Prepping an IEP for AAC

Oct. 18, 2022Updated Oct. 19, 2022
If your child uses Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) or you’re interested in having your child assessed for AAC, how does that change the way you approach your child’s IEP? We asked Rachel Madel, M.A., CCC-SLP, for tips on how to structure an IEP to help teachers and other school staff successfully incorporate AAC use into a child’s education.

Why is an AAC assessment important?

Assessments are incredibly important. Not only do assessments help providers identify a child’s individual strengths and needs, they can also highlight exactly what kinds of interventions and supports are needed — and this is especially useful when it comes to AAC.

So if you haven’t already, the first step to incorporating AAC into your child’s IEP is to request an AAC assessment. If a speech-language pathologist or other professional indicates that your child would benefit from AAC, you’ll want to go through the formal process of having an assessment, the results of which will be discussed in your IEP meeting.

As a parent, you have the right to request that different devices be included in the assessment so that your child can have a trial of multiple programs. You can also request video of your child using the devices. Does one device have very limited words available for use? Is a device missing a keyboard or letterboard to offer support for typing? Madel recommends having a long-term vision of how the system will support your child, giving them opportunities for growth rather than plateauing because they have limited choices in how to communicate.

Here’s what SLP Ali Steers says about the attitude parents should have when going into an assessment:

An assessment provides an opportunity for you, your child, and the IEP team to get a sense of the best tool for your child to access language and communication. Madel recommends that you talk to the assessor about what motivates your child; what would they be most likely to want to communicate about? That can give the assessor a better sense of how AAC is working for your child.

It can be very helpful to have an AAC specialist attend the IEP meeting to present the assessment results and potential AAC devices, but Madel emphasizes that you and your child’s educators should all be involved in the discussion. “A good AAC assessment includes the entire team because it's the entire team that needs to implement it,” she says. “You can have the best AAC system in the world, but if you don’t know how to use it with your child, and everyone around your child doesn’t know how to use it, you’re not going to have a lot of success. It’s the implementation that’s the hard part.”

What does implementing AAC in an IEP look like?

Working with your child’s educators to embed AAC use into their IEP goals can help facilitate participation not just in the classroom but throughout the school day. Listen to Madel’s explanation in this clip:

Phrases: A typical phrase you can use in an IEP goal is “When provided unrestricted access to AAC, the student will—” for example, answer questions in response to a reading passage. Madel says, “If there’s some type of communicating involved or demonstrating knowledge, there’s an opportunity to potentially put AAC in there as a modality.”

Madel likes the phrase “unrestricted access to AAC” because there’s the concern that a teacher might take away a device if they perceive that the student is distracted. A child should always have their communication device in front of them. This means IEP teams may also want to think about “backup” communication. For example, if a child’s device runs out of battery, or substitute staff have not yet been trained on how to use it, could other low-tech visual supports be available? These can be written into the IEP as accommodations.

Undivided Education Advocate Lisa Carey recommends the phrase “using multimodal communication” in IEP goals so that whether a child is using AAC, sign language, gestures, word approximations, or any other form of communication, they can be working on their goals. See the end of this article for plenty of sample IEP goals that incorporate the use of AAC into both academic and social goals with peers.

Skills required to use the device: In addition to writing IEP goals that involve using AAC to communicate questions and answers, consider writing goals about using the AAC system itself. Does the student know how to adjust the volume as appropriate or plug in the device when it needs to be charged? Those skills can also be written as IEP goals.

Another thing to include in an IEP is parent and teacher training. You can ask that regular consult minutes with an AAC specialist be provided because SLPs don’t always have adequate training in AAC. In the IEP, this might look like specifying a certain number of minutes per month of AAC consult to be provided to the school staff (including the SLP) that is working with your child. And the same goes for you and your family! Learning an AAC device takes time — a little parent training on how to use the device with your child can go a long way.

Build your child’s independent communication skills

Madel says that one of the most common mistakes she sees regarding AAC in IEPs is not taking the opportunity to help kids initiate communication independently, rather than just copying what they’re told or waiting to be told what to say. She elaborates in this clip:

One way to track independent communication, Madel says, is to keep a log of everything your child says without any adult prompting. “And that could be with sign language, it can be with verbal speech, it can be with AAC,” she says. “The modality of communication isn’t as important as getting really good at just recognizing what is spontaneous language.” By tracking your child’s spontaneous language, you can see whether the work they’re doing at school is translating to real skills in communicating.

The goal is to help kids recognize that they can have ideas on their own and communicate those ideas without being prompted or asked questions first. When kids can say whatever is on their mind with someone else, it helps them connect.

“Sure, we can give scaffolded levels of prompting and support, but the end goal should always be independence,” Madel says. She admits that it can be difficult to see what your child can actually accomplish without adult support, perhaps only single words, but building that foundation of independence is essential to learning how to use AAC for real communication, not just memorized routines. Building independence also helps ensure that those skills translate to environments other than the classroom.

SLP Ali Steers agrees that the goal of AAC is to provide more autonomy:

Practice AAC use with motivating activities, not just academics

Even though educators largely see AAC devices as tools to work on academics, it’s essential for everyone who works with a child to approach communication more broadly and find what motivates them. After all, communication is central to life.

Education Advocate Lisa Carey puts it this way: “It’s important that AAC is not used to simply ‘test’ a child academically. It should be considered the child’s voice and be used in all areas of the day, not just academics. Most kids will not want to use the device if it is just used for testing.”

Madel says, “If we make all of these goals super academic, we’re missing students because we’re not focusing on things they’re motivated by. The first step in communication and understanding the power of an AAC system is, ‘Wow, this is like this magic box that gets me whatever I want. I wanted to watch that YouTube video, and I got it. I wanted to listen to my favorite song on Spotify. I did it. I have the power to communicate what I need and what I want and what I’m thinking about on my own.’”

Keep in mind that if AAC is only used to focus on subjects that kids aren’t that motivated to communicate about, it can appear as if AAC is not working. When we teach kids that words have power and can help them change their environment, that sets the foundation for communicating about a wide variety of subjects.

Madel reminds us that while it can take patience and time and energy, she believes every child can learn to communicate:

Sample IEP Goals with AAC


  • During interactions with adults and preferred peers, CHILD will demonstrate choice discrimination using multimodal communication (e.g. signs, gestures, AAC, words/word approximations) to respond to questions in 4 out of 5 observable opportunities across 5 school days, provided indirect verbal and visual support as needed.
  • Within one year of IEP signature date, CHILD will request an earned break via multimodal communication (no tech, low tech, high tech AAC) with a preferred peer partner and make at minimum 1 comment on the break activity with the partner, given visual support as, needed in 4 out of 5 opportunities.


  • When presented with a challenging task/situation, CHILD will independently ask for help using multimodal communication (e.g. signs, gestures, AAC, words/word approximations) in 4 out of 5 observable opportunities.


  • Provided a teacher-selected topic, CHILD will complete a cloze sentence by using the dynamic display speech-generating device to choose on-topic information, provided visual support as needed to navigate through familiar folders within the device.
  • In one year from IEP signature date, CHILD will demonstrate the ability to complete a structured journaling task by composing one sentence utilizing the dynamic display speech generating device to describe an activity from the school day, provided visual support as needed to navigate through familiar folders within the device, in 4 out of 5 opportunities.


  • Within natural contexts during the day, CHILD will use 3-4 communicative functions or intents expressively (make requests: objects, action, activity, a turn; comment on an action or object; protest/complain) in 2-3-word phrases using multimodal communication (i.e., dynamic display speech-generating device, signing, word approximations, verbalization, communication book) in 3 out of 5 opportunities with moderate prompts and models.
  • In one year from IEP signature date, using multimodal communication (AAC device, sign language, or intelligible oral expression) CHILD will independently engage in 8 communicative interactions in 3 different settings in the school day, using 1-4-word utterances that continue or add to the conversation, over 5 consecutive school days.
  • In one year from IEP signature date, communication partners will provide (a) opportunities to communicate, (b) expectant delay, and (c) AAC modeling as needed to support CHILD’S communicative engagement and initiations in all school settings across 5 consecutive school days.


  • In one year from IEP signature date, during structured or unstructured activities, CHILD will use multimodal communication (AAC device, sign language, or intelligible oral expression) to initiate or appropriately gain attention with moderate (2-3) prompts in 3 out of 5 opportunities across 2 consecutive weeks.


  • Within one year of IEP signature date, given a short narrative or expository text with pictures accompanying it, CHILD will utilize multimodal communication (no tech, low tech, high tech AAC) to generate a response relevant to the characters, settings, or events from the text, given visual support as needed to navigate to a response relevant to the text, in 4 out of 5 opportunities.


  • Within one year of IEP signature date, CHILD will demonstrate the ability to complete a multi-step school job routine with a visual checklist, and then report completion of the school job to school staff via multimodal communication (no tech, low tech, high tech AAC) with visual prompting in 4 out of 5 opportunities.



Why is an AAC assessment important?

What does implementing AAC in an IEP look like?

Build your child’s independent communication skills

Practice AAC use with motivating activities, not just academics

Sample IEP Goals with AAC

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Related Parent Questions

How will I know what kind of AAC device my child needs?
A professional who is knowledgeable about AAC programs and devices will take many variables into account when helping you determine what system is going to work best for your child. An evaluator will look at access, environment, and portability.
How do I know if my child needs AAC?
A child could benefit from an AAC device if they have difficulties speaking verbally, are speaking verbally unreliably, or are unable to speak verbally. A speech therapist can advise whether your child has the ability to develop intelligible speech without augmenting their communication.
How are AAC devices funded?
Speech-generating devices are considered durable medical equipment under most insurance policies and are typically covered. AAC devices and programs can be funded through the IEP process if they are deemed necessary for a child to access a free, appropriate public education (FAPE).

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