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SETT Reading and Resources

PART III: The SETT Framework

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Introduction: What is the SETT Framework?
How Was the SETT Framework developed?
The Student
The Environments
The Tasks
The Tools
Benefits of the SETT Framework
Supplemental reading list


. . . to understand something is to sense the simpler structure that underlies a range of instances. . .

—Jerome Bruner

Jerome Bruner's statement pretty much describes what I was aiming for in developing the SETT Framework. As I attended conferences and talked and worked with people in a variety of settings with students with differing abilities and disabilities, I found that when confronted with sound but different ideas many people discounted them with the statement, "Well, that's a good idea, but that wouldn't work with my kids! My kids are different than the ones you're talking about!"

SETT was my stab at Bruner's "simpler structure." From my perspective, it has usefulness in all situations where there is a desire to appropriately and accurately work through a process to determine a student's needs, and then identify technology that could address those needs in situations where the student could use technology to accomplish identified tasks.

I hope, as we continue our work together, that you also will find it applicable and widely useful. Keep in mind that SETT is a Framework, not a protocol or a procedure, and that in fact a number of protocols or procedures could be used in working through a SETT.

What Is the SETT Framework?
It is a guideline for gathering data in order to make effective assistive technology decisions. The SETT Framework first considers the Student, the Environments, and the Tasks required for active participation in the activities of the environment; and finally, the system of Tools needed for the student to address those tasks.

How Was the SETT Framework developed?

Like all of us, I've been concerned for years about the issue of device abandonment and under-utilization. Why is this such a prevalent phenomenon? As we have become more skillful in matching device features to the needs and abilities of potential users, why aren't we seeing the kinds of changes in communication, participation and productivity that we expect to see? Though changes for some individuals have been profound and life-altering, why, after more than 10 years of trying very hard, aren't we seeing the hoped-for systemic improvements?

As I pondered these questions both alone and with others interested in these issues from a personal and/or professional standpoint, a couple of insights began to emerge:

  • Even when the features of the devices were well matched to the needs and abilities of the users, the devices were not always environmentally useful for the system operator. Perhaps it was a question of portability. Perhaps nobody close to the user on a daily basis was able to adequately support him or her in using the system effectively. Perhaps the people around the user had mixed attitudes and expectations. There are any number of possibilities.
  • Often, the systems were not designed to support the person using the device to accomplish of tasks that were important to him or her. The thought comes to mind, "How much time and effort would any of us put toward using a tool that didn't fit the task or our environment in a useful, meaningful way?" The clear answer for most of us would be, "Not much!" It has become a red flag for me to hear someone say, "Oh, yes, he has what he needs, but he just uses it like a toy." I would certainly question how well the set of tools promotes meaningful power for the individual that he didn't have without the tools.

From those thoughts, the idea of a system of tools that match the person, the environments, and the tasks emerged.

The second challenge that fostered the development of the SETT Framework involved a colleague new to our group. In our roles at Region IV Education Service Center, we are regularly asked by our participating districts to make recommendations about what hardware and/or software is the "best" for them to purchase. This, of course, is not a readily answerable question without considerable additional exploration. Our new colleague, however, had not yet had the opportunity to learn this. He would often come to us and ask what he should tell the caller. Our consistent answer was, "It depends." Though we talked at length about what "it" depended upon, we weren't moving very quickly toward a common understanding of what the issues were and how to explore them. Patience grew thin on everyone's part: "This is not new stuff! People have been doing this work for years!" "OK, then-just tell me about it in language I can understand! Forget the jargon and help me know what to do!"

Then one day, in considerable frustration, I said, "Look-to get the best shot at putting together a system of tools, you need to explore the student, the environments in which the student is expected to use the tools, and the tasks that are an inherent part of communicating, participating, and being productive in those environments!" It was a big "Aha!" for all of us! He understood, and we realized how simple, yet complicated, all of this was! Later, when I was struggling to put all this stuff together in a new and memorable way, my persistent and thoughtful new colleague said, "Well, that part's easy at least! It's just SETT!" And so it is. Now, let's explore the parts!

The Student

  • What does the student need to do?
  • What are the student's special needs?
  • What are the student's current abilities?

When you look at these three questions you may realize that, in some cases, you already have reams of data that point toward the answers. The questions are intentionally broad so that they do not preclude any possible solutions at the outset. The answers, however, must be specifically identified for each individual student.

What does the student need to be able to do?
At this point, it is ok to be global. "Talk," "write," or "whatever" would be appropriate here, though it's fine to elaborate somewhat. Later, in the Tasks section, we will consider this question more deeply, as it would be useless to continue talking if we did not define "what we're talking about?" Mainly, we want to begin to establish consensus among group members about what is important for this student to be able to do.

What are the student's special needs?
Basically, this question is designed to generate conversation about the barriers that keep this student from doing whatever he or she needs to be able to do.

What are the student's current abilities?
Keep in mind that, no matter how great their needs, everybody has abilities! This question is frequently a big discussion producer and, in many circumstances, can be an area of conflict. People often have vastly differing perceptions of a student's abilities. Later in the process we will explore the differences between assumptions and observations, but for now it is important to get everyone's thoughts on the table in a way that avoids value judgments. That comes later! :)

The Environments

  • Arrangement
  • Support
  • Materials and Equipment
  • Attitudes

Keep in mind that "environment" really means multiple environments, as no student exists in only one environment. (Even the rare person who stays in one place all the time experiences a multitude of influences that can alter the environment-changes in the people setting up the environment are one example.) If we look only at the school environment, we must consider the profound environmental differences in the classroom at different hours of the day, as well as the playground, the cafeteria, the hallway, the bus stop, etc. In each environment, there are factors to consider.

What is the anticipated arrangement of the environment? Though discussion might include possible placement options, it should also include, when known, the setup. For instance, when thinking about a mobility system that must be used in a crowded hallway, a classroom with close-set rows of desks, a sand-and-grass-covered playground, and a bus with no lift system, it is important to consider each of these factors up front in order to come up with a functional mobility system. These environmental issues would not preclude power mobility or the like; rather, in order for power mobility to be functional in these environments, other parts of the system would be critical. Some examples would be identifying a lift system for the bus; getting some assistance for the teacher in altering the classroom space; training the student and others on how to manage crowded situations; and investigating possible scheduling alterations so that the student might avoid the halls at the most crowded times, at least at the beginning of using the system. These considerations should be a part of up front system selection; otherwise, the system will not meet expectations and will most likely be abandoned in favor of other workable-but perhaps less independent-strategies.

Are there people in the various environments who know how to support the student in using the system well and could invite the student to do so? How will these support people be identified? Will training be needed? If so, in what areas? Many of these answers will change, depending how the tools system is developed, but they must be identified now; as they can have a significant effect on both the cost and the use of a system.

Materials and equipment
What are the other students using? What materials and equipment are available that could be used by this student? If computers are available and may be an option for this student, what platforms (operating systems) are in use, and what software is currently available? What additional equipment is available that wouldn't require additional purchases?

This area, perhaps more than any other, is critical because attitudes have an incredible influence on the environment! Within the category of "attitudes" is "expectations." If I am the person responsible for developing environments where learning can take place, my attitudes and expectations have a great deal to do with what I include in these environments. For example, during the years that I was a first-grade teacher, it was my expectation that all of my students would acquire the skills needed to fully participate in adult society. They would be able to attend college and be productively and happily employed, doing whatever they chose. With that in mind, I set about providing an environment where the necessary skills -at the first-grade level-were readily addressed. Literacy was a primary focus, and the classroom setup and activities reflected this focus. Woven throughout everything else we did, literacy was taught and practiced all day long! It was never confined to one particular period of the day or one particular circumstance-it was far too important for that!

What if, however, there had been some reason to suspect that among my students were those for whom college and adult productivity appeared to be a long shot? Would I have worked as long and hard at developing literacy for those students, suspecting as I did that it was highly unlikely they would ever master the art of giving and receiving information in written form? Would I have taken the time and effort to provide a print-rich environment and drawn attention to its use at every possible moment? Though I would like to think that I would have, I know that it's highly unlikely. Chances are I would have selected more "meaningful" and "attainable" goals for students in this situation and given the development of literacy the backseat it appeared to deserve. Given my expectations, I would have failed to invite my students to develop literacy skills. Thus, whether they were capable of learning to read and write or not, they would not do so, as the opportunity for them to learn these skills would have not been sufficiently presented and acted upon! Scary, isn't it? Are attitudes and expectations important? You bet they are! But they are tough to deal with.

Consider the IEP meeting where Mrs. Jones finds out that John, a student with severe physical disabilities, will be in her classroom. Mrs. Jones is unprepared to deal with both her other students and John's special needs. She expresses her frustration and misgivings by protesting that John obviously does not belong in her classroom. She doesn't seem to realize that you will often be there to support her and John in the learning process. You realize that it is her fear and lack of understanding that is standing in the way! You address her directly, saying, "Mrs. Jones, certainly you have concerns, but it is your attitude that will get in the way of John's success in your classroom. This committee has decided that he will be in your class, so you will need to make some changes! I will give you all the help I can." Will this approach change Mrs. Jones' attitude? I think so. Consider this: Before you confronted her, she did not want John in her classroom. Now she doesn't want you either! And you were the one who was going to assist her in this venture! Attitudes and expectations! Areas rich with opportunities to invite growth, and yet fraught with the potential for disaster! Attitudinal differences must be recognized, but they must also be dealt with over time in ways that promote opportunities for growth by all parties so that students will have a chance to learn and grow.

The Tasks

  • What tasks occur in the student's natural environments that enable progress toward mastery of identified IEP goals?
  • What is everybody else doing?
  • What are the critical elements of the activities?

What activities occur in the student's natural environments that enable progress toward mastery of identified IEP goals?
What is actually happening here that will enable the student to move toward mastery of his or her goals? If the answer is "Nothing," then assistive technology will do nothing either. Assistive technology is simply a means toward participating in activities that build skills. Think back on my comments about attitudes and how my expectations as a first-grade teacher fostered the creation of an environment in which progress could be made. If there are no tasks that provide meaningful practice, mastery cannot possibly occur.

I have been in conversations with people who have said, "Nothing is really happening here. All we do is feed and change." Well, in that case there are two areas to be explored: (1) How might the environment be enriched for all students? and (2) How can the students be more actively communicative, participatory, and productive within the daily feeding and changing tasks? It's far better to have some control over the tasks of the environment than to just be "done unto!" The person with the opportunity to learn that he or she has some communicative power and personal responsibility within the environment-for example, using eye gaze to indicate a need to change position-has a far better chance of having some impact upon quality of life than the person without this opportunity.

What is everybody else doing?
Though there are often compelling reasons to move away from "what everybody else is doing," it is important to begin here. Keep in mind that participating in the same activities doesn't necessarily lead to the same results for all participants. For example, consider a fourth grader with significant mental retardation whose goals include categorizing, task completion, turn-taking, seeking help when needed, and grasping and releasing a variety of items. I can see little reason for having this student work in isolation on these tasks. In fact, in a one-on-one situation where the level of prompts would be significantly different than the natural prompts in more generalized settings, several of these goals could only be artificially addressed. Wouldn't working with fellow fourth graders on an earth science lesson involving classifying, sorting, and charting various kinds of rocks and how they are formed address most of these goals? The actual items that would be monitored and measured for mastery would be different, but the task would be just about what "everybody else is doing." Move away from "what everybody else is doing" when necessary, but first be sure that it is really necessary.

What are the critical elements of the activities?
Please think back to the Calculator and Jorgensen article on best practices. As we look at the activities in various environments, it is essential to remember that activities (Tasks) do not require isolated skills, but rather clusters of skills that must be used together in order to participate. Can you think of any activity in which you participate that requires skills in only one area (motor, social/emotional, communication, or cognitive)? I think it would be difficult, or impossible, to do so! With that in mind, we will look at activities knowing that there may be modifications that can increase participation for students with disabilities while not really changing the critical elements of the activity for any participant.

As an example, let's consider an important game that is often played in preschool and early elementary classes: Musical Chairs. If you are like most people, when asked to quickly name two things that are critical elements in the game of Musical Chairs, you would say "music" and "chairs."

Well, in a classroom I once frequented, there was a student in a power wheelchair whose goals included learning to safely manipulate the wheelchair in crowded situations. The teacher modified the game by removing chairs and placing mats on the floor. Other than that there were no changes made, and everyone played as before, with one exception, the student in the wheelchair played right along with everyone else! A modification was made but, since it didn't prohibit or significantly change the action of all of the students, it would be safe to say that "chairs" are not a critical element of Musical Chairs!

A bit later in the year, a student who was deaf enrolled in the class. In order to include this student in games of Musical Chairs, an inexpensive light was purchased at a nearby electrical supply store. When the tape recorder used to play the music was turned "on," the light began to flash and continued flashing as long as the tape recorder was in the "on" position. Thus, the student who was unable to hear the music was able to fully participate in the activity. Once, inadvertently, the tape wasn't put into the recorder at the start of the session. The "on" button was pushed, but there was no music; however, the light began to flash. Can you guess what happened? Right! all of the students began to march around the mats as the game began right on cue! So again, we find that "music," something that would appear at first glance to be a critical element of Musical Chairs, really isn't after all.

So, what are the two critical elements of Musical Chairs? First, there have to places to "light" (as in "get upon"), and there has to be one less place than there are participants. Second, there has to be a signal whose presence indicates that it is time to start and whose absence indicates that it is time to stop. And that's it! This analysis, though aimed at something quite simple, gives us a lot more opportunity for problem addressing and problem solving than if we had just taken a brief at the critical elements and drawn what we now see are inaccurate conclusions!

This discussion should not lead any of us to believe that identifying critical elements applies only to the games. During this workshop, we will take some time to explore the critical elements of writing a term paper and how they might be negotiated to enable meaningful participation and productivity by a student with severe dysgraphia.

As we look at identifying and analyzing tasks, we must remember George Karlan's ideas on activities that he identified in his work with environmental communication teaching. Chiefly: most tasks contain a multitude of steps. Once the steps have been identified, as anyone would do them, we can begin to look at which elements of the tasks would be difficult or impossible for our student to do without significant assistance. Then, we can begin to develop a system of tools that address those elements. As to the other parts of the activities . . . at the risk of being trite, "If it ain't broke," . . .—well, you know the rest!

The Tools

  • Tools are both devices and services.
  • What system of tools does this student need to perform these tasks in these environments?
  • What strategies might be used to invite increased student performance?
  • How might these tools be tried out in "natural" environments?

At last we arrive at where most people want to begin! However, I think that it's quite likely that our thoughts about tools have changed from what they were at the beginning. What a difference, to begin seeking tools with a clear idea of who is going to use them, where, and for what!

Tools are both devices and services.
Remember that tools are not just "things!" They can be no-tech strategies as well as low- and high-tech devices and supports. They are systems designed to include everything needed for a student to move forward on tasks in customary environments. More often than we would like to think, even when training has been provided, for want of an extension cord, a laptop computer fails to meet expectations. In a well-thought-out system, the extension cord would have been included!

What system of tools does this student need to perform these tasks in these environments?
In other words, what no-tech, low-tech, and high-tech options should be considered when developing a system for a student with these needs and abilities? To me, this is the critical question of the SETT Framework. What we have been doing to this point is just finding out what we need to know in order to begin to answer this question!

It's rather funny, but if you'll recall the "hardware store" story from the SETT article, you'll see that what we have to be led to do as we consider assistive technology comes quite naturally for all of us in a common hardware store! Ironic, isn't it? We've known it all along!

What strategies might be used to invite increased student performance?
Without strategies that invite students to see themselves as capable and able to use tools for purposes important to them, tools have little positive effect, unless just having the tools is some sort of achievement or status symbol! I have many such tools around me as I sit here and work; unfortunately, they do little to maintain or improve my performance, as they were not acquired with that in mind. I just wanted them. There is nothing wrong with that, if that's how I want to spend my money, but it has little if anything to do with what is required for me to make progress in my work (my identified tasks!).

How might these tools be tried out with the student in the "natural" environments in which they will be used?
Whenever possible, before tools are purchased students should try them out by doing naturally occurring tasks in customary environments. In order to be useful, the tool system must be student centered, task focused, and appropriate for the environment.

There are increasingly varied resources for trying out tools, including rental programs through a manufacturer; loans from a district's tool library; or short-term loans from centralized sources such as Regional Service Centers, Intermediate Units, or any number of private sources.

Benefits of the SETT Framework

  • Provides a process
  • Promotes a collaboration
  • Honors all perspectives
  • Uses common language
  • Unites assessment and intervention
  • Assists in justification of a decision

I used to say that the SETT Framework was a simple instrument for considering and establishing the need (or lack of need) for assistive technology, and then developing a system of tools to help meet that need. A treasured colleague takes me to task whenever I say this, as she does not consider it simple! I agree in part. It is simple in that everyone can participate, whether a beginner or an "expert" in assistive technology. (Are there really any such experts? I daresay that most of us would be appalled if others considered us so!) It would require expertise in all four of the SETT areas, and no single person could manage that! However, SETT is not simplistic! It takes time and effort to determine, organize, analyze, revise, and act upon data obtained while completing the SETT Framework. But, it is my experience that time will be spent, either by working collaboratively through ongoing processes that guide our thoughts, value all perspectives, and align our purposes, activities, and expected results, or by doing things over and over in the hope that the next attempt will be the "right" one!

As we think about developing assistive technology tool systems, I would like us to reflect on the words of Stephen Covey: "You must begin with the end firmly in mind." For me, seeking solutions with the SETT Framework as a guide makes it impossible to do otherwise! The link between assessment and intervention is clear and strong, as tool systems are developed that enable the student, the center of our collective efforts, to work on the identified tasks in a natural environment! What more could we ask?

Supplemental reading

Calculator and Jorgensen, Integrating AAC Instruction into Regular Education Settings

Karlan, G., Environmental Communication Teaching

Zabala, J. The SETT Framework: Critical Areas to Consider When Making Informed Assistive Technology Decisions

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This material was developed by the National Center to Improve Practice (NCIP), located at Education Development Center, Inc. in Newton, Massachusetts.  NCIP was funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs from October 1, 1992 - September 30, 1998, Grant #H180N20013.  Permission is granted to copy and disseminate this information.  If you do so, please cite NCIP.   Contents do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by NCIP, EDC, or the U.S. Government.  This site was last updated in September 1998.

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