The Bridge School

Communicative Competence

Psychosocial Factors

In addition to four core domains, communicative competence includes several key psychosocial factors that impact the attainment of skills (Light, 2003). Motivation, attitude, confidence and resilience influence the development of communicative competence. Aspects of each of these are also addressed in the Bridge School Self-Determination Program.


Light (2003) and others have demonstrated that the interactions that occur between natural speakers and people who use AAC differ from those that take place between speaking partners. Communication using AAC can be challenging in many different ways and imposes demands on the physical, cognitive, sensory and language abilities of both students and their communication partners. These factors might influence a student’s motivation, or drive to communicate with others during daily interactions. Among the factors that may influence motivation are:

  • The demands of AAC systems and strategies on students. Communication using AAC techniques and technologies can be challenging and often imposes physical, cognitive, sensory and language demands on students.
  • The demands of AAC systems and strategies on communication partners. Significant demands can be imposed on partners of students who use AAC. These include the slow rate of message transfer as well as differences in the “flow” of conversations.
  • Environmental demands. Different environments offer different inherent supports to interactions.
  • Encouragement from family and friends can bolster a student’s motivation to communicate and the absence of this encouragement may impact motivation.

One or more of these factors may influence students who use AAC to elect to avoid or forego communication opportunities. However, when motivation is high, students are likely to engage in more interactions, learn new communication skills, and remain motivated.


Attitudes toward AAC systems are likely to impact the attainment of communicative competence. This includes both the student’s attitude as well as the attitudes of family members, peers and teachers. Promoting a positive attitude towards AAC systems is an important aspect of supporting communicative competence and increasing motivation. Incorporating students’ personal preferences in AAC system design (e.g., layout, colors, organization, symbol selection, etc.) supports positive attitude and motivation.


Self-confidence means confidence in oneself and in one’s powers and abilities. Students without confidence may be less willing to try new and unfamiliar communication techniques, especially those that appear challenging. Bridge School teachers and other staff strive to instill confidence in all students by supporting their successful participation in a wide variety of situations and with many different communication partners. Students who are motivated and have a positive attitude are likely to practice more. Practice builds competence and confidence.


Resilience involves the willingness to keep going despite experiencing temporary setbacks and/or communication breakdowns. Our students learn a wide range of skills and learn how to apply these skills across environments, with different communication partners and for different purposes. Our students learn to expect they may encounter communication breakdowns and fail to communicate with some people. A student who demonstrates resilience in the face of these challenges learns from them and can achieve communicative competence despite adversity.

Barriers in the Environment

Various factors in a student’s environment can impact communicative competence. Some barriers can limit or restrict participation, denying or delaying access to communication tools and services. Another barrier some students face is reduced expectations (Beukelman & Mirenda, 2013). At Bridge School we help students learn to identify and anticipate barriers, as well as the supports they can use to help overcome them. We also strive to advocate for the rights of students with disabilities.

Opportunity Barriers

Opportunity barriers may include policies and practices that negatively impact student participation, inhibit inclusion of students with complex communication needs in appropriate educational settings or limit student access to communication interventions and technologies.

  • Policy barriers. Written rules or regulations of an organization that may exclude students who use AAC, limit or restrict their participation or deny or delay them access to necessary communication tools and services.
  • Practice barriers. Behaviors and practices employed with students that create barriers to inclusion, as well as access to curricula, assistive technologies, equal opportunities, peer interactions, etc. These sometimes occur despite existing policies, rules and regulations.
  • Knowledge barriers. Inability of staff to support the language and communication skills of students who use AAC because of a lack of knowledge regarding best practices in AAC assessment and intervention (Beukelman & Mirenda, 2013).
  • Skill barriers. Limited skills of teachers and service providers to deploy AAC interventions that result in gains for the student.
  • Attitude barriers. Attitudes of teachers and providers that negatively impact a student who uses AAC by limiting communication opportunities or denying or limiting their participation altogether.

At the Bridge School, our inter-professional teams work closely with families and other stakeholders to raise awareness of potential barriers that can impede the development of communicative competence in our students. Taking action to mitigate the effects of environmental barriers lessens negative effects and is key to student success.