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Communication bands: A framework of shared understanding

7 min read
Alison Futerman, Therapy Service Manager and Speech and Language Therapist, Eden Academy Trust, UK
Gill Smith, Professional Development Service Manager, Eden Academy Trust, UK
Dr Paul van Walwyk, Director for Schools and Educational Services, Eden Academy Trust, UK

This case study reflects on the introduction and impact of communication bands within the Eden Academy Trust (EAT), a multi-academy trust of special schools in London and northern England. Communication bands are an intervention framework designed to support the communication skills of pupils with a range of learning difficulties.

Within EAT, where students have multiple and complex needs, a significant number of pupils were identified who, due to their underlying communication disabilities, were unlikely to achieve set targets. There was also a smaller group of pupils who were not being stretched enough. In both cases, not enough time was spent pitching teaching at a level that enabled adequate progress to be made. EAT also found that interventions from speech and language therapists (SALTs) and education professionals – planned to meet education, health and care plan (EHCP) needs – were not always aligned, with SALTs focusing on individual programmes and educators focusing on group or class activities.

Clinical guidance identifies the need for a specialised communication environment if pupils are to effectively participate in their communication development (Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, 2011, 2020; Klefbeck, 2020). SALTs were clear that pupils at different levels of communication needed access to different communication environments.

Evidence across EAT schools indicated that existing staff training for different communication methods and concepts was not specific enough for staff to gain the necessary skills to create these specialist communication environments. It was also apparent that staff were unable to generalise skills from one pupil to another. We therefore created a system that unified language and created a more targeted training programme to meet the needs of pupils.

Communication bands framework

Communication bands outline six stages of development in relation to communication (Table 1). Each band describes what a pupil needs and how adults should interact with that pupil in order to support their development. This ensures that the language used to interact with pupils matches their communicative capabilities.

Table 1: The six stages of development outlined by the communication bands
The bands  Summary of pupil’s learning 
Reflex learners Responds to stimuli
Anticipatory learners Demonstrates an awareness of familiar stimuli and shows that they can anticipate the next step in an activity with a crescendo
Intentional communicators Can give a message to another person through their actions
Formal communicators Can use an agreed communications system with individual words and repeated phases using either speech or alternative and augmentative forms of communication 
Combining communicators Can link to concepts to express themselves
Conversational communicators Has developed grammar and reciprocal communication skills, including self-advocacy

Pupils only move through the communication bands when they are ready and, on some occasions, may need to return to a former band – for example, after a significant absence.

Using communication bands across the trust

The communication bands have given schools within EAT an efficient way of using language and ensuring a consistent approach.

SALT time is primarily focused on assessment to determine the best band for each pupil. Teaching staff and supporting staff are also aware of the need to create a differentiated approach to match each pupil’s level of development.

Although there remains a level of personalisation required when working with individual pupils, this is reduced. Pupils benefit from this aligned and consistent approach, demonstrated by the greater amount of communication engaged in per pupil and the increase in the number of adults with whom pupils can communicate.

By using the communication bands consistently, all staff working with pupils understand that they have an important role in enabling pupils to progress in their communication skills, and this starts with a shared understanding of the next steps.

Developing the communication bands

As outlined above, the framework was developed by a team of experienced special school teachers and the SALT team at EAT. To build on the information we already had, a number of existing tools were considered to see whether they would meet the need for a shared framework, including the Communication Trust’s SLCF framework (nd) and the Redway Curriculum (Latham and Miles, 1997). However, neither system fully met our needs, so the group continued to meet to develop an Eden Academy Trust-specific framework.

The communications bands were initially used by the small number of teachers and therapists involved in the project. Once they had been tested, senior leaders became involved, establishing a strategic plan to implement communication bands across EAT so that they could have maximum impact. Resources were developed, including a handbook, posters, online learning and prompt cards for pupil activities.

Supporting curriculum 

Communication bands have enabled the teaching and learning of communication within school curriculums to be more effective. Developments within curriculum planning included targeted learning and an increased focus on core vocabulary for pupils in each band to support next steps. When a pupil is assigned to a band, they are placed according to what they need next, rather than what they have already achieved. This approach enables us to describe the broader curriculum in these terms, such as an ‘anticipatory learner curriculum’. The framework ensures that class groupings can be created to ensure a cohesive pupil group, so that a teacher can best meet pupil needs. In particular, pupils in the combining and conversational bands require peers within the same band in order to provide an optimal learning environment that includes peer interaction and conversation – an essential element of their curriculum.

How different schools have developed their curriculum has varied. One school, catering for PMLD (profound and multiple learning disability) learners, uses the framework to underpin their curriculum, with medium-term plans outlining specific learning objectives for each band to ensure curriculum breadth. One school, catering for SLD (specific learning disability) learners, has used the communication bands to plan classes so that teachers have no more than two communication bands in each class. The impact of this has been that teachers have been able to plan in such a way that ensures that pupils have secure prior knowledge before moving to the next step.

The communication bands have also supported curriculum leaders across the trust to become more aware of the importance of planning for communicative learning within the curriculum and more able to carry this out. They have also contributed to greater teacher understanding of communication needs and enabled higher-quality interactions between SALTs and teachers. Highly focused curriculum models for PHSE, adapted to the communication bands, have enabled teachers to pitch challenging concepts accurately and ensure that pupils are meaningfully engaged in activities.

Impact of the communication bands

Impact has been broad and wide-ranging: new staff are quicker to pitch their language and expectations of pupils at appropriate levels once they understand the communication bands. This has had a significant benefit on pupils’ confidence in the regular changes of staff that special schools experience. Relationships and trust have developed quicker. Learning is pitched according to the pupils’ current knowledge and skills and, as a result, pupils’ communication skills have developed, in terms of both complexity and breadth.

Data shows that as schools embed the communication bands, pupils begin to move up the different bandings. Four years ago, in one school catering for SLD learners, 70 per cent of pupils were either intentional or formal communicators. In 2023, this has risen to 79 per cent, and the number of pupils in the anticipatory bands has reduced by 10 per cent.

School leaders regularly refer to the pupils’ bands when developing class lists. Experience has shown that if a class has pupils in two consecutive bands, class teams can create an effective learning environment for all. Even when classes need to have more than two bands, because teachers have a clear understanding of need, they are better able to differentiate and cater for different abilities. 

Professional development sessions, provided by the SALT team, have improved staff confidence and enabled them to provide positive learning environments. Sessions may introduce key concepts by sharing the aims and progression of the framework, in addition to modelling specific techniques and examples of deliberate practice. School leaders and peer mentors have also used the framework when observing teaching and during professional discussions to develop practice.

The main success of this intervention has been the creation of a shared language and having a framework that all staff across the trust can understand and apply to their practice. Staff have an increased knowledge of communication needs and are able to pitch the interactions that they have in order for each pupil to thrive.

It is recognised that there are limitations in the perceptions of success of the communication bands, as the success is framed by educational context within a single trust of schools and the case study uses a self-reflective approach. Further research and evaluation of the communication bands within a structured evaluation framework is planned, in order to offer additional evidence from which to evaluate this approach.

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