Motivating Students with (and without) Disabilities to Use Technology in the Classroom
Using technology (whether it be a computer, an iPad or an app on a cell phone) is something that seems to be inherently exciting for children. What’s not to love? At school, learning software quickly becomes addicting – children beg to read books on MyOn, and eagerly await the time to solve math puzzles on their laptops with ST Math. Frequently, behavior management (albeit in a different manner) becomes easier. Adding computer-based reading and math software to a child’s academic schedule is most often a win-win for teachers and children.
But what happens when you have a child with a disability or learning disorder that impacts their ability to effectively use computer-based software? How do you keep children engaged with software that you know is beneficial to their learning, when they have difficulty sitting still and focused on what they are doing? Part of the question is answered in selecting programs that are appropriate and are more engaging these students – but what happens when you’ve already invested time and money in software and your children aren’t responding?
Reinforcement of On-Task Behavior: A Case Study
Our school recently purchased multiple licenses for Fast ForWord, reading software that purports that its regular use will develop listening accuracy and phonological awareness in elementary-aged children reading below grade level. According to its site and conversations with representatives at SciLearn, the program uses techniques that impact brain plasticity and are especially beneficial to children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). There is even anecdotal evidence, highlighted on the homepage, discussing a child with ADHD who was dismissed from special education after using the program.
With all of the reports highlighting the potential benefits of Fast ForWord, I was eager to try it out with my children – particularly those with ADHD. In our trial of the program, I chose a variety of children reading moderately to significantly below grade level (as measured by performance on standardized assessments of reading). Of the 5 children enrolled, 3 were identified as receiving special education services. Of those three, 2 were identified with ADHD as the primary disability. 3 students were first-graders, 1 a second-grader and the last a third-grader.
As we dove deeper into the trial, it quickly became evident that some children were easily motivated by the exercises in Fast ForWord – some even squealing with delight as their points amassed. Some, and in particular one of the two children with ADHD, appeared distracted and bored. I knew that I needed to find a way to motivate these children in a way that precluded me sitting behind them and verbally pressuring them to stay on-task (a completely unsustainable and undesirable option).
For the group that included both of the first-graders with ADHD, I developed a way to reinforce on-task behavior using visual trackers of student progress. I printed and displayed “point trackers” from the SciLearn website (see picture). Each day, after students completed allotted exercises, I helped them write their point totals onto the tracker. With the idea that the more on-task students are the more points they earn in my mind, I gave students stars for point totals higher than 30*. Stars were placed directly on the tracker and on an index card hanging next to the tracker. I set an achievable goal for the week – 9 stars – and told students that if they earned that total, they would each be able to choose two prizes from my “treasure box”(quite literally a box that I painted to look like a pirate’s chest, with small goodies – stickers, erasers, quirky erasers – inside). Both of the children in this “treasure box” test group immediately verbalized excitement about getting a chance to earn prizes for their on-task behavior. After three weeks of implementation, the child most significantly impacted by ADHD increased her daily point totals from 38 points in January to 183 points in April. More importantly (for her and for me), the amount of times I had to verbally prompt her to get “on-task” greatly reduced.
At around the same time I began the treasure-box intervention with my two first-graders, I began to notice that my third-grader, a girl reading significantly below grade level who is of above average cognitive ability (as measured by standardized tests of intelligence) was beginning to articulate self-deprecating statements about her reading ability – and basically just seemed depressed. To keep her encouraged and motivated to keep working, I set a lofty point total that she needed to reach on the program (20,000 points). When she meets that goal, she and I will have a special lunch where we’ll read a book together…which is something that is greatly motivating her to keep pushing through the challenging exercises.
While my results aren’t scientific, they offer ways to encourage desired behaviors and effective performance with computer-based interventions – and inspire me to continue to test ways to help my students be independent users of technology in the classroom.
What I Learned
Now that I’ve experimented with a variety of reinforcement strategies with my Fast ForWord test group, I’ve learned valuable lessons. If I were to start the Fast ForWord intervention over with a new group, there are three things that I would do before beginning: find a good way to track student progress, understand that goals and incentives are okay (and should be available from the start) and ensure that the program I’m using is truly appropriate for the population of students I’m using it with.
- Find a good way to track student progress – and help students become able to track their own progress. Using the point tracker gives students a quick way to see how many points they are earning (and whether they are earning as many points in each exercise as they are able to). Self-tracking creates responsibility and accountability. Visual trackers (i.e., graphs) are even better, because it is so easy to see trends in performance when its laid out for you in an easy-to-interpret format.
- Goals and incentives are okay – and should be available from the start! When I started the program, I expected it to be naturally reinforcing for the students – after all, it is on the computer, and my kids LOVE the computer! However, I realized that there were a variety of challenges my students were facing with the program – ranging from the difficulty of some of the exercises to battles with self-confidence. Likewise, a variety of reinforcers are acceptable – some kids are motivated by treasures in treasure boxes, while some are motivated by opportunities to spend time with adults. It depends on the kid. Reinforcing hard work with rewards, like the treasure box and the special lunches, gave something for the kids to work toward, and produced visible increases in performance.
- Ensure that the intervention is truly appropriate for the population of students you are using it with. Is Fast ForWord the best program to use with children with severe symptoms of ADHD? I’m not sure, but time spent testing the program before purchasing and implementing it is critical in ensuring that the program will produce valuable results with the population it is being used with. If I were to do this again, I’d spend time using the program myself to get a better idea about who I’m planning to use the program with. Are the exercises within the program repetitive in a way that will make it difficult for children with ADHD to use? Is the program difficult in a way that would make it challenging for students with lower cognitive ability to use independently? Can you anticipate any behavior problems as a result of the challenges inherent in the program? All are important questions to consider and analyze before implementing computer-based interventions.
*I chose 30 as the target by reviewing the point totals of the child most significantly impacted by ADHD, noting that her average prior to the implementation of the tracker intervention was between 10 and 15 points per exercise without support, and 40-50 with direct support from a staff member.