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Help for Young Learners: How To Choose AT?

Technologies, from low to high-tech, can play a role in promoting the social and cognitive participation and growth of young children. This Info Brief presents an introduction to the role of assistive technology (AT) for young learners with disabilities. It highlights a six-step approach to AT decision making for young children and provides links to resources, including the TAM Technology Fan, for researchers and service teams.

Young children with disabilities need an enriched environment to promote their social and cognitive participation and growth. Technologies, from low to high-tech, can play a role in promoting their participation, but are often underutilized. This Info Brief presents an introduction to the role of assistive technology (AT) for young children with disabilities, highlights a six-step framework representing a collaborative approach for AT decision making for young children, and provides links to new resources for researchers and service teams, including the TAM Technology Fan.

The early challenge

During the first three years, children change more rapidly than at any other stage of their lives. Assistive technology (AT) tools and strategies make it easier for young children with disabilities not only to participate in day-to-day activities, but also to do so independently. Although AT shows great promise in supporting the developing child, families of young children with disabilities and the professionals who provide services to them may not be aware of these tools or know how to use them. A national sample of service providers agreed that a significant number of young children (45 percent) who may need AT are not receiving it at present. Although the consideration of AT for young children with disabilities is mandated by legislation , the reported low rates of utilization strongly suggest that AT devices and services are not being used to their fullest extent.

Technology solutions make it easier for children to move (e.g., supports for both body positioning and mobility), communicate (e.g., both receptive and expressive modes), and use materials to participate (e.g., utensils for meal time, drawing tools for creative expression and storybooks for early literacy). Such AT supports can include low-tech items, like pillows and mirrors, as well as high-tech items, such as augmentative communication devices. Caregivers and support personnel need to become more familiar with the range of AT supports and successful strategies to integrate them in order to improve children’s participation and enjoyment.

Six steps to finding a solution

Identifying AT solutions to support a child’s participation is best done as a team process. By first examining the interests, abilities and needs of a child and the specific components of the activity where support for participation is indicated, AT solutions can be planned and implemented and the impact can be observed immediately. A six-step process defined below is one example of a framework for AT decision making for young children.

  • Step 1: Collect child and family information. Begin the discussion about the child’s strengths, abilities, preferences and needs. What strategies have been found to work best?
  • Step 2: Identify activities for participation. Discuss the various activities within the environments that a child encounters throughout the day. What is preventing him/her from participating more?
  • Step 3: What can be observed that indicates the intervention is successful? What is his/her current level of participation and what observable behaviors will reflect an increase in independent interactions? What changes (e.g., number of initiations, expression attempts, responses, reactions, etc.) will you look for?
  • Step 4: Brainstorm AT solutions. With the activity and desired outcomes established, you are now ready to discuss possible solutions with educators, family members, physical therapist, and other people with whom the child interacts on a weekly basis. Do the child’s needs include supports for movement, communication and/or use of materials? Start with what is available in the environment (what other children use) and consider adaptations to those materials. A range of options that address specific support areas should be considered. *The TAM Technology Fan, a new resource focused on identifying AT items for young children with disabilities, helps to facilitate this step. See below for more information.
  • Step 5: Try it out. Determine when the AT intervention will begin and create an observation plan to record how the child participates with the AT supports.
  • Step 6: Identify what worked. Selecting AT interventions is a continuous learning opportunity. Reflect on your plan and discuss what worked. What didn’t work? What should be done differently? Make modifications as needed and try again. Only by trying the AT can certain factors such as technology placement, amount of force, mounting, number of choices, etc. be determined and adjusted.

Brainstorm AT with the TAM Technology Fan

One of the largest challenges of the six-step process is Step 4: Brainstorming Solutions. The TAM Technology Fan, a new resource focused on AT for young children, can aid in this brainstorming process. Responding to the need for awareness building and informed decision-making, several experts in the field of AT and early childhood developed this resource to facilitate the identification of AT items for young children with disabilities. The Fan is intended for families, teachers, service providers and other caregivers who are considering technology tools for young children. Technology tools and solutions are listed by daily home and school routines as well as by general support categories. As no two children are alike, the supports they need will differ and change as children develop. The TAM Technology Fan is produced by The Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) and is available in their online catalog along with other products for early childhood.

For more information

The resources listed below provide information about available AT solutions for young children and resource networks. Remember that AT items can include special features or alternate uses of commercial items. These should be considered along with items from specialty catalogs.

Assistive technology

General family support

A “Tech Works” brief from the National Center for Technology Innovation (NCTI) and the Center for Implementing Technology in Education (CITEd).
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