iPad project gives voice to students with severe disabilities

The availability of funding for special education teachers and the release of a popular form of technology turned out to be perfect timing for students with severe disabilities at Northdale Middle School (NMS).

Northdale Middle School’s Kathryn McLachlan, a speech pathologist, (left) and Mary Fleegel, a developmental cognitive disabilities teacher, (right) and have had success using iPads to help nonverbal students communicate.

Northdale Middle School’s Kathryn McLachlan, a speech pathologist, (left) and Mary Fleegel, a developmental cognitive disabilities teacher, (right) and have had success using iPads to help nonverbal students communicate.

In 2010, Mary Fleegel, a developmental cognitive disabilities (DCD) teacher at NMS, was told there was federal stimulus money available to purchase materials for her classroom. Fleegel shared this information with NMS speech pathologist Kathryn McLachlan. While they talked about getting touch-screen computers for Fleegel’s students with severe disabilities, the two women knew Apple’s iPad would soon be released.

“I got an iPad the day after it was released and I knew immediately it could be a powerful tool for Mary to use with her students,” McLachlan said. “Mary was very excited about this technology. We decided to put together a proposal to let administrators know that we were serious about using this technology with students.”

As a result of Fleegel and McLachlan’s proposal, the Special Education Department developed an innovation project plan where all teachers could propose plans to use technology with their students and apply for funds. NMS got six iPads for the 2010-11 school year; five were distributed to students. Four of the five students who received the iPads were considered nonverbal. Fleegel and McLachlan spent hours researching applications (apps), downloading them onto McLachlan’s personal iPad and collaborating how they could help students.

The women chose apps that had an academic focus and apps that provided soothing sounds to help calm students when agitated. Students who could not speak found a voice with their iPad; students used “Answers:YesNo” to communicate with others. Through another app on the iPad, “Proloquo2Go,” students generated speech by tapping buttons with symbols with what they wanted to communicate.

Once everything was in place, Fleegel and McLachlan proposed to study how using the iPad during instruction time would change students’ behavior, motivation and participation. McLachlan said the results were “staggering.” She knew using the iPads would have a positive impact on students, but she did not realize how dramatic the impact was until pulling together data for the report. She credits the success to having a solid plan in place of what to measure and having creative teachers that were willing to “take in this technology and give it their all.”

“And kids naturally love technology,” McLachlan said. “Mary’s kids love it so much because it offers them an opportunity to complete a task independently. They are so used to staff giving them prompts and cues to complete school related tasks. Now they can successfully work on assignments on their own in a fun way.”

Fleegel said students in her DCD Centerbase classroom get very excited when it’s time to use the iPads and are able to work independently once they are taught how the apps work. In addition to their study, Fleegel has seen other promising data for students using iPads.

“I reviewed the results of the Minnesota Test of Academic Standards, the test my students take in place of the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, from last spring and the majority of the students who have used the i-Pads for the last two years maintained or increased their score,” Fleegel said. “I would like to see the availability of iPads for all students as they are a great tool to motivate, educate and excite students.”

Parents have also been thrilled with the results of the iPad project. Teachers make videos of the students doing their work and McLachlan said they received requests from parents to see the videos.

“They were happy to see their child making communicative exchanges with their peers, participating in classroom activities and getting attention from their nondisabled peers because they have these cool devices,” McLachlan said. “As parents that’s what we want our kids to be able to do – have positive relationships with their friends and successfully participate in school activities.”

The women were asked to share their project at “Effectively Implementing the iPad in Schools: Building on Lessons from Across the Country,” an international conference held in Bloomington in October. McLachlan presented “Motivation and Participation Among Students with Severe Disabilities Using the iPad,” based on her and Fleegel’s work with NMS students.

“Motivation can be abstract and hard to hone in on so we decided what behaviors to focus on,” McLachlan said. “We found if students are motivated, there is a decrease in ‘off-task,’ negative behaviors, such as pinching and screaming. When students are ‘on task’ we saw an increase in positive nonverbal communication, such as smiling and eye contact.”

This year, NMS purchased four iPads and expanded their use into different special education classrooms. McLachlan thinks iPads will become more common in the future.

“iPads are not going away; technology is not going away,” she said. “People are starting to catch wind of how powerful iPads are and their capabilities. Students can relate to technology and naturally love it; this is the wave of the future.”

 

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