Assistive Technology and Peer Socialization in Early Childhood Special Education
By Phyllis Dinse AT Network Assistive Technology Assistant
Research has shown that the earlier a child is exposed to assistive technology, the sooner they are able to take advantage of the benefits. Assistive technology leads to increased independence, a growing understanding of cause and effect, and the development of the concept of communication to express needs and wants, as well as to develop relationships. It is important to keep in mind that each child is unique and what works for one child may not work for another. Assistive technology is not one piece of equipment, but more often a combination of devices to promote independence. Assistive technology allows children with special needs to access the same activities as their peers, providing opportunities for peer socialization in the general education classroom, home and community.
While trying to facilitate peer interactions, keeping the appearance of the devices as “normal” as possible, without accentuating the differences, can be a challenge. At this age, children are still learning that it is ok to be different and the unknown can result in fear. Children are bound to ask questions, so remember to keep explanations short and simple. For example, if a child asks, “Why does Jamie (a child using a communication device) use those buttons?” You might explain that, “Jamie is still learning to use her words and this device helps her to talk so we can understand what she is saying to us.” More often than not, the children will accept your answer and will frequently share it with other classmates.
Most children at this age will want to know if they can use the other child’s device, seeing it as a toy, even if it is not. Referring back to the previous example, explain to the child that, “This is Jamie’s voice and that only she can use her voice just like only you can use yours.” If it is a toy, such as a switch-activated pig, have the child ask Jamie if they can have a turn, just as they would with other classmates, and take it from there.
After receiving training from the assistive technology assessment team, teachers and parents should take the time to teach classmates and family members how to communicate and socialize with a child using assistive technology. After all, communication takes two partners, a sender and a receiver. Modeling various strategies (e.g. getting down on the child’s level, allowing an extended response time, etc.) and providing opportunities for practice, with support, for both communication partners will help to put everyone at ease. Technology can be intimidating for them if they don’t know how to interact with a child using it.
Developing friendships in early childhood often takes a great deal of teacher facilitation and support. At these ages, children are learning for the first time to take turns and think of others. Children will be the best of friends one day, and not talking the next. Keeping in mind that this is age-appropriate and that not all of the children are going to want to play with one another day after day is imperative. Making connections between shared interests (e.g. John and Jamie both like trains) and taking advantage of opportunities to set-up eliciting situations to bring children together can help them foster new relationships. In addition to teachers creating curriculums based on children’s interests, buddy activities that require children to pair up is another strategy teachers use to facilitate peer socialization. The children are not always selecting partners by choice, but may be asked to find someone based on pre-determined criteria. For example, a teacher may ask each child to find a buddy to wash hands and go to snack with based on a specific description of clothing a classmate is wearing (e.g. a pink shirt and green pants, wearing a dress, etc.). The teacher would then be able to pair up children based on knowledge of similar interests or who don’t typically play together. Group activities, such as painting on a large piece of butcher paper or a cooking activity is another way to get young children to work together.
Establishing play dates outside of the classroom can be especially beneficial for children when competition for another child’s attention at school is a challenge. When a play date is either one-on-one or a small group, it becomes easier for the children to make social connections with one another, there are less distractions, and it allows their friendship to be expanded upon outside of the classroom (i.e. school friends).
In this series of posts we will address the importance of using assistive technology (AT) to increase a child’s ability to access their classroom environment, as well as using augmentative alternative communication (AAC) devices and computers to help children develop and establish friendships.
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