TJHSST Students Use Coding and Creativity to Communicate with Non-Verbal Elementary Students

January 19, 2022

As the day winds down at Freedom Hill Elementary in Vienna, students across the building are antsy and ready to head home. But in one classroom for students with intellectual disabilities, Wednesdays at 2:30 p.m. is the highlight of the week. It’s the time they get to Zoom with their ‘buddies’ from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

Four non-verbal students situated in their desks light up as they see four older students appear on the big screen at the front of the room. With the help of an aide, one younger student types on his Voice Output Communication Device, carefully tapping the colorful icons laid out on the screen to form a sentence: Please do a silly dance! 

He excitedly flips the device around to the camera, revealing his request. On the other end of the Zoom, the TJ students lean in to read the words typed out and start to laugh. They all look at each other, then hop up and start to do a silly dance. The four non-verbal students watch the screen in delight and giggle at the funny dance moves. It’s a moment of joy for everyone. 

A student uses a device to communicate on a Zoom meeting.

These weekly meetings are at the heart of the TJ Assistive Technology (AT) Club. The club’s goal is to foster communication in a fun interactive way through games, activities, and reading. For the Freedom Hill students, it’s an opportunity to practice on their devices in a relaxed setting. For the TJ students, it’s a chance to create games and learn coding tools such as HTML and JavaScript. For both sides, it’s the special connections made that leave the most lasting impact. 

“I really like helping kids,” said junior Vivian Denny. “I also like coding and the technology is really interesting. But it’s so nice to see the kids growing and getting better. When they write personal messages to us that are not part of the activity, it’s really nice because it shows they’re actually learning and they want to use the device on their own.” 

TJ AT Club members play a game with a younger student over Zoom.
TJ AT Club members play a game with a younger student over Zoom. 

For non-verbal students, learning core words is the main objective. They practice using basic nouns, pronouns, and verbs to create short, simple sentences on their device. The activities that the TJ students create focus on that goal. Club members meet on Sundays to brainstorm and come up with their games, then spend a couple hours coding to bring their vision to life. 

“I love technology, so coming here and talking to the younger kids and building all these games for them is the perfect combination of activities,” said sophomore Amith Polineni. “They know a lot, so all we have to do is be there encouraging them and guiding them along the way and be patient while they’re typing.”

Husband and wife duo Eric and Mary Beth Fleming both work in Assistive Technology Services for FCPS; Eric on the high school side, and Mary Beth on the elementary side. Mary Beth says one of the best things about the TJ AT Club is that the younger students really want to communicate and express themselves to their older buddies. 

“It’s very motivational for the students because they’re talking to the high school kids. They’re talking to the cool kids,” Mary Beth said. “It’s more like a peer exchange instead of the normal communication skills they’re practicing with the adults.”

Student laughs during a game created by the TJ AT Club members.

Many of the TJ students have been a part of the club for two or three years, and have watched the younger students grow and improve over time. The goal for each non-verbal student is different, based on their Individual Educational Plan. Some students rely solely on their devices, while others are able to say a few words verbally. 

“Three years ago some of these students were only able to use two to three words at a time,” Eric Fleming said. “Now they’re able to use five or six words, and that’s fantastic.”

The TJ AT Club has been around for more than 15 years. Even before the pandemic, the meetings were done over video conference, so that each group could participate from their own school. The club usually does a few in-person meetings every year, but that’s currently on hold due to COVID-19 restrictions. In addition to Freedom Hill, TJ club members also work with students from Vienna Elementary. The Flemings hope to expand to involve more elementary schools in the future, if scheduling allows. 

TJ AT Club members show one of the games they created.
TJ AT Club members show one of the games they created. 

Back over at Freedom Hill, the 30 minute Zoom session is wrapping up and it’s time for the younger students to say goodbye to their TJ buddies. Each student takes a moment to type out a special message on their device. 

“Bye Friend.”

“Goodbye Love You.”

Both groups excitedly wave toward the camera, eager to reconnect next week. 

Read more about FCPS Assistive Technology Services.