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How to Get Assistive Technology for Your Child in School

We walk you though the process, from start to finish

Gia Miller

If your child is struggling to keep up in class due to any number of challenges or disabilities, assistive technology can help. With the right assistive technology, your child can learn and participate in classroom activities in a way that works best for them. This technology will help your child stay engaged in learning and make it easier for them to keep up with their peers.

“If a child has a disability, it takes them more time to do things,” explains Mark Surabian, director of ATHelp, an assistive technology support program at the JCC in Manhattan, and ATTrain, which provides assistive technology training. “It doesn’t mean they can’t do something; it just means it will take them more time than their classmates. Time is their disability; time is their enemy. So assistive technology alleviates that time constraint. It empowers a kid to get more done, demonstrate more of what they know and comprehend more of what they’re learning faster than before.”

At what age can children begin using assistive technology?

According to Surabian, a child  should begin using assistive technology as soon as they begin to struggle in any developmental area. This could be as early as preschool.

“No child should ever “hit a wall” when there’s a way for them to continue learning,” says Surabian. With assistive technology, they’re able to continue learning and focus on what they can do, instead of what they can’t. “When they can’t perform to the best of their abilities, they may get to a point where they decide they hate school and believe their teachers don’t understand them,” he explains. “One of the greatest challenges for any kid with a disability is the anxiety and frustration of being different from their peers. That stigma, along with how difficult it is to get their work done, can make them give up.”

Assistive technology can be either low-tech or high-tech. For very young children, a lot of assistive technology falls in the low-tech category. For example, if a preschool-aged kid is having a hard time with fine motor skills, like zipping a jacket, attaching a grip to the zipper pull can make it easier for little hands to grab. Similarly, kids who struggle with organization and following a routine might find a chart with pictures showing their morning routine or a photographic list of items to pack in their backpack helpful. Assistive technology can even be as simple as using noise cancelling headphones when it’s time to do homework or bringing a quiet fidget toy to class to help them stay focused.  

But, some children can also benefit from high-tech options. During preschool these might include apps that can speak for children, programs that teach the alphabet or how to count, interactive books that hold a child’s attention and more.

“Assistive technology introduces alternative paths to education, which is a profound thing for a little kid to understand,” says Surabian. “When a kid learns that they can use technology for something that’s hard, they learn there’s more than one way to do something. So, if the typical way of doing something doesn’t play out for them, they can immediately access an alternative set of skills.”

Getting an assistive technology evaluation

If your child is struggling in the classroom, their teacher or a therapist may recommend an assistive technology evaluation. But if they don’t, you can request one. For children with disabilities, assistive technology falls under federal law as part The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that guarantees all students a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE). But children do not need an Independent Educational Plan (IEP) or a 504 Plan to receive assistive technology. Regardless, it’s a good idea to get an understanding of what’s available and what your child may need before you request the evaluation.

“First, define the actual obstacles and challenges that prevent your child from getting the task done,” Surabian recommends. “Next, imagine what types of tools could help them. Then go looking for those tools.”

For example, if your child struggles to understand what they read, but they have excellent verbal comprehension abilities, then a tool that reads them a story as they follow along in the text could be a big help. So, you would search for text-to-speech programs and learn about the different options that are available. Then you can request an evaluation and explain what you’ve learned from research and what you think your child might need.

How an evaluation works

“The first thing an evaluator does is gather background information by speaking to as many people as they can or that the district recommends,” explains speech and language pathologist Alexa Brigante, who specializes in assistive technology. “We want to learn what the child is struggling with, how they present, if they receive other related services and their likes and dislikes. Often, a dislike is something that’s hard or challenging for the student.”

“Then we observe the student in the classroom as a fly on the wall,” Brigante explains. The evaluator should review every subject area, even if it initially appears that the student is only struggling in one area. Through the evaluation process, they may discover that the student’s handwriting difficulties are what’s causing them to fall behind in math because it’s too challenging to write their math problems. Or their organizational deficits make it challenging for them to keep track of or access the documents they need in a timely manner so, even though they know the information, they don’t have enough time to finish their work.

“We want to observe what the child is and isn’t doing and what their peers are doing,” says Brigante. “A big consideration with this technology is that it could make the child feel or appear ‘different.’ Depending upon the child, and depending upon the age, that could be a real con to assistive technology. So, we want to implement things the child wants to use by observing the nature of the classroom and what it’s like. We also review samples of their work. All of this information helps us develop a plan of action for what types of technology we should sample when we meet the student.”

After the child samples various technologies, evaluators review what the student liked and then write a report that includes the facts they’ve gathered, their observations and their assistive technology recommendations.

Selecting the best technology and getting training

When the report is done, you’ll meet with your child’s educational team and agree on what type of assistive technology your child will receive.

“During the meeting, you want to make sure you discuss the specifics of how the technology will be implemented and trouble shoot for problems that may occur,” says occupational therapist Lindsey Biel of Sensory Processing Challenges. “Ask who will teach your child how to use the technology. What happens if the device breaks? Is there a backup plan?”

Remember that the purpose of assistive technology is to save your child time, so think about what your child will need to use it properly, and make sure that each piece of technology doesn’t actually add more work (and take more time) to their day. The harder a piece of technology is to use, the less likely your child will be to use it. For example, even if your child can take a picture of their math worksheet, it takes time to place the paper on their desk, open the camera or other appropriate app, take the picture, save the image and import it into the app or program they need to use.

Ideally, all assignments should be given to your child in the format that works for them. And, it should be given at the same time their classmates receive their work. So, if your child needs to use a tablet or computer to do their work, then the teacher should provide them with the digital copy of the worksheet via email or through a shared drive so they can access it easily, without taking several additional steps.  If it’s not possible to get your child’s teacher on board, work with your child and the consultant on alternatives that allow your child to access the technology they need without making it too time-consuming or difficult for your child. For example, perhaps the teachers provide all worksheets a day in advance so they can photograph and upload the documents at home each evening before they’re needed in class the next day.

“There’s a lot of training need that needs to occur,” says Brigante. “The child and the entire team – which consists of family, school personnel and anybody that works with the child to implement classwork or homework – should be trained. They should all understand how to use these tools so they can best support the child.”

Your child’s training may take several visits, depending on the amount of technology they receive. After the training is complete, the assistive technology consultant should visit regularly to make sure that your child understands and is using their technology correctly. If they aren’t using a tool, the consultant should determine if it’s because the technology doesn’t meet the student’s needs, the student doesn’t understand how to use it properly or they simply don’t like it. Even months after the evaluation, the consultant can change a tool to one that works better for the student.

At the start of each new school year, the assistant technology evaluator should visit your child to make sure their technology still works for them. If this doesn’t occur automatically, you should request an update by working with the special services department for the school or reaching out to the evaluator. It’s often a good idea to wait a few weeks so your child and the evaluator will have a better understanding of what will and won’t work for them in their new classes. As children progress academically, they’ll often need new or additional tools to meet increased educational demands.

Assistive technology will increase confidence and ability quickly

“Progress should be seen rather quickly,” says Brigante. “Because essentially, assistive technology is a way to solve a problem. Little by little, you should always see some success.”

If you’re eager to help your child before they receive assistive technology, you can begin sampling and implementing some of the free tools available. “Assistive technology is in all the digital tools you have, and I encourage parents to explore those,” says Surabian. “Many are available through Microsoft programs, Apple devices and Google. Just looking at those three websites will blow your mind – it’s enough for parents to get started.”