Apps for Kids with Special Needs or Learning Differences

March 19, 2013
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, CA
CATEGORIES Common Sense Resources, In the Classroom, Tools

How can technology help teachers meet the needs of all students? Which apps are actually useful? Power Up!, our latest resource, can help educators select technology for special needs students.

Educational experts, teachers, and parents have all attested to the benefits of using technology to teach students with special needs and learning differences. A quick Google search will also show the countless success stories special needs teachers have had with apps and iPads. Some educators find that these tools help circumvent some of the difficulties many students face in the classroom. However, as with any new medium, the question becomes: Which apps are actually useful? How will they effectively address the needs of my students?

 “There are thousands and thousands of apps out there that claim to be useful,” Paul Argott said in a recent interview with NBC News. The clinical director of EPIC School, a private institution that primarily teaches children with severe autism, Argott notes that each student can react differently to the same app.

In hopes of addressing these kinds of questions, we have spent several months researching and field-testing products, conducting interviews, and talking to experts about the complex relationship between special education and assistive technology (AT). Last month we released “Power Up!” a guide on apps for students with special needs and learning differences.

The guide was penned by expert Gayl Bowser, who has spent the last 25 years emphasizing the importance of assistive technology as an independent consultant and on her blog IntegrATe. There, she explains that because both technology and education are constantly changing, it’s crucial that schools continue to adapt their AT practices to meet the needs of their students:

Just like a garden needs different care from a gardener depending on the time of the year, students and educators need different supports for assistive technology use as they move through the school year. With each new school season comes change—changes in our students, changes in what they are learning, and changes in our own AT services.

To that end, Bowser, along with other special education teachers and experts, helped select the products featured in the guide, which is broken down into six areas where students with special needs might face challenges: communication, social interaction, oganization, reading, math, and motor skills.

Each topic has subcategories that focus on skill level, ranging from beginner to advanced, making the guide applicable to teachers of various age groups and skillsets. For each skill level, we have recommended at least five different apps that have been tested and approved by field experts for students with special needs.

The apps are diverse in content, and each has been given a rating for quality, learning potential, and age group. For example, TapToTalk, an intermediate communication app, is ideal for ages six and up, and has received two out of three stars for learning potential as well as a four star overall quality rating. This app is designed to help students who cannot speak or have limited speech communicate more effectively by providing images for them to click in order to signify what they want or need. After the student clicks an image of, say, a glass of water, the app speaks for the student, allowing teachers to know what they need.

Another app recommended by our guide, titled DragonBox+, is an advanced app for students who need additional help in math. This app teaches students to solve algebraic equations through gameplay. It also requires no prior knowledge of algebra, making it a great way to jumpstart a new lesson. The app, ideal for ages six and up, received a three star learning rating and a five star overall quality rating—the highest possible rating in each category.

By clicking on any of the recommended apps in our guide, you will see not only the ratings but more information on the app, its learning potential, and what parents should know before buying. We have also provided a link to the specific expert who rated each app, so you can read more about them. The guide is available for download [pdf], but there is more information in the online version. If you do choose to use these apps in your classroom or when working with individual students, we would love to hear about it. Get in touch.