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7 Ways to Manage Devices with Special Needs Learners


Assistive technology (AT) has been proven to assist students with additional learning needs to increase or improve their ability to learn and communicate with the outside world. In a digital sense this may take the form of an iPad, laptop, tablet or Chromebook. One of the common problems faced by teachers is that some students enjoyment can overflow into a fixation or perseverance for long periods of time.

A fixation can be defined as an “obsessive interest in someone or something.” Sometimes children with special needs are known to have these intense special interests as a means of self-soothing, overcoming anxiety or escaping the challenge of their disability or the world around them. 

So what makes a digital device so attractive to our Special Needs (and neurotypical) learners?

  • It's visual. When your primary method of understanding the world is through pictures then you can see how the screen motivates children to stay glued to the screen. Often attractive sounds go with the visual images and these are repeated on a loop to make it easier to predict what will happen next in a sequence of events within the game or app.
  • Success and control. Often students with special needs have limited learner confidence or high levels of anxiety. Many apps and programs are designed for ease of access with rewards such as flashing stars and pleasant sounds that provide a quick dopamine hit for learners. When success arrives quickly, learning behaviours become embedded in a pattern of practise and reward which establishes a sense of success over short periods of time. If your world consists of little opportunities for success then a fixed interest may develop more quickly than other more challenging learning situations that require greater interaction with others or more difficult fine-motor skills for example.
  • In a world where communication is difficult, for many Special Needs learners, interactive games provide an easy platform for communicating with the outside world. They are able to use games and apps to express their joy, persistence and a sense of purpose that is non-confrontational, predictable, and self-led. This in turn improves motivation and reinforces sustained attention and effort.

Once a perseverance has become entrenched it can be stressful for parents or teachers to try and change it, and very often extreme behavior in the form of crying fits, violent behaviour and tantrums may result.

Tips that may be helpful:

  1. Prevention is better than the cure. Examine the existing patterns of use. Has it been unconsciously set up as a tool for rewarding other learning behaviours? Is it used as a tool for timeout? While this is not always a bad thing for those that struggle to self-soothe or regulate emotions, it’s important to be aware before you introduce any new device or app, of the context or sequence of learning events you are providing for the child. If a device is always used at the end of a challenging or difficult situation, or as a means of giving yourself timeout, the student will come to see it as an escape tool from people and situations that are difficult or challenging. To avoid this, examine where in the routine of learning the device is used. Try changing the timing of when students have access. Always pre-warn them of what and how long for they will be able to use their device. Of course, if you don’t stick to your agreed times and are not consistent with what you said you would do, you’ll be sending the clear message that you don’t hold the boundaries with your student or child.
  2. Time limits. With most devices there exists a guided access tool that allows any application to have time limits set up before the activity is started. On an iPad you’ll find this in settings. These are great because they immobilize the device and will not operate until a pin number opens up access again. I’ve found this reduces the number of accusing stares we often receive for holding the boundary line with device use. When the device isn’t “working” it is often more quickly handed over.
  3. Distract. When timings and boundaries are applied with consistency its important to supply a healthy range of other reward based activities. Some of these may also turn into fixations! But if the right ones are chosen, they can help benefit a child’s sense of focus and provide healthy ways to self-soothe that may last a lifetime as a positive habit. Examples of this would include existing items of interest. If your child loves play-based activities with dinosaurs, spiderman figurines or anything that encourages play, this is highly recommended. As students get older and physical awareness develops, being able to introduce calming and breathing exercises is one of the most invaluable life skills we could bestow upon those we care about as a tool for managing their learning and lives. Other distractions could include fidget toys, squish balls, and other sensory-based toys that lower stress levels. Remember that crying and all forms of emotion is just another way to release tension when feeling overwhelmed. 
  4. Praise. Praise the behaviour you want to see and integrate the examples of preferred behaviour into your dialogue with them. “I’m really impressed with how you stopped using the iPad when I asked you to. It shows me how grown-up you are.” While this may initially sound contrived or unnatural, the more you practice talking about the behaviours you want to see with your child, I promise you, you’ll start to see more of what you want. Threatening or setting up fear-based dialogue does nothing for your relationship with them in the future, nor does it build trust. Holding the line and social commenting on the positive behaviours are always a more preferred way of dealing with unwanted patterns of use.
  5. Remember that you are their greatest role model. So what device use do we model to our children/students the majority of the time? Is your mobile phone a source of escape from conflict or difficulty? Do we turn to it when we need down time? For most of us if we are being honest, the answer is probably yes to several of these questions. So before we remove something that brings a sense of success and joy to a child’s life, perhaps we could consider what life would be like without our mobile phones for a day, or even a week. 

Finally, only you know your student and/or child. Watch their patterns of use or overuse over a period of time and think before introducing any new digital tool or device into their world. Ask yourself whether this is causing learning or causing a habit that will be difficult to change. Remember that being the adult in this situation means knowing how to set boundaries that are fair and reasonable and sticking to them. Digital learning in any form can open up so many wonderful learning possibilities for all children, including those with special needs. In order to balance these new skills within a diverse learning program we need to keep checking whether they will grow and foster a child’s sense of wonder and independence or demolish it. After all, the skills they develop today should ultimately serve them as adults tomorrow.

Share: https://www.tts.co.nz/blog/Blog39/7-Ways-to-Manage-Devices-with-Special-Needs-Learners


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