PORTLAND — The old adage that “a picture is worth a thousand words” is helping students at Longfellow Elementary School communicate their basic needs, and more.

Holly Johnson, assistant principal at Longfellow Elementary in Portland, spent part of her summer creating special communication cards to use with students. Kate Irish Collins / The Forecaster

Newly created communication cards are a way to help students who have trouble expressing themselves do something as simple as ask for a pencil  – or as important as indicating they’re hurt or need special attention.

Assistant Principal Holly Johnson spent time this summer putting together 56 sets of cards that were distributed to every classroom teacher and also hung in strategic locations throughout the school, such as near the front door.

Each set contains 12 cards that express basic ideas that students commonly experience throughout the school day, from being asked to wait or being told it’s time for lunch or recess.

Johnson said she based the cards on her nine years as a school administrator and another 30 years of teaching to determine what cards would be of most use to students and staff.

In addition to showing a bathroom or a water fountain, the cards also show a picture of a school bus and a backpack, among others.

Johnson said the cards were especially helpful during the first few weeks of school when the students didn’t have routines and procedures down yet.

Already, Johnson said, teachers and students are regularly using the communication cards.

“Teachers are really glad to have this extra tool to use” in their interactions with students, she said. And the cards are not just for students to use with adults but with their peers as well.

Johnson said the cards are valuable to any student.

Even so, she anticipates that the cards will end up being most helpful for along with non-verbal students and English language learners, who are not only trying to get used to a new school but a whole new country and way of doing things.

Longfellow Elementary added 15 new English language learners this fall and Johnson said the school is anticipating having a total of 25 over the course of this academic year.

New communication cards at Longfellow Elementary School are helping students express their needs to both staff and their peers. Kate Irish Collins / The Forecaster

The idea for the communication cards came from Beverly Stevens, the principal at Ocean Avenue Elementary, Johnson said.

Stevens said this week that staff at her school originally introduced the communication cards last spring to better support new students.

“Using these picture cards, students can (easily) communicate their needs,” she said. “Our picture cards allow students to ask to go to the bathroom, take a break or get a drink or snack.”

“These cards can also be used by staff to show students next steps,” Stevens said, “like, it’s time to wash their hands for lunch, line up for art, or get their backpack at the end of the school day.”

She said Ocean Avenue Elementary at this time serves 79 English language learners.

What’s great about the picture cards, Stevens said, is that “students do not need to use this tool for long,” before they can start to communicate with words.

At Longfellow Elementary, Johnson said the communication cards are all the same color and include black and white drawings that illustrate the words the image is meant to express. For instance, one of the cards shows a student who’s clearly contemplating and the card reads “time to think.”

“Pictures can really go a long way in sharing ideas or making a point more explicit,” Johnson said. “They can really help a student better articulate their needs overall.”

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