Interactive technology can press all the right buttons in the SEN classroom, says Andrew Foyle
Technology is an essential part of everyday life for most of us. Whether it’s being used for business, pleasure or leisure, it saves us time, money and hassle. However, when it comes to technology and children, the tables turn and scepticism creeps in. The cynical among us question its value, blame it for the rise in childhood obesity and the perpetual shortening of childhood. Yet kids love it. In fact, they can’t get enough of their games consoles, MP3 players and online social networking. But do these games and gadgets have a role in the mainstream education process? Moreover, what role can technology play in the SEN classroom?
The use of technology can be very successful at motivating reluctant learners. In a classroom environment, technology (be it interactive toys, white boards or the use of specialist software) can go a long way in helping children to re-engage with the learning process. The use of digital video and animation is a good alternative for a child who struggles to put pen to paper to help them tell a story or describe a concept. It provides them with another medium for communicating their ideas. It works so well because it introduces an element of fun and requires the child to think about what they’re doing. We learn so much in life through doing things, rather than being told about them, and technology can help facilitate this process.
A similar concept applies to using resources in the SEN classroom, where highly motivational graphics, activities and games can encourage and reinforce word recognition. Interactive games, for example, can help children to understand that text carries meaning, encouraging them to hear, say and match words to pictures. They can even move the words around on screen which provides a multi-sensory experience.
Every child has a unique way of processing and digesting information. Traditional learning, through reading, writing and listening, doesn't suit all children who have different learning styles.
In the past, many children will have been unfairly categorised as under-achievers, simply because of the lack of understanding relating to the different ways that children learn. Interactive tools bridge this gap and enable teachers to provide children with teaching methods that match their individual learning styles.
Ultimately, the introduction of interactive toys, software and visual aids has improved learning outcomes for a large number of children, especially those who are visual learners or require an element of interactivity to keep their attention span, who were previously getting left behind.
Perhaps technology’s greatest achievement in an education setting has been the way in which it has opened up learning possibilities for children with special needs such as dyslexia and dyspraxia. It has contributed greatly to unlocking the learning potential of these children by offering them a teaching platform that works with, instead of against, their conditions and promotes inclusion in the classroom.
Technology also has a role to play in teaching children with SEN about dealing with their own and others’ emotions. One particular interactive game that springs to mind engages children in small groups and guides them through a series of discussions about emotions, which follow a story. The story highlights the emotions of each character and asks the children why they are acting the way that they are, and whether this is a good or bad thing. While a teacher reading from a book can play a similar role, the animation, music and ability to make choices sets this kind of digital game apart. What's more, it's easier and more fun for the children to engage around a visual and audio display.
On a very basic level, digital tools and games can help children express their mood and learn about the moods of others. One tool used in the SEN classroom allows children to depict themselves with an image, and next to the image they select one of a series of smiley faces, ranging from sad and angry to happy. This public expression of their mood helps both teachers and other children choose how to treat them and react to their behaviour. Again, this could theoretically be achieved with a set of stickers, but a digital tool also allows records to be kept, and gives teachers the ability to track trends; is a particular child always sad on a particular day? Has another child suddenly become very angry, and if so, what is causing this?
In terms of selecting products for the home, my advice to parents and carers is to look at areas that a child may be struggling with, such as reading or writing, and cross reference this with their typical learning styles. This is a good starting point to then draw up a list of technology products that can have a genuine benefit. Home versions of interactive technology-based products used in schools are available from most educational suppliers and are increasingly available. Talking to the SENCO at school can help parents find out about the games and tools which already work for their child.
Many technology sceptics would argue that interactive technology-based tools are no different than television when it comes to benefiting a child’s educational development. But learning styles differ tremendously for television and interactive games. Television, by its very nature, requires children to sit back and absorb programming, while interactive games are exactly that – interactive.
Technologies are designed to help rather than hinder progress; something as simple as a keyboard with oversized buttons or a key guard can help children access digital content that will inspire and delight them, as well as support their learning.
There are no fixed rules when it comes to the use of interactive toys and tools with children. It’s ultimately up to the parent or teacher to decide what mix is most appropriate for the individual child. As with a child’s nutritional intake, technology works best as part of a well-balanced learning diet. Typically, products that have been designed for school use will have the right balance of engagement, fun and learning.
Equally, computer games, whether in the classroom or living room, are a great mechanism for developing soft skills like logic and problem solving, and can even be used to help children learn about recognising and dealing with emotions. In groups, computer games can also encourage collaboration, teamwork and communication skills. It’s about striking the right balance. In moderation, computer games are fun and can play a valuable role in a child’s development, and this applies in the SEN classroom as much as it does in mainstream school.
Andrew Foyle is CEO of BLi Education:
Article first published in SEN Magazine issue 46: May/June 2010.