The moment my pupils realised they could communicate with me

The Key

MarissaMarissa Gutherz is a graduate student at New York University where she is specialising in special education and human rights. She’s been involved in education projects in South Africa and Chile. For the last four years, she has worked as a music teacher with children affected by autism spectrum disorders. Here, she tells us about one of her research projects – with some help from her colleagues Colleen Gaudio and Georgina Camejo Martinez.


quote-startFor us, teaching isn’t just a job, it’s a passion. School is not just a place we report to work, but it is our second home, and the pupils are our children. They are our inspiration, the reason why we became educators. Every day we strive to help our pupils fulfil their potential. As educators of children with special educational needs, we often must think outside the box in order to best meet their needs. When a pupil achieves a goal that we have been working on for months, it gives us the inspiration to keep going.

Our school is located in New York City, in the south Bronx, one of the five New York City boroughs. According to The Newest New Yorkers, 15% of the Bronx’s population is comprised of immigrants, generally from West African and Caribbean countries. Additionally, as noted by the 2010 United States Census, 30% of the Bronx’s population lives below the poverty line, almost twice the state average.

Students with autism traditionally use a visual schedule that lists pictures of all their daily activities.

Pupils with autism traditionally use a visual schedule that lists pictures of all their daily activities.

Our school itself is part of a unique, city-wide district for special education which solely services approximately 30,000 pupils with severe disabilities such as emotional behavioural disorders, autism and physical disabilities. While special education schools exist around the United States, District 75 is a unique school district because these pupils attend self-contained schools which are uniquely tailored to provide services that support their growth, abilities and learning styles. Pupils in this district may also receive home or hospital-based instruction. Since it’s a city-wide school district, pupils living in all five New York City boroughs have access to these services (you can read more about District 75 here).

We serve 30 children with severe autism spectrum disorders, and communication abilities ranging from non-verbal to minimally verbal. Our five classes are taught by state certified special education teachers and are assisted by at least one classroom paraprofessional (similar to a teaching assistant in the UK), who helps carry out daily classroom routines and instruction. Class ratios are six pupils with one teacher and one or two paraprofessionals, depending on the severity of the pupils’ diagnoses.

In 2014 we began our venture into education research. Our research project grew out of our desire to create an effective mode of communication with our non-verbal pupils. Our school currently utilises a picture exchange system in which pupils are taught to give a small photo or symbol of an everyday object to another person in order to obtain that item. While this system is generally effective for a majority of our pupils, we found that three pupils were not responding to this method of communication.

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The resonator bells, with picture symbols and mallet – both attached to a student’s desk.

After noting that these pupils responded well in music class, often participating in call-and-response activities and demonstrating an affinity to interacting with musical instruments, we brainstormed a way to combine a musical instrument with the picture symbol. Using a resonator bell (an instrument similar to a xylophone but hollow in the bottom so the tone is amplified), we attached picture symbols to the bells. We needed to motivate pupils to use the bells to communicate, and so we observed which items they most naturally gravitated to during class and at playtime. We identified two or three such objects, took a photograph of each one and attached the picture symbol to a separate resonator bell.  We applied a commonly used method, discrete trial training, to teach the pupils how to use the bells. They were rewarded with positive reinforcement: they gained access to their desired item upon striking the correct bell.

Following seven months of training in a controlled setting, we attached the bells to the pupils’ desks with velcro and waited for them to begin using them of their own accord, without any prompting. Nothing happened on the first day. On the second, the pupils came into class in the morning, put their book bags away and sat at their desks. After breakfast, we began to prepare for the day. Our backs were turned, and suddenly we heard ringing.

As teachers, we sometimes have a tendency to tune out external sounds, so we were oblivious for a few moments. When we realised what was happening, we turned around to see Harris frantically ringing his bell, holding steady eye contact in our direction, waiting for us to respond to his request. Elated, we immediately rushed to bring Harris his iPad. Upon seeing Harris ring the bells and receive his iPad, Zuniel then picked up his mallet and began ringing away, asking for his iPad. The moment was magical. For the next five minutes, the pupils took turns looking at each other and ringing their bells while we ran around the classroom bringing them the requested items. Their faces lit up, smiling and laughing, as they realised they could communicate with us. There wasn’t a dry eye in the classroom.

'Task boxes' contain individualised activities and puzzles that students work on throughout the day. They identify their activity according to the corresponding shape on their daily schedule.

‘Task boxes’ contain individualised activities and puzzles that pupils work on throughout the day. They identify their activity according to the corresponding shape on their daily schedule.

As we continue our project over the duration of the upcoming school year, our goals include providing parent training on how to use the resonator bells in their homes. This would enable the parents to respond to their child’s basic needs and open up communication between the parent and the child. It’s a cost-effective, easily transferable means of communication which the parents can utilise. Because this system is musically based, parents will be able to hear their child expressing a need even when they are not in the same room. Additionally, further research could explore the possibility of teaching pupils to activate bells in an academic setting. For example, perhaps pupils could learn to answer questions or identify items by striking a corresponding bell with the correct number or letter symbol.

This project has shown us that by being creative and thinking outside the box, there are no limits. We are just three teachers in the south Bronx hoping to change the way our pupils communicate and enable those pupils who need an alternate form of communication. It reminds us why we became teachers.

As educators, we can help our pupils achieve their goals. quote-end


Interested in Marissa’s research? Drop her a line at Marissagutherz@gmail.com

Have you got an innovative education idea that you’d like to share with the world? The RSA is working with practitioners and thinkers on the cutting edge of education and want to hear from you. Visit RSA: Innovative Education  to find out how you can get involved.


Members of The Key for School Leaders can read more about using music therapy to support pupils with autism, and about auditing the school’s inclusion interventions (log-ins required).

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