How Special Needs and Technology Can Work Together


Finding the right tool for a special needs learner can take time. In the end, though, technology can be a great help. Here’s how.

By Lisa Lawmaster Hess

“There’s so much out there,” says Sally Hagarty, a RESNA-certified assistive technology specialist. “If a student seems to be underachieving—I know he knows more than he’s showing me—there’s got to be a way to demonstrate his knowledge.”

The tool that elicits that demonstration can come in many forms, from low-tech solutions such as pencil grips and slant boards to hardware like iPads and ergonomically correct keyboards, with myriad apps and software programs in between.

No matter how hard she practices, Julie can’t write neatly. Since she started working with the occupational therapist, her daily work has improved, but her stories and essays remain almost illegible. It’s clear that she wants to improve, but in the meantime, you can’t read her work, and both of you are becoming increasingly frustrated.

Manuel’s family moved to the United States last spring. Last year’s teacher described him as adorable but unable to speak or understand a word of English. His oral language skills have come a long way since those first days, but when you ask him to write anything, he smiles at you as though he doesn’t understand a word you said.

Alex is one of the chattiest students you’ve ever had in class, both in terms of conversation skills and class participation, but when it comes to written work, he produces nothing. You know he knows the material, but he can’t seem to provide any evidence of that.

Carly loves stories—telling them and writing them, that is. When it comes to reading, however, she won’t choose anything but a picture book. She says it’s because picture books remind her of movies, but one look at her reading test scores tells a different story. Carly may love telling stories, but she can’t decode them.

Dominic is on the autism spectrum. He does well in one-on-one lessons, but he struggles in small groups and sometimes shuts down completely during whole-class instruction. Last year’s teacher set up a schedule for him with built-in breaks and allowed him to use an iPad to play preloaded educational games. You’re not sure how to implement those breaks into your daily schedule, and you’re not convinced of the need for game playing during the school day.

Clearly each of these students has a roadblock to overcome on the journey to success. Could technology help?

“There’s so much out there,” says Sally Hagarty, a RESNA-certified assistive technology specialist. “If a student seems to be underachieving—I know he knows more than he’s showing me—there’s got to be a way to demonstrate his knowledge.”

The tool that elicits that demonstration can come in many forms, from low-tech solutions such as pencil grips and slant boards to hardware like iPads and ergonomically correct keyboards, with myriad apps and software programs in between.

But deciding whether or not to seek a technology-based solution can be challenging. Teachers worry not just about the student who’s struggling, but the rest of their class, as well.

Will these solutions take time away from other students? Should the whole class have access to the accommodations? How can interventions be integrated so the teacher can continue to provide instruction? Coming up with answers to these questions can help create a blueprint for solutions that work for everyone.

Low-tech strategies tend to be easily integrated into the existing classroom flow, making them a great place to start.

In Julie’s case, an occupational therapist might suggest a pencil grip or even specially shaded paper; a consultation with the ESL teacher might yield suggestions for simple strategies to help Manuel. Both Manuel and Alex might benefit from ways to create a first draft that relies more on ideas than written language skills (drawing, graphic organizers, mind maps), and Carly might enjoy audiobook sets that allow her to follow along in a companion book, exposing her to the grade-level text she can’t decode on her own.

These kinds of simple solutions can easily be used in small-group settings, stations, or even class-wide.

If you’re ready to dive more deeply into technology, take a look at the devices and software already at your fingertips.

Does your school issue Chromebooks or laptops to students? Are iPads available? If so, investigate the preloaded software to see if there’s something that can accomplish what you’re hoping for.

Chromebooks, for example, use the Google platform, which has many applications that can be used on Google-specific hardware as well as on PCs and Macs. Accessible to the whole class, these applications may provide not only an unobtrusive option, but also a useful tool for other students.

If preloaded programs don’t offer the fix you’re looking for, moving beyond the basics isn’t difficult. There’s an enormous amount of free software available for educators, and it’s generally available across platforms. In addition to the big guys like Google and Apple, many small companies offer specialized programs, and sometimes these can be even better.

“Small companies have amazing support,” says Hagarty. “You can call them up and they can direct you to webinars or walk you through any technical issues you might be having.”

Need to get more specific? Creating a plan can be as simple as answering a few (more) questions. Let’s walk through them, using the students we met at the beginning of the article.

What is the problem?

Julie: handwriting

Manuel: language

Alex: moving from verbal expression to written expression

Carly: decoding grade-level reading material

Dominic: managing his environment

What does the student need?

In every case, the goal is the same: to reduce frustration (for the student and the teacher) and make it possible for the student to complete work that enables the teacher to assess what the student knows—or doesn’t know. It’s simple, in that the plan should address the stated need, yet complex because the specifics will vary from child to child. Finding the right tool may take trial and error—and patience.

“It’s just a matter of what they can do and how they do it, what their strengths are, and what is hard for them,” says Hagarty. “Is there anything out there that can help them achieve their goals?”

What do you need?

Integrating new instructional tools takes time and patience; some are plug and play, while others have a learning curve for the teacher, too. Easing into the process and finding your resources (see sidebar) can make all the difference.

You might also need some reassurance that you’re doing the right thing. Does the child’s need require technological assistance? Initially it can be difficult to ascertain where assistance ends and enabling begins.

Let’s go back to Alex for a minute. From the example, it’s hard to know whether the issue is one of written expression or motivation. Or perhaps it’s both. Imagine spending the entire day struggling while being consistently evaluated on what you produce. Wouldn’t you give up?

In the end, nothing is lost by giving the child the benefit of the doubt. None of us would forbid a child with a broken ankle to use crutches; that kind of assistance is clearly necessary to address a visible medical need. Kids with learning issues are perhaps in greater need of our advocacy because their symptoms are, by contrast, more vague and less visible.

That’s what makes asking good questions up front so important. By engaging in a step-by-step process prior to implementing any plan, you’ll know that you’ve arrived at a course of action based on legitimate student needs—one that will give your students the opportunity to demonstrate what they really know.

If you can help Julie, Alex, and Miguel to get their ideas onto paper, it will be worth the time you invest in their plans. When Carly picks up something besides a picture book, confident that she can work out the words herself, or Dominic can verbalize the strategy he needs to manage his feelings, all that time with audiobooks and electronic breaks will be easy to justify.

Appropriate accommodations give children a step stool of sorts, taking them from where they are to where they need to be, while building both their confidence and their academic skills. Some kids need them temporarily until they can develop their own strategies. Others may need them for the long haul. Either way, creating a plan that works can put kids on the pathway to success, not just virtually, but in your classroom, as well.

Lisa Lawmaster Hess is an adjunct professor of psychology at York College of Pennsylvania and a former elementary school counselor.

Rate this post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *