Using tablets in moderate/severe special education classrooms


by Carmen Watts-Clayton

Carmen Watts Clayton

I teach life skills to a dozen low-functioning elementary school students with multiple disabilities. Most are nonverbal and experience life challenges and barriers to accessing education; however, all are digital natives. Our devices include a Smart Board (interactive white board), a document camera (modern day overhead projector with frills), and some AAC (assistive and augmentative communication) switches, buttons, and toys for limited-mobility children.

We also have iPads that kids can take home to extend their learning day. At first, there was some in doubt whether my low-functioning students could benefit from having iPads. A year later I can attest to how greatly personal digital devices have expanded my students’ abilities and potential!

My students range in disability and are 5 to 10 years old, though cognitively they are 0 to 3.5 years of age. Our life skills lessons include self-care skills, toileting, eating, and independently making transitions in class. Students with hearing disabilities and low-vision are included in the group.

Two years ago there wasn’t any spoken language in the room, only babbling, grunts, and gestures. Today, students with adequate mobility can follow picture icon schedules, speak some ASL (American sign language), Spanish, and English expressively, request items, sing, and play reciprocally. Sixty percent have developed use of 50 to 200 words. Reading skills are on the rise, and students are more focused, have better attending and concentration levels, and can better self-monitor their behavior.

I am painfully aware that I grew up in a different age of communication. But I know I must strive to learn new things. Often, my special needs children teach me! Recently my student discovered how to put her camera on ‘airtime” and the teacher next door asked if we could discontinue sending photos to her smart board! Whoa, I didn’t even I could do this, but thanks to student inquiry, I know now. I have found the following apps and programs particularly helpful:

  • gives wonderful early language, number sense, and writing lessons in an arts-integrated manner that kids love. Versions are free, or for a small subscription fee you can have the entire curriculum on multiple devices. For phonic alphabet learning, early reading, articulation, and pre-academic skills acquisition this site is great.
  • Patty Shukla, at or on YouTube, is a wonderful PPK-K online teacher who frames lessons through movement and song. She offers a wide selection, including language learning, Spanish, ASL, English learning activities, and more. Videos are short, and can be repeated often for best effect. Young students and many with learning challenges love these interactive videos; dancing, singing, and talking along; learning language and other concepts while strengthening core muscles, fine, and gross motor skills.
  • For iPad, my students really love three apps, available on iTunes: Endless Alphabet, Endless Reader, and Endless Numbers. You can get a limited free version or purchase the bundle for under $30. I can keep student attention on learning tasks up to four times longer than with paper-based materials.
  • Also for iPad, iWriteWords is an excellent app for learning to write, trace, and spell. It offers animation, interaction, and self-paced education in a game-like atmosphere that engages students for sustained periods.

These apps work much better when accompanied by adult interactions, guided practice, and reflective discussions with teachers and peers. Interactive and digital devices DO NOT replace a good teacher but rather help the teacher reach every student and maximize instructional time.

Many classrooms suffer from a lack of technology. I am grateful to my district for providing several technology pieces students needed. But my students wanted and deserved more, and could not wait for some future budget to get the learning tools they needed. Since I could not afford to buy these tools myself, and work in a low-income Title I school, I began investing three to four hours a week into educational grant research, writing, and grant applications.

In a future article I will discuss ways to get supplies and materials donated to any K-12 classroom. You can get anything the classroom needs: tablets, musical instruments, books, software, even field trips! Small budgets or small minds needn’t deter you from getting digital tools your class needs now!

Carmen Watts-Clayton is lead teacher in a moderate/severe elementary special day class. She is a vocal proponent of technology in the classroom and has experience securing donations and grants to support it. You can e-mail her at with your experiences or questions.

One Comment
  1. I love your article and how it illuminates the growth and independence your students have achieved through the use of technology in your classroom. I will share your article with colleagues and friends who share similar experiences. I’m sure they will be inspired too!
    Chris Bradley, OTR/L

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