How to Level the Field for Students with Special Needs

A mother and teacher’s story about how using technology at home and in the classroom gives kids with special needs a better chance at success

Shannon Treichel
Jan 28, 2019 · 7 min read
Delaney — photo by Shawn Gritzmacher

“Your daughter has autism.” The moment I heard those words will be seared in my brain forever. I will never forget the way I felt the day she got her diagnosis just before her fourth birthday in 2011. I felt like someone had kicked me in the stomach and I didn’t know if I’d ever catch my breath. On the other hand, I also felt a deep sense of relief. Finally, someone was giving us answers to what was going on with our little girl. I was crying even before the doctor came into the room. I knew if the developmental pediatrician told me Delaney had autism, I would be devastated. But if the doctor told us she didn’t know what the problem was and planned to send us to yet another specialist I didn’t know where else we could turn for help. Her speech was delayed. Her sensory issues were so bad that she would vomit when we tried to put shoes on her. She had low muscle tone. She wasn’t eating well. She would often stare off into space like she was having seizures. We had already seen every kind of specialist in the Twin Cities; pediatricians, endocrinologists, neurologists, gastroenterologists, occupational therapists and speech therapists. They all said the same thing. Something is “off” with her but we aren’t sure what it is. She seems “too social” to have autism.

After the diagnosis, I cried for days as I mourned the life I had imagined for our third child. I got shingles due to the stress of not knowing how to help my little girl. I let myself grieve, but then my mama bear instinct kicked in and I was ready to fight. I needed to find every resource available to give her best life possible.

She has made great strides due to her tenacious attitude, amazing teachers and therapists, and many interventions including hippotherapy, music therapy, adaptive swimming, dance, and technology. Yes, technology. There are days we wouldn’t have survived without her iPad and Chromebook. Sometimes it is to simply give us (and her) a break as she zones out on YouTube videos of kids opening toys. (I know we contributed to Ryan’s Toy Review $11 million last year.) Those tech tools were also crucial for creating social stories to explain things like going to the dentist and for using apps to teach her about emotions. I became a self-made expert on finding technology to help our daughter. As a teacher, I was noticing many of these things would also help my students in my classroom.

How does technology help level the playing field for kids with special needs, both at home and at school? I recently asked this question on a special needs parent Facebook group and the responses quickly flooded my inbox. Parents want opportunities for their kids to “show what they know” and to overcome barriers that may be hindering learning. Often times technology is the answer to those problems.

Several parents raved about different communication devices including Dynovox, Accent 800, NovaChat, and Proloquo2Go that help their children communicate. Parents are also using timers for transitions and schedules along with the Octopus watch to help make kids more independent. They use video apps to participate in making stories without writing, apps like Pictello for creating social stories, and a phone simulation app to teach phone numbers. Other favorites are MarcoPolo’s apps to teach about weather, Signing Times streaming service and app to teach sign language, Sago Mini to help with playing skills and interaction, and Toca Boca games for imagination. Families are using websites like ABCYa for emotional regulation and Outschool to allow for social interaction for a child who has extreme anxiety and can participate from home with kids her own age in a virtual classroom. One parent mentioned how watching PBS Kids on an iPad has helped her daughter learn how to script which has helped her with learning to speak. “It’s not as intense as private therapy since the human element is eliminated.” Scripts are short narratives that help prepare kids with autism and others in need for social situations like riding the bus, interacting with peers, and ordering food in a restaurant. These interventions provide structure and routine to situations that could cause anxiety or stress.

“It’s unbelievable what they can show us if they’re given the right resources and the opportunity.”

Katie Claire West is a parent to a nine-year-old girl in second grade. Technology has drastically improved her non-verbal daughter’s life. “We took physically writing out of my daughter’s IEP completely! She has poor fine motor skills and it was totally holding her back.” Katie’s daughter couldn’t master holding a pencil, much less learn how to write with one. “She uses a NovaChat to communicate, but she also has a touchscreen Chromebook that she uses for educational purposes. Give her the Chromebook instead of the pencil…and BAM! She knows almost all her lower and uppercase letters and can sequence her numbers to 10. We had NO idea until we gave her the technology to show us! ‘Writing’ was such a burden and hindering her progression. She’s great with technology and it excites her. She can type to identify her letters and numbers and it’s awesome!”

Many parents are working hard with their kids at home and then sending them to school only to be frustrated with the services they receive. One parent told me, “Our school has no knowledge of devices or applications. I beat my head against the wall trying to help. We have small windows to learn and I want to do it right first.”

What can we do as teachers to use technology in a positive way to empower students with special needs? The national average of students receiving special education hovers around 13%. That means in a typical class a teacher could have four or more students on IEPs. Before the IDEA act in the mid-’70s students with disabilities were often not serviced at all in schools or they were segregated into separate classrooms. Now that they are in our classrooms, are we using the available tools to help these students?

As we know, technology use can be a motivating factor for students. Moreover, students will be more engaged when the curriculum is delivered at an appropriate level. Technology is a powerful tool for authentic differentiation. Special education students feel more successful when they are using the same technology as their classmates. The best part is that most of these strategies and tools aren’t just good for students with special needs. They help everyone! Here are some of my favorite tools I use in my mainstream high school classroom.

  • Google Classroom — Allows teachers to privately differentiate lessons
  • Google Keep — Organizes with “to-do” lists and notes
  • Pear Deck — Gives students an “anonymous” way to answer and an easier way to take notes instead of having to look up at the front screen
  • Quizizz — This fun game gives students multiple chances to master the material
  • EdPuzzle — Students can watch a video as many times as needed and get immediate feedback on their responses
  • Flipgrid — Gives students another way to show what they have learned
  • HyperDocs — Allows for student choice and lets them work at their own pace
Delaney with her new iPad on Christmas

Of course, there needs to be a balance. Technology isn’t the answer to everything and it can definitely be overused and abused. My daughter would be content sitting in her favorite corner of our living room watching YouTube all day long if I let her. Recently we were playing with her toys and she told me to “leave a comment in the space below.” But there are so many good technology opportunities available we can’t let them slip by. It is also our job as parents and teachers to teach them how to use technology safely.

How can parents and teachers learn about what technology is available to help their kids? It can take some work and time. As we know, parents of special needs kids and teachers are some of the busiest people on the planet. We can join special needs groups on Facebook and ask questions. We can follow blogs and experts like Richard Byrne @rmbyrne on Twitter who share quick tech tips. We need to work together and share these amazing resources as we find them. Our kids deserve it. Delaney deserves it. I challenge you to think about a specific student in your life and commit to applying one or more idea from this article in the coming weeks. As Katie Claire West said, “It’s unbelievable what they can show us if they’re given the right resources and the opportunity.”

How are you using technology to help children with special needs? Let us know on Facebook and Twitter! Don’t forget to follow along at #innovate624!

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