Why tablet computers should be used to support children with SEN
In just a few short years the tablet computer has become a must-have gadget for many children. In the United Kingdom, over one-third of those aged from five to 15 now own their own tablet, and over six in ten children have access to a tablet at home (Ofcom, reported in The Guardian, October 2014).
Although not designed to be an educational tool, tablet computers are also being brought into the school environment in ever-increasing numbers. Educators at all levels are integrating these mobile devices into their teaching and are finding new and interesting ways to use them in their lessons. What role can these devices play in assisting pupils with SEN, though?
The use of tablet computers has a motivating effect on most students and this is no different for children with SEN. Tablet computers can be particularly engaging for children on the autistic spectrum. Indeed, a concern amongst some teachers is that they can become something of an obsession for learners with an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). This situation obviously requires careful management but when so many of the traditional forms of motivation tend not to be as effective with this group, it is very useful for teachers to have something that they can rely on as a motivator.
There are concerns that a novelty effect may be at play here and that the motivating impact of tablet computers will diminish over time. However, this might not necessarily be the case. Some schools have been using tablet computers for a number of years and students do not appear to be any less motivated by them now than when they first got their hands on the devices. Ultimately, the motivating effect is not created by the device itself but rather by the content created for it. This is a constantly evolving picture with exciting developments happening on a regular basis.
2: touch screens
Touch screens are proving to be a fantastic support to children with SEN. They allow some learners to interact with tablet devices much more effectively than they would be able to do with a desktop computer. The immediate feedback provided by the touch screens also helps to keep pupils engaged. Often, students with SEN will tend to lose interest in activities quicker than other pupils but the multi-sensory feedback provided by these devices helps to counter this. An increasing number of educational apps are also making use of the accelerometer built into most tablets. So not only can students see, hear and touch items on the screen, they can also interact with them by rotating and shaking their device.
3: individualised learning
The very nature of their difficulties means that children with SEN usually require individualised approaches to learning. Tablet computers offer a practical and convenient method of providing differentiation for learners. They also provide alternative ways of accessing and presenting knowledge, something that is vital for those students who struggle with more traditional methods. In addition to this, the best quality educational apps are responsive and automatically adapt the tasks to fit the learner’s ability level. This allows many students with SEN to work more independently of the teacher than would ordinarily be possible.
Tablet computers are proving to be invaluable devices in helping some children access the curriculum. Simple features such as the ability to quickly and easily enlarge the font and zoom in on pictures have made them an ideal companion for students with visual difficulties. Dyslexic learners can have text read to them and can utilise voice recognition capabilities rather than having to rely on typing or handwriting. However, one of the most transformative uses I have encountered is where tablet computers are enabling children with severe speech disorders or autism to communicate more effectively. The augmentative and alternative communication apps that make this possible are usually more expensive than most educational apps but compared to the bulky communication devices of the past, they are a fraction of the cost.
Another really appealing aspect of using tablet computers to support students with special needs is the way in which they can promote inclusivity and bring children with SEN closer to their classmates. There are a range of electronic and non-electronic devices that can be used to support children in school. Unfortunately, many of these have the effect of making the child stand out from their peers, but when the support is provided through a tablet computer the student is able to get the help they need in a far less obtrusive way.
Some schools have also been quite inventive in how they use tablet computers to promote inclusivity. For example, one school has introduced a helpdesk where students can come to get advice and support regarding their tablet device. The pupil in charge of this initiative is very knowledgeable about computers and is also on the autistic spectrum. Running the helpdesk is benefiting him in a couple of ways. It enables him to spend his lunch time doing something he enjoys rather than having to go out into the playground, which he dislikes. The role also helps him connect with his peers around a shared interest and helps to change their perceptions of what he can and cannot do.
Making tablets work at school
Tablet computers undoubtedly have the potential to enhance the learning experiences of children with SEN but there are many challenges that schools need to overcome. These include not only the practicalities of managing the devices but also the challenge of ensuring that their use is embed firmly within a sound pedagogical framework. One of the key components of this is investing in training for teachers. They need to understand the technology and what it can do for their learners with SEN and they need ongoing support to implement this successfully within the classroom.
Peter Maxwell is an educational psychologist, qualified teacher and father of three tech loving children. He runs a Facebook and Twitter page called Educational App Advice to help parents and teachers find appropriate educational apps: