Back in September 2016 I attended the PECS® Level 1 workshop for the first time. I felt very out of my depth at the time. My son was recently diagnosed as autistic and we were really struggling with communication. I left that course with so much knowledge and direction. It was one of the most useful courses I have attended since my son’s diagnosis.
Fast forward to 2020 and we have been using PECS for the last 4 years with my non verbal 7 year old and also with my 5 year old who has speech difficulties. PECS UK very kindly gifted me a place on that same training course so that I could complete this review. I was surprised how even 4 years later the course was extremely helpful leaving me with lots of ideas and practical things I can do. Most importantly both times it left me with confidence to support my children effectively.
PECS Level 1 Training
The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) is a picture based alternative communication method. It was developed to support autistic students with communication difficulties so fits perfectly for my two boys. As a parent I had not heard of PECS until it was recommended by our speech and language therapist. I really struggled with it at first because we only saw the speech therapist for 45 minutes a week in blocks of 6 weeks. I didn’t really know what I was doing or why. Attending the 2-day PECS Level 1 workshop gave me so much confidence in how and why I was implementing PECS. In this post I am going to share what is included in the course and how it works.
Contact in advance of the training
I booked my course back in January and opted for the November course as it was to be held in Bristol and both my boys would be in school then. The course went ahead although it was moved online due to the pandemic. It is really easy to book on the PECS UK website. Parents need to complete a form and select the location and time that suits you. As the courses are all currently online it should be easy to find a slot that suits you.
One week before my workshop I received a parcel with my delegate pack. They really have thought of everything you would need including a practise bag.
What was included in my delegate pack:
- PECS Manual
- Level 1 Training handout including all slides
- Set of 4 Stickers
- Communication book page with a small sentence strip
- Set of symbols / PECS cards
- Pack of crayons, bendy man and paperclip for practice
- Token board
The delegate pack came in a very handy PECS branded shopping bag that is now folded up in my handbag, always nice to get goodies I will get use out of. The practice bag included a standard communication book page and some picture symbols. Instructions and all the fasteners needed were included for me to easily put this together in 5 minutes.
The manual is incredibly detailed and something that I have regularly referred to over the past 4 years. It is great that it is included in the price of the workshop as this will definitely be something you need once you start using PECS. The pack also included a printed handout booklet.
The booklet includes all the slides used throughout the course and space for your notes. It is great that this is in a printed booklet as it is much easier to keep alongside your manual to refer back to later. This is something I found I did often when starting a new PECS phase.
It was nice to see the stickers included in the pack as I haven’t seen these before. Really helpful to be stuck on the back of a communication book for reference. I wish I had the 4-step error correction sticker on my book the first time round, such a helpful little reminder.
It had been intended as an in person course like the one I attended back in 2016. However due to Covid 19 the training is currently delivered via Zoom. Whilst you miss out on talking to other delegates at breaks and having lunch provided you don’t have to travel and actually as a parent it was much easier to attend this way and still be there for the kids before school.
My workshop was on a Thursday and Friday, on the Monday of that week I received a detailed email with all the joining instructions. It also included downloads of the slides and copies of items in the practise kit in case anyone hadn’t received their delegate pack. There was also detailed information on using Zoom and how the course would be conducted. I needed to complete a very short online registration form which then allowed the zoom links to be sent to me. Also included was details of how to join by phone if your internet connection went down. I had no questions about the course that they hadn’t covered and it was all received in good time before the workshop.
The Level 1 workshop is 13 hours in total. There are different course times available but most are 2-day workshops. Mine was on a Thursday and Friday in November with the day running from 9am-4.30pm. Weekend and evening sessions are also available. The session began at 8.30am giving everyone 30 minutes to join and ask any questions they have before the workshop began at 9am.
It is an intense workshop with lots of information to go though but the timing felt right to me, we had time for questions and to cover the most important points. There were two 15 minute breaks and a 30 minute lunch. They were very good at keeping to time.
I have been lucky enough to work with several different PECS consultants and I have always found them helpful, knowledgeable, friendly and professional. Grace Payne who delivered this workshop was no different.
Grace was great at introducing and explaining everything we needed to know. When we began she used interactive polls to ask us questions such as if we were parents or professionals, existing users or not etc. This meant she knew her audience and was able to tailor the content appropriately.
There were 30 attendees the majority of which were professionals such as speech therapists and teachers. There were only two of us there as parents however I found the content delivered suitable for me as a parent just as much as for the professionals. Grace was very good at highlighting anything that might be different for parents / professionals in a way that made it useful to all the attendees.
What was covered?
A large proportion of the first day covered what PECS is/ alternative communication and the Pyramid Approach to Education. I found this very helpful and good to understand the principals behind the approach. Over the day we looked at the importance of functional skills and understanding / using reinforcers.
The training covered several critical communication skills including –
- yes / no
- schedule following
These are all areas I have found challenging with my boys so very relevant for me to learn. The course went through various teaching strategies we can use to support these skills. One example being lets make a deal and how to use a token board effectively. It is so helpful to break these tasks down and teach step by step and be clear what we are teaching.
We also took some time looking at saying no and how to balance this when starting out with PECS and wanting to honour requests.
Throughout the workshop there is lots of speech and language tips and strategies to encourage independence. Looking at all these communication skills and approaches is so important for me to understand how I can best help my children learn to communicate effectively. It is so valuable to get practical strategies I can use daily.
The session also covers data analysis and collection with the importance of using an evidence base to make informed decisions. Throughout the workshop we saw video examples which we used to do some practice data collection. This was really helpful to see how easy it is to collect and use even for us at home.
The workshop looked at getting ready for PECS before going through each of the PECS phases.
Phase I – Requesting: The practise pack meant we were able to practise each phase we were learning. I found it really helpful looking at the importance of how prompting is used and phased out.
Phase II Distance and persistence – traveling with the PECS cards, it was helpful watching the videos and seeing this in action.
Phase III: picture discrimination – first we looked at phase IIA choosing between preferred and non preferred items.
In order to have some more practical time we had some smaller group time in breakout rooms to enable us to practice what we were learning. Grace would come round the groups and help make sure we all understood what we were doing and how to implement it. I have not used breakout rooms in zoom before but it worked really well and gave us a chance to interact with other attendees.
Phase IIIB : picture discrimination between choices that are all preferred items.
Phase IV Sentence Structure: Using the sentence strip and forming sentences.
Attributes to enable requesting of specific items and expanding vocabulary for example ‘I want blue bendy man’ rather than just ‘I want bendy man’.
Phase V Responsive Requesting: Answering ‘what do you want’ it was very helpful to look at how we use prompts here.
Phase VI Commenting: We were able to do some practice using Dear Zoo for this as a group.
At each stage troubleshooting was included and common issues were covered with how to respond. I wasn’t sure how much of the practical side would be lost with an online session but was pleasantly surprised how well it worked. Having all the items needed and ready to practice with me made it really easy to follow and engage.
Towards the end we discussed the evidence base for using PECS and transition to speech or Speech Generating Devices.
Grace made time to answer questions throughout the course and stayed behind at the end both days for anyone who wanted to ask personal queries.
At the end we were all directed to join the PECS user support group on Facebook for ongoing support. The group is moderated by consultants and I have found it a very helpful group. I also received my certificate of attendance the week after my workshop.
The first time I attended the PECS course I learnt so much about how to teach my son to communicate effectively. Attending again I was able to cement things like error correction, data collection, different types of lesson being taught and take away improved skills. Most importantly for me I also realised what I was doing wrong – over prompting which I’m sure many of us are guilty of. However having the reminder of the importance for independent skills and ensuring the user is going first really helped me to think about some bad habits I have fallen into.
The workshop is very well designed with a good range of media used throughout – slides with clear pictures, videos, interactive polls to recap, breakout rooms, comments and questions. It was a busy two days with lots of content but very well delivered and managed.
The only downfall was some of the video quality wasn’t great. Grace did her best and was happy to replay any that had slowed in the breaks and I understand this has improved for their latest course. However all in all everything worked very well and I certainly learnt a lot both times.
I have been on many training courses / workshops and the PECS UK training is by far one of the most professional training providers I have experienced. The course is not cheap but given the content and quality it is very good value. There is a reduced price for parents, see the PECS website for the latest prices.
I genuinely think this course is a must for anyone working with autistic children who have communication difficulties, including parents. Following the training I am no longer reliant on support from our speech therapist or teachers. I still need their experienced advice but day to day I have the confidence to support my children at home. As parents we spend the most time with our children and if we know and understand how best to support our kids it makes everything easier.
Have you been on the Level 1 training? What did you think?
If you are interested in attending you can book through the PECS UK website.