Breaking Ground 98 - Tennessee Talks: Partnering with public schools to support students with complex communication needs

by Jolene Sharp, Chief Public Information Officer, Council on Developmental Disabilities

From the Tennessee Talks Flyer: Every child has the right to express their thoughts and ideas, engage socially, and participate meaningfully in their schools and communities, regardless of whether or not they use oral speech. In fact, given the opportunity and teaching, many children can become successful users of alternative and augmentative communication (AAC).

Tennessee Talks is a project funded by the Tennessee Department of Education. This grant allows regional providers across the state to partner with public schools to support students with complex communication needs. The support is provided at no cost to schools or families.

School staff can often struggle to help students with complex communication needs, because they don’t have access to training on assistive technology. A speech-language pathologist could be working with a student but not know of devices or other technology that could help that child communicate.

That’s where Tennessee Talks comes in. Staff from the regional contractors (listed at the bottom of this article) can help school staff assess the needs of individual students and match those students to communication systems that will be the best fit. Tennessee Talks staff will be there for the whole process, helping to order the devices and training school staff, students, and parents on how to use them. All these services are offered for free.

“With the Tennessee Talks project, we have an incredible opportunity to meet with educational teams, work directly with them to identify their student’s communication difficulties, and initiate a structured plan of action to address those needs,” said Janice Reese, Director of Assistive Technology for Little Tennessee Valley Educational Cooperative, and the Tennessee Talks Coordinator for the Upper and Mid-Cumberland regions. “School staff have been particularly excited about the [communication technology] lending libraries.”

According to Reese, the regional library offers a wide range of high- and low-tech communication devices for schools to try, along with a range of adaptive resources to help both the student and staff learn how to best use the device for learning. “Implementation is a critical piece of the process, and we have found many staff unsure of how to…use AAC systems within the classroom,” she said.

To help staff use new devices, Reese and her team have developed “Bags of Language/Learning Tasks.” The bags can be borrowed to use during a trial period or once a new communication system is in place. Inside are custom items for the device, like books, games, and activities using the device, along with printed communication boards, how-to guides, sheets for tracking data about how the system is working, and other important tools.

Tennessee Talks can help schools in more ways, by:

  • Identifying needed access supports (switches, mounts, other ways to help the child use a technology system)
  • Providing device programming support
  • Troubleshooting problems with current equipment or practices

Tennessee Talks can also be very helpful for schools in rural areas. “In rural Johnson County, we lack resources that are available in larger towns,” said Paula Norton, Special Education Director for Johnson County schools. “With each referral from Johnson County, [Tennessee Talks Regional Coordinator] Molly Ricks made her way to Johnson County…to individually evaluate students with communication needs. In every case, Molly’s reports and recommendations effectively addressed the child’s needs.”

Beyond support for individual students, Tennessee Talks will help students, school staff, and parents form learning communities. These communities will increase access to information and grow expertise about alternative and augmentative communication (AAC). This will create long-term expertise for schools and families to meet the needs of students with complex communication needs.

Parents who think their child could benefit from Tennessee Talks support should contact their child’s school to ask about the program. Educators who are interested in bringing Tennessee Talks to their school should contact the appropriate region below.

Tennessee Talks Regional Support Contacts

Northwest and Southwest
University of Memphis
Vicki Haddix – vhaddix@memphis.du
Carol Wright –

Mid Cumberland and Upper Cumberland
Little Tennessee Valley Educational Cooperative, Inc.

Janice Reese –

South Central and Southeast
Signal Centers, Inc.
Beth Warren –

East Tennessee and First Tennessee
Stanley Taylor –
Molly Ricks –