Young Children with Disabilities Can Exceed Adult Expectations
When the Equipment, Software, and Activities are Appropriate

by Patricia Hutinger

Young children with disabilities can do far more than most adults expect, IF they have access to appropriate computer technology and adaptations coupled with interesting, interactive software and challenging, meaningful activities. This recurring theme surfaces time and again as child data in dozens of our research, demonstration, and outreach projects and sites support teachers' comments expressing surprise at the abilities of the children in their classrooms. We frequently hear teachers or family members say, "I didn't think my children would be able to do this but they did!"

We have worked with technology and hundreds of young children from six months to eight years (and beyond) for the past twenty years since Warren Brown, then in Sarasota, showed me a 'suck' switch and I realized the potential of 'activating children through technology', the beginning of ACTT. If we could find a single reliable response mode, even babies could start and stop battery-operated toys and tape recorders. We quickly moved on to connecting switches and computers, and children were able to do things they hadn't done before, much to their own delight, not to mention the delight of families and staff. In the beginning, most of the children we worked with had severe physical disabilities. Roughly a quarter of the children we have served since then have been severely involved with damaging physical disabilities, while others demonstrated a wide range of disabilities from delayed speech to more serious behavioral anomalies. Families have remained an essential part of our services from the beginning.

Twenty years ago we weren't sure that children could use computers, but soon found out they could. Even 2- and 3-year-olds quickly master using a mouse. Children can navigate through software (often without adult help) and understand and use a variety of commands (Quit, Exit, Print). Children can communicate with e-mail whether it remains within the classroom or goes out over a network. They can use KidDesk, a desktop management system with all its features (calendar, e-mail, voice mail, software choices), help teachers create HyperStudio stacks, and much more.

From Single Switch to the Internet
While we began with ways to access software through single switches (even developing a pre-boot disk for StickyBear Numbers), we now focus on the impact of technology applications in a variety of subject matter areas in the general curriculum art, literacy, math, science, and social studies. At present, in TEChPLACEs, we are experimenting with the potential of web sites developed by preschool, kindergarten, and first grade children and teachers who communicate across school districts and grade levels about elements they consider important related to their communities (the social studies content of the regular curriculum). However, we were surprised to find that experts in early childhood special education did not believe that such sophisticated web site development could be accomplished by children with mild to moderate disabilities. Surely, they said, there must be modifications for the few with disabilities. That would be the case, if any of the children had severe physical disabilities (touch tablets and adaptive keyboards can now handle that situation). However, nearly 92% of the 167 children involved in TEChPLACEs were diagnosed as in need of special education services (61%) or at risk 31.5*%). Only 8% were not disabled. Together, the children decided what to put on their classroom web sites, developed storyboards, and exchanged e-mail. Children communicated via e-mail across classrooms ("We are going to have a shoe store. Please send us your shoe sizes. What kind of shoes do you wear?"), and with other individuals, including family members. One class corresponded with the district superintendent, asking him if he'd ever been in time out and did he have kids! He replied that he had not been in time out and continued, telling the class about his daughters.

Emergent Literacy Gains
Five years ago, we began examining the effects of an interactive software literacy curriculum on the emergent literacy skills of children from 3 to 5 with moderate disabilities. The children gained a number of concepts related to stories, sequences, emergent writing, and story making. They learned that we read words on a page from left to right, from the top of the page to the bottom. They also attained increasingly positive social interaction skills when the classroom atmosphere allowed child-directed activities and encouraged several children to work at the computer together.

Emergent writing is included in our studies. Children are able to manage their own time on the computer with 'sign up sheets' where they 'write' their name, beginning with a line or a scribble, moving on to recognizable letters, and often, an entire name. We find letters emerging in children's drawings on paper and in graphics software. Preschool children can write for a purpose to sign up for a turn or to send a message.

Long Term Retention of Skills
Children with disabilities can retain information for long periods of time, if the information is meaningful. We have observed and measured examples of retention repeatedly, beginning with some early unexpected findings that showed that 4-year-old children retained their ability to use a simplified form of LOGO over a 3-month summer break. The previous year, children had learned to operate a robot to accomplish selected tasks (sometimes to knock down a tower of blocks, other times to run a maze, or dance the Hokey Pokey). When LOGO was started again in October of the following school year, the children in the special education preschool were able to pick up where they'd left off, with little tutoring. The differences between the first year post tests and the second year pre-tests were not significantly different--one time when NSD revealed positive behavior!

Classroom Experts Emerge
Classroom experts emerge, something unusual for children whose self-concepts have not been ones of competency. A 3-year-old child, assigned to a special education preschool because she did not communicate verbally, spent almost a full school year on the sidelines, watching other children use the computer. When she began her second year in the preschool, she not only started using computer software easily (observational learning at its best), including navigating the complexities of graphic programs, but she became the accepted computer expert, a role bestowed on her by her classmates. Her ability was an unexpected--but pleasant--surprise to her teachers. Similar cases occur repeatedly in classrooms where our projects work. Children with disabilities observe other children making their way through software for varying periods of time, from weeks to months, then take their place at the computer and literally take off, using skills they've acquired by observing others. Again, a surprise to their teachers.

Why Does It Work?
The computer technology and software applications we use make the most of interactive software, not the one dimensional, electronic workbook drill and practice (more aptly named 'drill and kill') software that derives much of its content from items on standardized intelligence and achievement tests. A kindergarten teacher I know says, "Children want to learn hard things, like the parts of seeds, different kinds of seeds, the functions. They don't need to waste their time learning colors just because it might be on a test somewhere. They know a cow belongs in a barn, not on the highway. They don't need software to show them that." The children in her classroom can do a variety of generally unexpected and complex things, because she knows and they know that they can do it. Our work has always been derived from that kind of approach.

We also find that children with disabilities must have some choice in their work -- child-directed activities tend to produce better outcomes than adult-directed activities. Repeatedly we find that children with disabilities are able to do far more than adults expect when the situation is interesting, the task is meaningful and challenging, and the means to accomplish the task (i.e., computer applications, adaptations, and software) are present.

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