The Communications Portfolio

In this webcast, Susan DeCaluwe discusses the development of the Communication Portfolio for learners with deafblindness and multiple disabilities.

The Communication Portfolio is a tool that brings together visual images to demonstrate what a child can do, and how that child is communicating in daily activities. Susan DeCaluwe explores how the Personal Futures Planning process, as well as the use of biopoems, can be modified to help educational teams develop a clear understanding of a child who is new to his or her classroom. 

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Presented by Susan DeCaluwe

Length of time to complete: approximately 30 minutes

Download the audio format (.mp3)


  1. Introduction
  2. The Genesis of the Communications Portfolio
  3. Creating a Communications Portfolio
  4. Using the Communications Portfolio as a Teaching Tool
  5. How One Family Uses the Communications Portfolio
  6. How the Communications Portfolio is Evolving

CHAPTER 1: Introduction

INTRODUCTION: Many people are aware of the process of person-centered planning that was developed in the 1990s by Dr. Beth Mount. This process was developed as a tool to enable an adult service provider to get to know a student who was transitioning from school through a very personalized system of what is known as “mapping.”

Maps are most often used as a strategy for people with significant disabilities; people who often have difficulty expressing themselves with formal language. Depending on the situation, there are a variety of maps that are appropriate.

In this webcast, we will explore how the personal future’s planning process, as well as the use of biopoems, can be modified to help educational teams develop a clear understanding of a child who is entering their classroom. It is an approach that is very respectful of families and that captures information about the person that would likely be missed in a traditional assessment or progress report.

The Communications Portfolio with Susan Decaluwe. The term “communications portfolio,” while placing emphasis on the child’s communication, describes much more. It is a valuable tool to share a wealth of information in a very accessible and meaningful way.

DeCALUWE: A Communication Portfolio is a tool. And it is a tool to bring together visual images, whether photographs, video, in whatever form that demonstrates what a child can do, and how the child is communicating in every activity throughout the day.

NARRATOR: A portfolio-notebook titled “Samuel Lovering, Pre-K to three” has a photo of a young boy on its cover. Inside, information is provided in words and short phrases.

DeCALUWE: The value, I think, is the presentation of the child as themselves.

You know, “I am a person.”

“Here I am, I want you to meet me.”

“This is how I learn.”

It really puts the person — the child — first. It brings the child to the table. You come to the table with a portfolio, you see the child.


CHAPTER 2: The Genesis of the Communications Portfolio

DeCALUWE: One of the questions that I’ve always had was how to help teams get to know a child very quickly. I would go into a classroom, I’d work with a team, and they would listen, and we’re talking about communication, and how do you make that happen? And then they’d call and call.

And about March — so now we’re looking September to March — people would say “I get it. It’s working.”

NARRATOR: Photos show a child hugging an adult, then sitting in a wheelchair.

DeCALUWE: So they give all this feedback. Then you have from March until June, and then the child moves on to a new classroom, and then we start again. And they’re actually trying to get to know this child.

So the question was, “What is something that would help the child be known sooner?”


CHAPTER 3: Creating a Communications Portfolio

DeCALUWE: We asked seven questions of families and teams, and we also asked families and teams to create…to write a response on a tool called a biopoem.

NARRATOR: A poem begins: “Sam, who is chubby, Brother of Isaiah…”

DeCALUWE: A biopoem is a way to collect characteristics of the child very quickly. And we asked family members to complete them separate from one another or together, if they wanted to.

In photo, Sam holds small electric fans. We asked team members to complete them. And the biopoem, essentially, asks for the child’s name, where they live; but it asks questions…what are some characteristics?

NARRATOR: In photos, Sam holds small electric fans.

DeCALUWE: So the idea was, how do we collect that? How do we get photographs or videos that demonstrate these characteristics?

This is a biopoem about Samuel, and his mother wrote it. And so the initial characteristics: he is handsome, a big boy, he’s sweet, gentle and easy going.

He is the son of Stephanie, little brother of Isaiah. So who are his relatives? What does he love? He loves Elmo, Leapster, putting his hands in his mouth, being outside, listening to music, and playing with his toys. How does he feel? He feels happy, loving, and content.

What does he need? He needs routine, common language, patience, and cueing. That’s very powerful information for a team — “needs routines.” Okay, so if we’re planning for him educationally, let’s come together and say, “What are the vocabulary words that we’re going to use in different situations?”

NARRATOR: A chart in the portfolio lists specific recommendations for helping Sam.

DeCALUWE: What does he worry about? He worries about being startled and being around unknown people. What does he give? He gives hope and pleasure to all who meet him.

What do you think he would like to see? He would like easier access to places with his family.

NARRATOR: A photo shows Sam in a motorized wheelchar. A woman hands him a toy.

DeCALUWE: We ask the families, “If you had one goal that you could do this school year, what would it be?” So the parents would tell us.

FATHER: I want him to deal with his peers standing up as much as possible. Possibly learn how to walk. Those are my basic goals. Just want him to be as much a part of the community as possible.

DeCALUWE: Then we ask that same question of the team members.

“If you had only one goal you could do this year, what would it be?”

And then what we wanted to do was share this information between the teams and the family, because, again, you come in and we hear all these IEP goals and objectives and recommendations, but are we really focusing on what’s one thing?

A boy points to a photo. A friend signs to him. NARRATOR: A boy points to a photo. A friend signs to him.

DeCALUWE: How does your child communicate with you?

What are the ways that your child communicates with you?

And families tell us it was very interesting that a father, a mother, brothers, and sisters, would see the child communicating information in a different way, and that, again, helped us come to a common vision around how the child was communicating. And we did the same with the educational team.

One child had a younger brother, and when we brought the videotape home and we were showing what his brother did in school, and we had it on the videotape, he turned around and he said, “What’s that? Why is my brother doing that?”

NARRATOR: She waves her hands.

DeCALUWE: And we were really stunned. I mean, we were very stunned. And we said, “Well, your brother is using sign language to communicate.” His younger brother wanted to learn, and then he started to sign at home.

So that was one impact. Another question was, “What are places that your child loves to go, and where are places that your child has been?”

NARRATOR: A man helps a child swim in a pool.

DeCALUWE: In that situation, many of the families had taken their children on these trips that the educational team had no idea. There are places that children have gone that are very fearful — hospitalizations, doctors offices. So it was also gathering those pieces of information. What are all the places? With the dreams map, we ask the families to dream.

NARRATOR: A video shows teaching staff shopping for groceries with a student.

DeCALUWE: We ask families to dream for when their child would graduate from school.

Where would they be?

It’s interesting how families are afraid to dream. That sometimes, when we have evaluations that say, “Your child cannot do this. Your child cannot do that. Your child cannot do this,” some of the dreams are lost. And with this portfolio was going back to the idea of, “Well, help us dream for your child.”


CHAPTER 4: Using the Communications Portfolio as a Teaching Tool

DeCALUWE: In some of the portfolios there are some dots on different pages.

A portfolio shown a blue dot beside a photo of a student getting into his wheelchair. NARRATOR: In a portfolio there is a blue dot beside a photo of a student getting into his wheelchair. A green dot marks a page with a photo of a student reading.

DeCALUWE: The dots represented having team members — teacher of the visually impaired, a physical therapist, an occupational therapist, a speech therapist — go through and we just asked them to put a dot on the pages that helped them design activities for the student.

NARRATOR: A video shows kids participating in a classroom activity. One student uses sign language.

DeCALUWE: You can see in some of the photographs, you can actually see how materials are set up on a whiteboard with black print and the size that helps us say “Aha, this is what this child needs.”

Instead of trying to figure it out or interpret it from a piece of paper, you see it. So the video clips were ten seconds, a minute, but they were very short video clips of the child throughout their daily routine.

We had 20-minute videos of each of the students on the project, and through that, new team members sat down, they could see the video, and they go, “Oh, this is what all of this means. I don’t have to take this information, I don’t have to process this information and come up with a new idea.”

You actually see the child engaged in turn-taking activities with another adult, you see processing time, the latency it takes, people’s pause time, allowing the child to respond. So it’s a very powerful, powerful tool.


CHAPTER 5: How One Family Uses the Communications Portfolio

MOTHER: One of our biggest things was we really wanted both stay organized with ourselves as well as to keep others informed of what was going on with Alexis.

It definitely made sense. It wasn’t something that I initially thought to do, but it was something that, once I saw it, I said, “Yes, this is going to really make a big deal and a big difference in her life,” and also make it a lot easier for us, from the standpoint that we don’t have to repeat ourselves, we can just provide a document and an overview of Alexis, without having to start from the very beginning of time, and explain everything that she encountered and the problems that she was having. So definitely very important.

A photo of Alexis. NARRATOR: Alexis’ portfolio is very detailed, and includes photos and text.

MOTHER: She sees, I think, 15 or so different specialists at Children’s Hospital, and it was just really difficult keeping each one of them in tune to what was going on with the other ones.

The way I use the portfolio is, when meeting new people, usually try to get their email addresses, and I send it in advance. Even before they’ve met Alexis, even before I’ve talked to them on the phone, I send them this document.

It’s got a picture of her, it talks about every single doctor that she’s recently visited, and then it also talks about the strategies that we’re currently using.

NARRATOR: Alexis, a toddler with pigtails and pink glasses, plays with a toy. Her mom helps her walk.

MOTHER: It’s the organization of thought that says, “Who does she visit, What’s going on with her? What’s important in her life? What’s important for everyone to know about her?” And I really think that, like anything that you do that you document, that really, sitting down and writing it really forces you to think about what was important.

And you forget things, so if you don’t write it down, you’re not going to remember it. So you’re going to forget to tell someone that, “Hey, she had a high potassium level on this one day,” unless you write it down and can journal it.

And I really think that most people that see this — even the doctors at Children’s that watch Alexis grow from Complex Care Services, they look at it and go, “You’re in the top one percent as far as organization of doctors and analysis of what’s going on with Alexis.” But they also use, once I hand this to them every six months when they see them, they put it in her record.

They don’t recreate anything on our behalf. So I also know what they’re doing and how they’re using the data.

NARRATOR: Alexis dances with her mom, swaying from side to side.

MOTHER: It definitely gets them up to the level that we’re at, right?

And we’ve had Alexis for two-and-a-half years, we know her. We know her tricks. We know her strategies. And it really makes it so that we can walk in and start from that level.


CHAPTER 6: How the Communications Portfolio is Evolving

DeCALUWE: There’s all different ways of creating a book. They don’t have to be in the format that we have done. Just capture and write from the child’s voice.

Using blog to communicate. MOTHER: We’re now using a blog, and because our families are far away, and because our specialists, sometimes they see Alexis once a week, sometimes they don’t, you know? But none of them get to be everywhere.

We are everywhere. Alexis is everywhere.

NARRATOR: In a blog photo, Alexis smiles with her sister.

MOTHER: We started posting videos up to the blog, so you can see the videos of Alexis playing guitar at home with my husband, her dad.

NARRATOR: On the blog, a video shows Alexis, watching as her dad strums a guitar.

MOTHER: You can see her doing horse therapy for the first time, sitting atop this big, big horse, and here’s little Alexis.

A lot of the blog tools out there today are really easy to use and it’s easy to upload videos, share it with your friends, family, and everybody else around the world.

Anybody who’s able to write a diary is able to do this. It’s really not that difficult. It’s a concerted effort. It is time that you need to spend, but it pays itself back over and over again.

DeCALUWE: The value, I think, is the presentation of the child as themselves.

You know, “I am a person.”

“Here I am, I want you to meet me.”

“This is how I learn.”

I’ve heard families say, “It’s just my child. You tell me what to do.” And it needs to be the other way around.

We need to listen to families. They’ve watched their children from the time they were born. We need to hear the stories. If we can join forces with the family to create an educational program that will meet their child’s needs, I think that that’s what this whole process is about.

MOTHER: Yeah, hi. I like to hug you.

NARRATOR: Alexis and her mom share a big hug.

The Communication Portfolio with Susan Decaluwe.

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