Teaching Special Ed with iPads


Using the iPad as a learning tool in the classroom is both fun and a daily challenge, for students and for the teacher, and trying to use the iPads with special education students provides profound revelations on a daily basis. At first, I put everything on the iPad in the same manner I did for my regular education students because I thought it would increase interest and therefore the likelihood of “doing.” However, I have discovered that while the kids are excited to use the iPad, kids who struggle with attention, reading, and writing have a difficult time with certain iPad tasks.


Some kids can’t stop scrolling. When having them look for a specific place on a digital page, kids will make big swipes up and down and up and down… not stopping to look at topic sentences, key words, or even titles. They have to be taught to scroll slowly, looking for formatting clues such as titles and bold words. This has inspired frequent lessons and reviews of visual cues, reminding them what different sizes of text means (headings, titles, subtitles), how paragraphing can give us clues, and how annotating in the margins (using a tool such as Notability) can help students find what they are looking for.

Logins & Passwords

Anything that requires a login or password is painful. The majority of special education kids forget their logins and passwords, and forget that they wrote them down somewhere, and forget where they wrote them down, and forget what they titled the note in which they wrote them down, and have duplicate notes and have a hard time finding the right login and password. Any classwork that requires kids to login takes an extra 10-15 minutes to get through these issues, reset passwords, etc. Home assignments don’t get completed because of these issues. If a teacher can get students to share their passwords, the teacher can keep a private record.

Digital v. Paper Worksheets

I provide paper copies for students, and I have found that kids with learning needs often ask for paper when given the option. Handwriting with a finger or stylus is not easy for kids with fine motor/handwriting issues.  They have a difficult time judging size, forming letters, writing on a line, figuring out where to put the base of their hand on the device without moving the “paper” on the device. They also struggle with choosing the thickness of the digital pen and choosing color. If an answer doesn’t come out “nicely,” students often want to erase and rewrite and erase and rewrite, preventing completion.

Typing often takes longer on the iPad. Kids who struggle with attention can get caught up in the details like choosing the thickness of the pen, the color, where to put a text box, how big to make the text box, choosing the font style, how to size the font in a text box. Things like these are also a “legitimate” delay in starting an assignment, which is a common stall for kids who aren’t sure what to write or do. Choices are always a good thing, but too many choices become a distraction and prevent work from being done, or make work take twice as long.

I learned from Special Ed teacher Jen Saliba that when kids do worksheets on the iPad, they can’t see the directions when they scroll down to later parts of the worksheet. This is very hard for kids with attention issues who need to be reminded to look back at the directions to make sure they are following them. Above average learners check back at the directions naturally. Kids with memory/learning issues think they remember the directions, and referring back to them seems like “extra work” because it’s extra reading, especially if it’s not easily and readily accessble. On paper, as a student approaches the bottom of a page, the top of the page and directions and examples are there, as are the other “problems” kids have done so they can see what they did before. On an iPad, the directions disappear as the student scrolls down. Often, students will do all the work they can visually see, then scroll up to get a new screen of blanks. They lose not only the directions but the last work they’ve done, and therefore their own reminders on how to do a problem. Certain types of activities are better for certain kids on paper.


Lastly (for now), kids who struggle with fine motor skills are often not good typists. In middle school, kids haven’t learned to type correctly on a QWERTY keyboard. They are typing with two fingers on the iPad. The keyboard can be split (by swiping the keyboard out using two fingers), which helps those students who are great texters, but kids who can’t type can’t type fast enough to match what they are thinking, and may shorten their ideas and write less. This same issue is one of the problems with handwriting– kids write less because they struggle with the physical act of writing. What’s the solution? Figuring out a student’s preference and allowing both digital and paper writing in class. Some kids may prefer the app Dragon Dictation, and then going back to edit their work. This app is difficult to use during class, though, because of ambient sounds.

I have learned to put all directions and reference handouts on the iPad because students can access it while doing an assignment, and these papers can’t get lost for those kids with organizational issues. We practice reading carefully and annotating to support reading and referencing skills. I teach and review formatting strategies that help us become better readers and know what we are reading for. We do online/login activities, but I have adjusted the time to give for such activities in class, I don’t assign these as homework for kids with learning issues, and I keep records of logins and passwords and allot class time to teach students to effectively record this information so they can find it later. And finally, I choose carefully what types of “fill in the blank”/worksheet activities we do on the iPad, and anything offered on the iPad is also offered on paper. This is only what I’ve learned SO FAR. Tomorrow, I’m sure there will be something else.


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