1. Assisting Teachers in Understanding Assistive Technology: What Recent Research Says
  2. Introducing the Assistive Technology Blog Series
  3. Assistive Technology to Support Writing
  4. Preparing Pre-Service Educators to Make AT Decisions
  5. 3 Key Questions When Considering Assistive Technology
  6. Data Tools to Inform AT for Reading and Writing
  7. Supporting Online Reading Using Assistive Technology
  8. FOCUS To-Do Increases Time Management Skills in Pre-Service Teachers
  9. Assistive Technology Solutions to Support Math
  10. Behavior and Burnout? Values-Based Practice Using ACTCompanion
  11. Assistive Technology to Support Young Children
  12. AT Goes to the Big and Little Screen: Tech for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Community
  13. CIDDList: Assistive Technology Tools and Resources for Young Children
A blurred picture with focus on a computer lego on a desk.

Assistive Technology to Support Young Children

Author: Samantha Goldman and Kathleen Tuck, Ph.D.; info@ciddl.org

Conversations about the use of technology with young children often focus on the “appropriateness” of young children’s access to screens rather than the broader supports technology can provide to enhance young children’s autonomous access, engagement, and participation in their environments. For example, some guidance from the  Mayo Clinic, suggests screen time can lead to obesity, sleep difficulties, behavioral challenges, delays in language and social skills, and attention problems. Other guidance shows all screen time is not “bad” and, instead, engagement and limits are what is needed. Examples include using guided access or parental controls, finding interactive options that require more than “sit and get” or “press and get,” and discussing content with children. Many young children with and without disabilities and support needs can likely benefit from increased access to assistive technology. The question remains: how can we leverage existing, emerging, and innovative technologies, especially assistive technologies, to support our youngest learners with disabilities and support needs?

Defining Assistive Technologies

While the increase in access to technologies in classrooms continues to blur the lines between assistive technologies, educational technologies, and instructional technologies, assistive technologies are defined under IDEA as any item that students with disabilities use that increases, improves, or maintains their functionality. While we tend to think of AT as high-tech computers and other things requiring screens and power, it is essential to remember that AT encompasses all tools that support individuals, including pencil grips, slant boards, and wheelchairs. The Pacer Center specifically highlights AT supports for young children, including a continuum of low- and high-tech supports such as visual supports, switch devices, computers, tablets, dynamic speech-generating communication devices, and mobility devices. Categories of AT supports and tools for children in early childhood settings can be found in a brief video created by the Pacer Center. 

What the EI/ECE/ECSE Community Needs to Know

Assistive technology should be considered immediately when individualized family support plans (ISFPs) are created to support infants and toddlers and their caregivers receiving Part C services. There is no need to wait until a young child enters a “classroom” setting as young children with disabilities are served in a diverse array of settings through early intervention (Part C) and early childhood special education (Part B) services. All young children have the right to be evaluated for, given access to, and be supported with AT use immediately. This includes providing training and support to their caregivers, even beyond the transition from Part C to Part B services, to center children’s access and engagement in the environments, activities, and routines in which the child and their caregivers interact on an ongoing basis. The responsibility to initiate the assessment, build an interdisciplinary collaborative team, and acquire equipment is on the service provider (e.g., early interventionist, educator, related service provider, or service coordinator). Additionally, all states and territories are legally required to have assistance centers and support to promote the use of AT for all individuals, including young children. You can find your state or territory AT support centers through the National Assistive Technology Act Technical Assistance and Training Center’s programs resource.  

Benefits of AT for Young Children with Disabilities

As explored in a recent article, the use of AT to support young children is well-documented in early childhood-focused professional guidance documents for young children with and without disabilities: the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)’s Developmentally Appropriate Practice Guide, the Division of Early Childhood of the Council for Exceptional Children (DEC)’s Recommended Practices. Additionally, professional supports that include young children in early childhood contexts (EI, ECE, ECSE) and school-aged children in school contexts, such as CEEDAR and CEC’s High Leverage Practices, promote the integration of AT to support all learners’ engagement in their environments. Lohmann and colleagues share that the many benefits of using AT with preschool-aged students with disability are (1) increased receptive and expressive language development and (2) more autonomy during play.

Additionally, AT provides children and families with a way to interact with their world that may not have been possible without technology, promotes participation in daily activities and routines, and allows for participation with caregivers, family, and community. The Pacer Center notes AT can support young children across developmental domains, including play, social-emotional competence, language and communication, mobility, academics, vision and hearing, alternative access, recreation and sports, environmental access, and daily living aids. It is vital to note that using AT for communication can enhance speech and language development rather than limit or prohibit growth for young children with and without communication and language support. According to the PACER Center, AT to support language and communication can include speech-generating devices such as apps (e.g.,Proloquo2Go and Symbol Speak) or recorded single message switch devices (e.g., Big Macs) which allow for one message to be recorded on a specific button. Further, switch devices can also be used to adapt toys to promote young children’s objects and social play with family members and peers. Switch devices can promote young children’s activity engagement by creating opportunities for young children with disabilities to engage in activities and routines alongside their peers in educational settings. AT can enhance the autonomous mobility of young children, provide a diverse array of supports for early writing development, and facilitate small group literacy instruction in inclusive classrooms

Educator Knowledge of AT is Crucial

AT supports and benefits for young children can only be actualized if they have access to these supports and services. Educators of young children must be taught to integrate AT and evidence-based strategies, as evidenced by a recent mixed methods research project. Researchers suggest these elements can be taught through online modules, coaching, and access to AT devices. Beyond teaching educators of young children to embed AT within their curriculum, educators need to consider the cultural and linguistic diversity of the community they serve (e.g., families, caregivers, children) to increase AT usage. This study found that by creating a professional development on AT that provided cultural and linguistic adaptations, educators (1) felt empowered to both use the AT and train their paraprofessionals to use it, (2) engaged in more culturally sustaining, affirming, and responsive strategies with their learners,  and (3) advocated for the needs of their children and families/caregivers including providing resources about AT in caregivers’ preferred languages and representing a wide array of cultures. Further, research suggests identification of children benefiting from AT supports and services should occur as early as possible. All members of a collaborative, interdisciplinary team, such as early interventionists, related service providers (e.g., speech and language pathologists, audiologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, infant mental health specialists), and early childhood special educators must have the knowledge and skills to identify a child’s strengths and AT support needs, assess various AT tools to meet the need and provide the AT as it relates to all developmental domains in which the child and their caregivers interact with home, community, and educational environments. 

Recommended Additional Readings and Multimedia Sources

AT for Infants and Toddlers Video Series

Therrien, M. C. (2021). Teacher-implemented AAC intervention to support peer interaction in an inclusive preschool classroom: A pilot study. Inclusion, 9(2), 78-91. 

Chen, D., & Dote-Kwan, J. (2021). Preschoolers with visual impairments and additional disabilities: Using universal design for learning and differentiation. Young exceptional children, 24(2), 70-81.

Division for Early Childhood. (2015). DEC recommended practices interactive glossary.

Retrieved from http://www.dec-sped.org/recommendedpractices

Hovey, K. A., Gauvreau, A. N., & Lohmann, M. J. (2022). Providing Multiple Means of Action and Expression in the Early Childhood Classroom Through a Universal Design for Learning Framework. The Journal of Special Education Apprenticeship, 11(2), 7.

Pacer Center (2013). Early Childhood and Assistive Technology Webinar. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YcUjFjAB5vg.

Join the Conversation!

Share your favorite AT resources for early childhood students with disabilities in our community!