Ideas on Differentiated AT Services

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This document shares ideas on differentiating AT services. Building capacity requires re-visioning and planning. It is accomplished over years, not months. Just as students need differentiated services, so do staff.  There is no one way to provide AT services. A linear, one-size-fits-all approach to service delivery does not provide the customized support needed to build capacity and customize services. Multiple, flexible approaches are needed in order to provide the optimal type of support to school teams serving students in need of AT. AT services often begin with an assessment of need. Assessment can also be flexible– a shared role with school teams.  This document presents topics related to differentiating service delivery and explores evaluation vs. assessment strategies.

Multiple individuals have contributed to this list of ideas about differentiating services to enhance the provision of AT. If you have an idea that you would like to share, please contact the NATE Network at .



Differentiated Excellence

“ Islands of excellence” (Togneri, 2003) refers to pockets of success for some students in some schools.  We need to get beyond islands of excellence to meet the needs of ALL students and the staff that serve them. It will require that all those involved in education can better understand what they must do to help students succeed. To accomplish this, we need to build the capacity of school teams.   (Contributed by Gayl Bowser, OR)

Togneri, W. (2003) Beyond Islands of Excellence: What Districts Can Do to Improve Instruction and Achievement in All Schools—A Leadership Brief (Stock No. 303369). Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), Baltimore, MD. 


Request for AT Support vs. Referral

Changing  your AT team’s  language from “referral” to “request for support” is a real shift. A request for support documents who on the school team needs help and the kind of help they need. Traditional referrals typically request answers to a lot of questions about the student’s disability, not the needs of the classroom staff.  The nature of the referral tends to position the AT service provider as the “expert” such that if classroom staff provide the information requested, then the AT team will provide you with the answers you need. Instead, if I ask a team to clarify what support they want in order to help a student use AT, it’s an entirely different approach! This shift has changed the way I think about AT services and the purpose of them. For more information on shifting to a Request for Support, see the Resources section for Differentiating AT Services. (Contributed by Denise DeCoste)


A Referral System Idea

I had to come up with a system to streamline AT requests for my district. Right now, I have a Google form with a couple simple questions. I’ve made a QR Code that links to the form and everyone was given the QR Code in their welcome packets I made at the beginning of the year. The Code is also in my email signature. The QR code was a learning curve for most. However, once a team member fills it out, I get a notification. I then follow up with that person. As I have gotten to know each teacher in my district, I can make a decision on how much help they need through the process. (Contributed by Riley Pec, IL)


Multiple Tiers of AT Support

Multiple tiers of support are needed to transfer skill sets to classroom staff. For example, if the school team for a student referred for AT support is unfamiliar with the SETT process, the AT service provider would likely want to model the SETT process with the school team and family.  The next time a student is referred from the same school team, the AT provider could encourage a staff person to facilitate the meeting, collaborating with the AT service provider. Thereafter, the AT service provider would coach the school team, reassuring them that they can conduct the SETT meeting on their own and then confer afterwards.  This process of building capacity for AT consideration should be flexible, offering ongoing support as needed, but can send a clear message that the role of the AT service provider is to help the school team develop knowledge and confidence. If the AT consideration process always points back to the AT provider as the starting point, it establishes a practice barrier to building capacity.  This is not accomplished overnight or merely by changing the “rules.” It is a gradual process of providing information and coaching school teams on how best to consider AT. Often, moving to capacity building involves finding ways to appropriately let go of expected roles and  finding new ways to build local knowledge. 

AT support does not have to be a one-size-fits-all, linear process (i.e., referral > SETT meeting > assessment > trial period > implementation.)  Experienced school teams may conduct the SETT process on their own, but confer with the AT specialist to discuss appropriate tools. AT service providers can use video conferencing, send links to resources via email, or direct school staff to resources on the AT website.  They can also help school teams set up trial periods or develop implementation plans documenting effective tools and strategies. AT team support is most effective when it is flexible and offers multiple means of support, both direct and indirect. Differentiated AT support is a must when building capacity.  Being cognizant of this helps mitigate against the savior/enabler phenomenon that consultants can fall prey to. AT service providers have a responsibility to support classroom staff to develop the necessary skills because more students benefit when this occurs. To get started, this requires self-examination and courageous conversations….even If you are a team of “one”.  (Contributed by Gayl Bowser, OR and Denise DeCoste, MA)


Consultation, Collaboration and Coaching

We believe it is the role of AT providers to consciously scaffold services. One-size-fits-all processes are not the answer. In what ways do you scaffold your approaches to AT support to build ownership? One way of thinking about the services you provide is to look at the way you approach interactions with the people you support.  Do you primarily provide expert advice and suggestions with the expectation that they will be implemented with students who use AT in classroom settings? Do you work as a partner with your constituents, collaborating on many of the tasks involved in choosing and using AT? Do you coach educators, students and families to take ownership and gain independence with AT?  The research about consultation, collaboration and coaching indicates that each support strategy can be used to enhance your overall system of AT Supports. It’s important to choose the support approach in a way that matches the support need. Here’s a summary of each approach that may help you differentiate the ways that you address individual interactions. (Contributed by Gayl Bowser, OR)


Consultation, Collaboration and Coaching approaches to  AT Support

Goal: To inform To work together To transform thinking
Focus: On AT content On AT partnership On development  of independent

AT skills sets

Style: Telling Discussing Inquiring
Accountability: AT specialist All team members Classroom staff
Support Role Expert Colleague Mediator/mentor

Adapted from Bowser and Reed (2012)


Applying AT to Multi- Tiered of Systems of Support (MTSS)

A few years ago I read about tiered AT supports which got me thinking about how this might look within a district or agency employing MTSS.

Tier 1

Tier 1 involves providing appropriate school wide academic and technology supports to all learners.  With Tier 1, technology is embedded into the curriculum. Technologies are used to differentiate student products, process, and content. Curriculum should employ the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework where students are provided multiple means of engagement, multiple means of representation, and multiple means of action and expression.

Tier 2

Tier 1 techniques will not be effective with all students. Some students will still struggle despite the availability of resources, and therefore require Tier 2 supports. At the Tier 2 level, small group intervention with increased application of technology tools and academic support may solve the needs of some students.  Tier 2 includes short-term focused instruction to integrate and apply Tier 1 interventions. Schools must consider remediation vs. compensation. Does the student need specific instruction to strengthen skills (remediation), or strategies and tools to compensate for a skill deficit.  A combination of general education, support personnel, and special education staff may be involved during this short term process.

Tier 3

However, a small percentage of students will demonstrate a persistent need for specialized interventions, services and technology customization. These students will require intensive and individualized interventions (Tier 3). For Tier 3, some forms of assistive technology (e.g., mobility aids, communication tools, motor and sensory access tools) are considered. Students will not be able to access, engage, or benefit from instruction in the general curriculum without these tools. Tier 3 supports and services are typically considered and implemented as part of the special education process.  (Contributed by Aaron Marsters, DODEA)



Evaluation vs. Assessment

The terms “evaluation” and “assessment” are both used in the field of AT. Some use these terms interchangeably, but there are definitions that can help us understand why one term might be more appropriate than the other in a particular situation. Roberson (2006)defines assessment as “the process of objectively understanding the state or condition of a thing, by observation and measurement. Assessment of teaching means taking a measure of its effectiveness. Formative assessment is measurement for the purpose of improving it.”

They define evaluation as the process of observing and measuring a thing for the purpose of judging it, of determining its value, either by comparison to similar things, or to a standard. 

 While the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) refers to AT Evaluation, it goes on to define it as a “functional evaluation in the child’s customary environments”.  This is important because it directs the school team to look at what the child is doing in various academic and nonacademic settings and to determine if the use of AT for activities in those settings is effective. 

AT teams are not designated “evaluation” teams and to date, there is no such thing as a normed, summative “AT evaluation”.   AT decisions require ongoing assessment in order to gauge effectiveness. This can be a shared role with the staff who know the learner best. For example, school team members can administer and provide data on reading, spelling and writing skills when assessing the needs of struggling learners.  School-based OTs can provide an assessment of upper extremity motor skills in order to assess the motor components needed to use AAC devices, and school-based speech pathologists can provide a summary of expressive language skills. Concurrently, AT team members can provide specialized input to determine switch usage or match communication needs to AAC devices. It is critical to  communicate, collaborate and share AT responsibilities with school teams as part of the AT assessment process in order to develop AT skill sets in the classroom and to ensure that all aspects of the student’s abilities and needs are addressed. (Contributed by Denise DeCoste, MA)

Roberson, W. Ed., 2006. Peer Observation and Assessment of Teaching: A Resource Book. UTEP Center for Effective Teaching and Learning, University of Texas, El Paso.


Is the SETT Framework a Form of Assessment?

SETT (Zabala, 2010) is not an assessment.  It is a framework for thinking about a child’s need for AT that focuses first on the student (S), then the environment (E) and the tasks (T) that need to be accomplished before talking about potential tools (T). It can be used anytime a school team is trying to make a decision about the need for AT. The SETT framework often requires that school and AT team members complete one or more targeted assessments and observations for the purpose of understanding a state or condition and as a baseline for effectiveness prior to a meeting to make a decision about AT (often called the SETT meeting).  Supporting teams to use a SETT framework process is all good, but in what ways do you scaffold this to build ownership? (Contributed by Gayl Bowser, OR)

Zabala, J. (1995). The SETT Framework: Critical Areas to Consider When Making Informed Assistive Technology Decisions, Retrieved from  


 Differentiating AT Assessment

One of the things that is a common one-size-fits all is having the AT specialist do a formal “AT assessment” for each student.  Federal law does not stipulate that a formal assessment is needed for every student, nor that an AT assessment must be carried out by an AT specialist.  Of course, when necessary, it’s important that formal assessments be carried out by informed professionals. In the case of doing a switch assessment or when determining the type of AAC device that will work well for a student, it may be  that the help of an AT Specialist is needed, but this level of “expertness” is typically needed for a small percentage of the students who will benefit from AT. Often teams back themselves into practice barriers by “owning” the AT assessment process”. Gayl and I have both consulted with teams where students cannot get equipment unless there is a formal evaluation.  Guess what happens? The team is quickly underwater trying to stay caught up with 1-to-1 evaluations. A smaller number of students get served and the important work of implementation is not addressed. 

 Assessment can be a collaborative process.  Classroom staff, who are most familiar with the student’s abilities, should share in the assessment process. In a capacity building model, you build the skills of school based teams to do more of the evaluation process.  AT consideration is not solely owned by an AT specialist. For example, if the student is described as having handwriting issues, the school based OT can analyze handwriting legibility and speeds across different tasks. If the student also has spelling problems, an educator on the team can provide information on spelling skills. If the student has difficulties with written sentence construction, the SLP could weigh in on possible underlying language issues.  The Universal Protocol for Accommodations in Reading (uPAR, Don Johnston, Inc.) was designed to be a computer-based screening tool easily administered by school staff to a group of students identified with reading delays to gauge the effectiveness of read aloud tools. If the student has difficulty pointing, the school based OT can describe the student’s upper extremity motor control and the size of the target. Collecting data on core vocabulary for AAC users can be collaborative as well.  By coaching school level teams to take on more of the assessment, it builds ownership at the local level for this student and for others.

 SETT Framework meetings are an integral part of the AT assessment process. It is important for the AT Team to  model how this is best done, but it is equally important that local school teams feel that they can conduct basic SETT Framework meetings when AT is being considered. If the AT consideration process always points back to experts as the starting point, this is a practice barrier to building capacity.  This is not accomplished overnight or merely by changing the “rules”. It is a gradual process of providing information and coaching school teams on how best to consider AT.  For example, when a new student is referred, you might model the SETT process the first couple of times with a new school team, then the next time be there as a participant observer, allowing the school team to take on more of the process.  You always let the team know that you are available to support “their” process and even consult with school teams prior to a scheduled SETT meeting, to help them prepare for their meeting. When a School team conducts the SETT meeting, it also  can help to have a member of the AT Team review their SETT form and give feedback through a follow up discussion by phone or video conference. 

 Think in terms of benchmarks.  What could you do more of over time to encourage school teams to do more AT consideration?  We can’t complain about school teams not considering AT if we don’t help them understand the process.  One of my mantras (learned in grad school) is that “if the student isn’t learning, the teacher isn’t teaching.”  In the case of AT teams, you have to ask yourself “is the school team is learning how to consider AT?”. If not, then what can AT service providers do to coach this.  (Contributed by Denise DeCoste, MA)


 Are Formal AT Assessment Reports the Norm?

Written reports take lots of time and my AT team rarely wrote formal assessments. We estimated that a formal assessment and report could consume 6-8 hours of time– time not spent with students or staff helping them implement AT.  And much of the time, these reports just summarized the student’s abilities/disabilities. In some cases, this was important NEW information. In others, it merely restated what was known about the student and the learning environment (i.e., the “S:”and the “E” in the SETT framework).  In some situations a written report may help to shed light on complex needs, but is it needed for every student referred? One size does not fit all. And long, time consuming written reports can be disproportionate to the time needed to support students and staff. 

As a team, we always worked with school teams to document the SETT process.  The tasks and the tools comprise the critical information going forward (i.e., the “T”, “T” in the SETT framework).  As school teams gain confidence in conducting AT consideration using the SETT process, it is imperative that they document their thinking about the tasks and the tools. As we coach teams on how to conduct SETT meetings, we want to be sure we model the SETT process as a way to document the AT consideration process. (Contributed by Denise DeCoste, MA)