Started

1. Take baselines of the child’s circles of communication during different activities. How many circles of communication can the child open and close during sensory activities, highly preferred activities, structured activities, etc.?

2. Set your goal. If the child struggles with engaging in 1 circle of communication, maybe your goal will be for the child to engage in 2-3 circles of communication during highly motivating activities.

3. Count your circles. Counting circles is a skill that takes time. Interaction can move so quickly and sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where circles of communication open and close. I highly recommend videotaping parts of your sessions and watching them back - the circles of communication will become much more clear to you by viewing the interaction as an outsider.

If you are ready to get started with counting circles of communication, make sure to download my Circles of Communication Tracking Sheet to use in your sessions. Click on this link to receive the free download.

Jessie Ginsburg, M.S., CCC-SLP is a speech-language pathologist, autism expert, and owner of Pediatric Therapy Playhouse, a multidisciplinary clinic in Los Angeles.

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