Power Up: Apps for Kids with Special Needs and Learning Differences

Power Up!

Apps for Kids with Special Needs and Learning Differences

A fresh look at learning

If your child has a special need or learning difference, you've come to the right place. Common Sense Media gets lots of requests for product recommendations from parents whose kids struggle with traditional learning. Some of their kids have a hard time with schoolwork; others have trouble staying on task or find it difficult to express their feelings.

Our hope for you and your kids

No matter which hurdles your kid faces, the apps and other media included in Power Up can give them an added boost. We don't expect an app to be a complete solution, of course. Working with kids who face challenges requires lots of time, attention, and patience on the part of a parent, teacher, or other adult caregiver. Our goal is to offer you a host of fun, well-designed apps that were recommended and tested by field experts. We hope they can become a part of your toolkit as you work with your child.

About the categories

Apps are arranged by challenge area and difficulty level. For each challenge area, we've included an informational overview with a list of typical challenges that kids face, help for choosing apps that match kids' needs, and further resources. You'll also find Power Tips with ideas for other activities you can do.

We've done our homework

Lots of work went into creating this guide. Our team spent several months surveying research, conducting interviews, and field testing products with field leaders, experts, teachers, and parents. In addition, Gayl Bowser, an expert in the field of special needs and technology, helped select products and authored the guide.

Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are conducted by expert reviewers and are not influenced by the creators or by our funders. When you use our buy links to make a purchase, Common Sense Media earns a small affiliate fee from Amazon or iTunes. As a nonprofit organization, these funds help us continue providing independent, ad-free services for educators, families, and kids while the price you pay remains the same. We appreciate your support.

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Who Made This Guide?

Contributing Experts

Lorna Jones Askew
Intervention Specialist
Bellefaire School
Shira Cherniet
Elementary Teacher
Chime Charter
Michelle Collins
Special Education Teacher
Cleveland Metropolitan School District
Sara Delee
Special Education Teacher
Neil Cummins School
Leigh Burley Fong
Co-Founder
Ready Set GO Therapy, Inc.
Lani Hessen
Clinic Director
Kidspace
Amy Martini
Former Reading Recovery Teacher
Ravenswood City School District
Barbara K. Polland
Professor Emeritus, Child and Adolescent Development
California State University, Northridge
Kelly Priest
Co-Founder
Social Foundations LLC
Donna M. Sobel
Associate Professor, Special Education
University of Colorado, Denver
Ali Steers
Speech and Language Pathologist
Chime Charter
Melinda Techler
Independent Speech Pathologist
San Francisco

This guide was made possible through the generous support of SCE.

 

 

Acknowledgments: Gayl Bowser (Writing); Craig Thigpen and Eric Tuvel (Image Design).

Communication

Beginner

Communication

 

These digital picks help kids who have communication challenges learn to speak, grasp new words, and understand what others are saying. With your help, these great learning products can help kids share their words and ideas more clearly.

 

Tapping "buttons" that represent words, kids can string together whole sentences. This is great for kids who have basic or severe speech challenges. Kids, parents, and teachers can also add their own photos and images to create icons, edit existing buttons, move them, or search by keyword.

Kids create interactive stories and learn to understand spoken language. They can even create scenes using either in-app images or their own. Try combining scenes and images into books that speak the text, or change sound, voice, and playback speed options to match kids' learning needs.

For kids who have difficulty speaking, parents and teachers can create an unlimited number of custom picture card sets with image, text, and audio. Kids tap on the relevant card, and the app speaks for them. This app is specifically designed for kids who have fine motor challenges.

Milo and his friend Melvin help kids learn basic sequencing and storytelling skills. Kids put sentences of a scrambled story in order and see the story animate when they answer correctly. Customize options for kids who need extra support by turning on hints and audio narration.

Kids with communication difficulties need opportunities to share their ideas and make meaningful choices. Encourage kids to point to pictures in SoundingBoard. As they connect images with audio, they build better understanding of the words.

Intermediate

Communication

 

These digital picks help kids who have communication challenges learn to speak, grasp new words, and understand what others are saying. With your help, these great learning products can help kids share their words and ideas more clearly.

 

Pronunciation, articulation, and understanding how letter sounds form words are important communication skills. In these exercises, games, and stories that focus on one letter sound at a time, kids can learn to identify their own speech goals. Parents and teachers can track kids' progress, too.

It's fun for anyone to add speech to photos and email them to friends and relatives, but it's especially good for kids who have trouble speaking. Kids can take pictures, record audio descriptions, and share them with others. This is a great way for kids to share when communication is difficult.

Help kids improve the way they use language to express ideas, form sentences, and understand what they hear. Kids are challenged to create their own sentences from photo prompts and record audio clips of each sentence. Recording and playback encourage self-assessment.

Speech with Milo is a delightful way to learn how to speak phrases and tell stories. Kids record their own stories and hear them played back. They can touch a character or object to see it move or make a sound as they interact with this upbeat story about helpfulness and friendship.

Kids who aren't able to speak or who have limited speech can convey simple messages about what they want, how they're feeling, and more with this verbal-assist tool. Kids tap pictures, and the app speaks for them. This app is specifically designed for kids who have communication challenges.

Dinnertime, bedtime, trips in the car, and walks in the park all provide opportunities to practice communicating. During daily routines and activities, describe what you're doing, describe what kids are doing, and talk about what you do together. Use apps like Fotobabble and Speech with Milo to reinforce language and communication skills while having fun at the same time.

Advanced

Communication

 

These digital picks help kids who have communication challenges learn to speak, grasp new words, and understand what others are saying. With your help, these great learning products can help kids share their words and ideas more clearly.

 

Kids can learn about the essentials of email, Twitter, and other online communication tools with these simple and engaging tutorials. Have them check out Email Basics and Twitter101 to learn about online communication.

This online social network for tweens and teens is a great way for kids to make friends and practice communication skills in a safe environment. Parents are notified when kids join; staff moderators approve the photos, videos, and articles that kids post.

Kids can send emails using only their voice and a few simple taps -- they don't have to type a word. Kids speak their messages, and their words are turned into text. This could be great tool for kids who have difficulty with typing or writing.

Storytelling comes to life as kids create their own cartoon puppet shows. Kids choose the setting and characters and record their own dialogue to make the stories more personal. This fantastic creative outlet lets kids express themselves and share video creations online.

Words, body language, sounds, gestures, and pointing to pictures are all ways that kids communicate. There's no best way to share thoughts and ideas. Accept any way that kids communicate, and focus on what they have to say. Encourage older kids and teens to use tools like email, Twitter, and Kidzworld to help them reach out to others.

Overview

Communication

Challenges Overview

 

Speaking, listening, and communicating are essential for school and social life, but many kids struggle to master these skills. For kids with challenges like speech and language impairments, communication can be particularly difficult. Of the more than 6 million kids ages 3-21 with special needs in the U.S. public education system, over one-fifth received services for speech or language disorders (U.S. Department of Education, 2011). Here, we provide suggestions for identifying and addressing kids' challenges with communication. We also offer tips for finding effective apps and a list of related resources.

Download Overview (pdf)

 

 

Common challenges

  • Listening to and understanding what others say
  • Using language to communicate and interact with others
  • Speaking clearly enough to be understood

Common signs

  • Have trouble pronouncing certain sounds and/or combining sounds to form words
  • Appear defiant because they have trouble understanding what people ask them to do
  • Get frustrated because they can't find words to share their needs and ideas

Ways to help

  • Wait, watch, and listen; allow kids enough time to speak for themselves
  • Use gestures or simple signs to help kids understand what you're saying
  • Encourage kids to tell stories and share information with others
  • Repeat what kids say to help ensure you understand -- and so they can hear the words again
  • Talk about what you're doing while you're doing it when you play or work with kids

What to look for in an app

  • Opportunities for kids to both listen to words and respond with speech
  • Clear and descriptive audio instructions and positive language
  • Directions that are clear and easy for kids to understand
  • Options that let you change the rate of speech or the sound of a recorded voice
  • Settings that let you change the level of language difficulty to match kids' abilities

 

 

Learn more

Our sources

Experts consulted

  • Melinda Techler, speech language pathologist and reading specialist
  • Ali Steers, speech and language pathologist, Chime Charter School
 

Social Interaction

Beginner

Social Interaction

 

Tuning in to their emotions is crucial for kids' success with family members, friends, classmates, and in everyday interactions. These great tools can help kids learn to express their emotions and understand what others are feeling.

 

 

Identifying and understanding emotions are crucial life skills. This collection includes 50 concrete, colorful images of the 10 most basic emotions. Five examples of each feeling help teach basic emotions in a consistent way with repetitive practice.

Kids learn to notice differences and to focus on details. Three different games show a set of objects and ask kids to match two that look the same -- an essential skill for kids with autism. Kids practice noticing colors, patterns, and sizes of objects to make a match.

Making good eye contact is essential for developing friendships and other social skills. Kids can practice as faces with different expressions flash on the screen. The trick is for kids to hold eye contact long enough to see a flashing number appear. Shy kids in particular can benefit.

Kids who have emotional challenges often need help predicting what will happen in new or unfamiliar places. Here, they watch a photo slide show of other kids in places like the grocery store, school, and the dentist's office. Kids can review expected behavior and feel more at ease in new places.

Kids with social and emotional challenges need ways to learn about what others are feeling. By studying the facial expressions of cartoon animal characters, kids can learn to identify emotions and social cues. It's simple to use and a fun way to learn early social skills.

Simple but powerful, this app helps kids express their feelings. Kids match their feelings to the pictures that are shown and tap images to hear statements of emotion. Kids can grow more self-aware and learn that there's a wide range of emotions.

Reading body language and facial expressions is an important part of early social learning. By looking at photos and figuring out which person is expressing an emotion, kids get a chance to practice in a safe way. And it's easy to adjust settings for each kid's needs.

Use apps like Peek-a-Zoo, That’s How I Feel, and Touch and Learn -- Emotions with your kid. Practice making faces that show emotions together, and take pictures for your own version of showing how you feel.

Intermediate

Social Interaction

 

Tuning in to their emotions is crucial for kids' success with family members, friends, classmates, and in everyday interactions. These great tools can help kids learn to express their emotions and understand what others are feeling.

 

 

Having strategies for handling anxiety and anger in positive ways is essential for independence. Calm Counter helps kids with anxiety or anger issues learn self-awareness as they begin to identify when they need a break and practice calming down.

Choose a color and a brush, and start doodling. Options to send doodles by email or play them live on the Internet make this a great social learning tool. Kids can draw with a friend or family member in the same city or on the other side of the country.

These videos, photos, games, and emotions-related vocabulary-building activities star the cast of the PBS show The Electric Company. Kids can learn emotional awareness, expression, and language skills. Feel Electric! is full of activities that are instructive and entertaining.

This real-life-based app spurs conversations about the countless "unwritten social rules" we encounter every day that can cause confusion and anxiety. Some kids can learn the hidden curriculum almost automatically. But for kids who need more direct instruction and practice, this app can help.

Some kids need direct instruction on social skills like initiating play, respecting other kids’ personal space, and interpreting humor. Each activity here helps kids gain confidence and success in navigating these types of social situations.

Time Timer displays a red disk that quietly gets smaller as time passes. Kids learn that when the red is gone, time is up! This app is perfect for any kid who wants to know "How long?" but has trouble understanding a spoken answer.

Once kids learn new social skills with apps and games like Feel Electric! and Social Adventures, encourage them to use apps like DoodleBuddy to practice those skills with friends and family members.

Advanced

Social Interaction

 

Tuning in to their emotions is crucial for kids' success with family members, friends, classmates, and in everyday interactions. These great tools can help kids learn to express their emotions and understand what others are feeling.

 

 

For teens who have difficulty relating to others, it can be especially challenging to navigate high school. BeSeen is an innovative simulation of a high school's social network that teaches tweens and teens about being safe and responsible online.

This online social network for tweens and teens is a great way for kids to make friends and practice communication skills in a safe environment. Parents are notified when kids join; staff moderators approve the photos, videos, and articles that kids post.

SIMS can help teens practice social skills as they make sure that their SIMS' needs -- like hygiene, hunger, and fun -- are met. SIMS follow social behaviors such as visiting the houses of other SIMS. Teens can invite Facebook friends to become neighbors.

Wonderful Days -- Diary with Style is an excellent app for making multimedia diary entries. Kids can create notes associated with different days and add photos, sound recordings, and their location (enabling location services is optional). It’s a wonderful option for self-expression.

Once kids learn a new skill, invite friends, brothers, sisters, or other family members to play with them using the same app, website, or game. Play and practice together to reinforce social learning.

Overview

Social Interaction

Challenges Overview

 

Social and emotional skills are essential for school and social life, but many kids struggle to master them. For kids who have a special need -- such as a developmental delay or autism -- social situations and handling emotions can be a challenge. We know that about 15% of parents with kids ages 4-17 talk to healthcare providers or school personnel about their child's emotional or behavioral difficulties (National Center for Health Statistics, 2006). Here, we offer ways of identifying and addressing kids' social and emotional challenges. We also offer tips for finding effective apps and a list of related resources.

Download Overview (pdf)

 

Common challenges

  • Recognizing or managing their own emotions or seeing others show emotion
  • Showing in traditional ways that they care about others. For example, some kids who are excited may squeal, jump, or flap their hands instead of saying how happy they are. And some kids who are really sad may look angry or strike out instead of crying or being quiet.
  • Making or keeping friends and working with peers

Common signs

  • Avoid eye contact and/or become nervous in unfamiliar social situations
  • Misread social cues (particularly if they're not obvious) or fail to consider the social context
  • Show lots of fear, distrust, or uncontained emotion, from social unease to severe upset
  • Share information about their own interests without finding out whether others are interested
  • Talk about only a few topics that they're very interested in
  • Have difficulty grasping abstract ideas

Ways to help

  • Expand kids' vocabulary of feeling words
  • Encourage kids to use coping strategies such as self-calming, scripted routines for approaching people and identifying situations that make them uncomfortable
  • Help kids practice typical social interactions, and avoid overly formal language or unnatural eye contact by role-playing social situations in advance
  • Give kids opportunities for supported, face-to-face peer interaction
  • Give kids opportunities to use protected digital social media tools to make friends in a stress-free environment

What to look for in an app

  • Tools that have characters or people, as opposed to only objects or concepts
  • Ample response time, with opportunities to try again and positive feedback
  • Practice identifying facial expressions and social cues
  • Chances to interact safely with kids in other locations (virtual pen pals, pre-scripted chat)
  • Adjustable levels of reinforcement and activity so that tools can be set to avoid fear, confusion, and too much stimulation

Learn more

  • National Center for Learning Disabilities: -- many articles about social and emotional skills, with links to other informative sites
  • AbilityPath.org: -- online hub and community for parents of children with special needs, with helpful tools and resources
  • Social Thinking: -- a treatment framework and curriculum developed to improve individual social-thinking abilities

Our sources

Experts consulted

  • Barbara K. Polland, PhD, MFT, professor emeritus, CSUN
  • Kelly Priest, MS, partner at Social Foundations LLC
  • Joy Zabala, AIM center director, CAST

 

Organization

Beginner

Organization

 

Apps and other media can help kids who are challenged by organization and routines learn to understand and predict what will happen next, get ready for it, and remember the steps. These picks can help kids understand more about their environment and rehearse routines in safe, simulated ways before they try them in real-life activities.

 

Looking up the weather and dressing accordingly can help kids build independence in everyday routines. This terrific tool uses the Internet to search for local weather conditions and suggests what kids should wear. Kids can even upload photos of their own clothes.

Kids can learn to think about routines and get ready for school more independently. Seven animated scenes walk kids through various tasks, from waking up to packing a school bag. They can review each routine and follow along. Now you have a way to motivate reluctant kids to get going in the morning!

Kids explore, play math games, and learn routines to take care of a virtual puppy. They learn about basic pet-care routines, including how to address a pet's physical and emotional needs. They even get a chance to learn about empathy by helping other friends' pets in the game.

Kids who have emotional challenges often need help predicting what will happen in new or unfamiliar places. Here, they watch a photo slide show of other kids in places like the grocery store, school, and the dentist's office. Kids can review expected behavior and feel more at ease in new places.

Kids who love to cook can learn how to make pancakes, cupcakes, sandwiches, and pasta. This fun app lets them pick the ingredients and make no-mess recipes. Kids learn about cooking routines and get step-by-step directions as they play.

Creating healthy, balanced eating habits can be hard for kids who have trouble with change. Now they can get feedback on eating the right mix of foods to make balanced meals. And when they create new meals, they can send shopping lists, recipes, and coupons to help their parents.

Ask kids who like LeapFrog Explorer Learning Game: Pet Pals 2: Best of Friends! to help care for family pets. Emphasize that family pet care is a team effort, and give kids age-appropriate tasks. Even early learners can fill food bowls or brush furry pets.

Intermediate

Organization

 

Apps and other media can help kids who are challenged by organization and routines learn to understand and predict what will happen next, get ready for it, and remember the steps. These picks can help kids understand more about their environment and rehearse routines in safe, simulated ways before they try them in real-life activities.

 

Kids hone their time-management skills as they take on the role of air traffic controller. They choose the runways where planes land and the terminals they pull into. Airport Mania teaches time-management ideas in a unique game format.

Seeing their schedule laid out in advance can help kids who have trouble thinking ahead. Use this helpful app, which can also provide pictures to reinforce organization, as an electronic weekly scheduler. Kids can see the entire day or part of the day and check off tasks as they're done.

This collection of cooking-themed mini-games includes tons of recipes that help kids learn organization for cooking. There's plenty to do and a lot of extra material to unlock. Introduce kids to cooking routines with clever, surprisingly detailed cooking challenges.

Time Timer displays a red disk that quietly gets smaller as time passes. Kids learn that when the red is gone, time is up! This app is perfect for any kid who wants to know "How long?" but has trouble understanding a spoken answer.

Estimating time can be difficult for kids who are challenged by organizational tasks. After using Time Timer for a while with your kids, challenge them to estimate different amounts of time without using the app. Have them guess when 30 seconds, then one minute, then 10 minutes have gone by. Show them activities that take approximately that amount of time to help give them a reference point.

Advanced

Organization

 

Apps and other media can help kids who are challenged by organization and routines learn to understand and predict what will happen next, get ready for it, and remember the steps. These picks can help kids understand more about their environment and rehearse routines in safe, simulated ways before they try them in real-life activities.

 

Completing projects like these fun activities and crafts is a step toward developing sound routines and organizational skills. Kids can also learn how to write checks and balance a checkbook -- a great help for older kids who want to develop real-life skills.

Kids can learn about the essentials of email, Twitter, and other online communication tools with these simple and engaging tutorials. Have them check out Email Basics and Twitter101 to learn about online communication.

Video modeling can help kids who have challenges getting organized and creating routines learn to follow a schedule. Here you'll find a full library of photos and pre-made videos for learning. If you don't see the topic that kids need, you can add a photo or video of your own!

Adults and kids can create one-time or recurring text messages. Set the date and time so texts arrive exactly when needed. Setting up a repeating text message for taking medication, catching the school bus, or bedtime can help kids follow routines independently.

Wonderful Days -- Diary with Style is an excellent app for making multimedia diary entries. Kids can create notes associated with different days and add photos, sound recordings, and their location (enabling location services is optional). It’s a wonderful option for self-expression.

Add some purely silly or fun videos to My Video Schedule to liven up kids' day. Kids are used to schedules packed with appointments, routines, and chores. Sprinkling in more leisure activities like dancing, drawing, or baking a cake can give them something to look forward to.

Overview

Organization

Challenges Overview

 

Staying organized and building routines -- sometimes referred to as executive functioning skills -- are essential for school, work, and social life, but many kids struggle to master them. For kids who have a special need such as ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) or autism, academic and extracurricular situations can be difficult. One in 88 children in the United States has been identified as having autism (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012), and even more have ADHD or a learning difference. Here, we provide suggestions for identifying and addressing kids' challenges with organization. We also offer tips for finding effective apps and a list of related resources.

Download Overview (pdf)

 

Common challenges

  • Developing new routines or making changes to old ones
  • Transitioning from one activity to the next
  • Managing space, time, and materials

Common signs

  • Have difficulty planning and understanding how long a project will take to complete
  • Struggle to communicate details in an organized, sequential manner
  • Have trouble following directions, particularly when they're only given orally
  • Start many activities at the same time without finishing any of them

Ways to help

  • Prepare schedules that show pictures of what will happen, and review them often
  • Plan and structure routines at home and school, and stick to them as much as possible
  • Give kids warning before changing from one activity to the next

What to look for in an app

  • Use of visual organizational aides like pictures, alarms, and/or reminders
  • Visual ways to show time passing and what will happen next
  • Videos of kids doing tasks and completing everyday routines
  • Options to break big tasks into smaller, more understandable steps

Learn more

Our sources

Experts consulted

  • Leigh Burley Fong, OTR/L, co-founder, Ready Set GO Therapy, Inc.
  • Kelly Priest, M.S., partner at Social Foundations LLC
 

Reading

Beginner

Reading

 

A host of imaginative apps and other media can help kids learn to read and write. Kids can learn early skills like tracing letters and sounding out words or make up cartoon stories about their own lives and interests. Touch-sensitive screens and audio feedback give kids an extra boost as they start to develop reading and writing skills.

 

This great interactive book has kids drag letters to the right place below a picture as the letters and words are sounded out. Kids will delight as the black-and-white screen changes to color and drawings animate. Adults can customize settings to suit kids' phonics knowledge and reading level.

Each screen gives kids an object and a word to spell. They have to drag and drop letters into the right slots. When the word is complete, a voice spells and says the word, and the next word appears. Lots of options let adults tailor the experience to match kids' skills and preferences.

Kids learn to notice differences and to focus on details. Three different games show a set of objects and ask kids to match two that look the same -- an essential skill for kids with autism. Kids practice noticing colors, patterns, and sizes of objects to make a match.

Kids practice writing letters, numbers up to 20, and simple words. By following Mr. Crab with a finger, kids write each letter and number. What's more, adults can adjust the difficulty level and features for individual kids with writing challenges.

Words flash, and then kids tap the screen when any letters in the word float by. Tapping makes the frog shoot out its tongue and "lick" the letter. You'll find that the game slowly increases in difficulty depending on how kids do, though you can also adjust settings to keep kids engaged.

This free learn-to-read method is based on many studies and educational research. With the site’s online books, songs, rhymes, and other games, kids progress from being reading ready to independent readers. It also includes many valuable resources for parents and teachers.

Once kids learn new skills with tools like FirstWords: Deluxe, extend learning into home or school. Find the same words in the home or classroom, and match the letters.

Intermediate

Reading

 

A host of imaginative apps and other media can help kids learn to read and write. Kids can learn early skills like tracing letters and sounding out words or make up cartoon stories about their own lives and interests. Touch-sensitive screens and audio feedback give kids an extra boost as they start to develop reading and writing skills.

 

This interactive reading and spelling app presents a 12-page book, which can be played on four different levels. On each page, kids spell most of the words in each sentence, one at a time. The four difficulty levels make this a customizable tool for kids with reading challenges.

Kids can explore lots of engaging activities from the site's menu of crafts, recipes, science experiments, and more. They can learn to follow directions with the step-by-step instructions and improve comprehension skills by reading fun facts, learning new jokes, and playing word games.

This simple word-processing app keeps kids focused on writing without distracting or confusing formatting options or graphics. Kids can sync text written in iA Writer with other devices for later revision, editing, and printing.

This flashcard-style app helps kids learn words by letter sounds. Kids learn how to listen and look for letter sounds and piece them together to form words. For a more personalized learning experience, kids can record their own voice.

Some words can't be illustrated with pictures or sounded out according to phonics rules, so kids need to learn them by sight. This app includes about 85% of these essential words used in early reading materials. Adults can check progress reports after each session.

For kids who are just learning to spell and work with letters, try this fun speaking, spelling, sentence practice, and phonics tool. Key features include spelling word lists and the option to create custom study lists. It's a great way for kids with reading challenges to create their own lists.

As you read books with kids, help them keep track of any new or unfamiliar words they encounter. Encourage them to practice writing the words using iA Writer or create custom spelling lists with Word Wizard.

Advanced

Reading

 

A host of imaginative apps and other media can help kids learn to read and write. Kids can learn early skills like tracing letters and sounding out words or make up cartoon stories about their own lives and interests. Touch-sensitive screens and audio feedback give kids an extra boost as they start to develop reading and writing skills.

 

Use this site to create, share, publish, and read electronic books that engage kids and support learners according to their individual needs, interests, and skills. Kids can log in to write their own books and share them with friends.

This helpful app can read most documents out loud. Students with reading challenges can get information from the text and learn new words while they see and listen to each word in the document. It can also be a great tool to help kids proofread a text by hearing their writing read aloud.

Kids can practice basic storytelling skills, such as plot development, and learn how to establish characters, set the scene, and write dialogue. This is a fun way for kids to become amateur cartoonists, share their stories, and improve their writing.

Kids tap "Record" and start talking. When finished, they press "Stop," and the dictated words appear on the screen almost like magic! Kids who struggle with reading or writing can benefit from using Dragon Dictation to help with tasks they find difficult.

Listening to text helps kids who struggle with reading get information from printed materials. Kids can copy text from emails, documents, web pages, and PDF files and paste it into Speak It! One particularly nice feature is that the text is spoken in a high quality voice.

Use fun websites like Comic Life to help motivate kids to create stories. Then use a different writing tool -- like ClaroSpeak or Dragon Dictation -- to help them record their words and ideas in print.

Overview

Reading

Challenges Overview

 

Reading and writing skills are necessary for school, work, and life, but many kids struggle to master them. For kids with a learning difference or poor coordination in their hands, learning to read and write can be particularly difficult. Some kids also have mild vision problems that affect how their eyes move across a page or how well they can see small print. Nearly 62 million (or 1 in 5) Americans are dyslexic (The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia, 2012). Here, we provide a list of common signs of reading and writing challenges and offer tips on how to help kids with those challenges. We also have tips for choosing apps to improve reading and writing skills and a list of related resources.

Download Overview (pdf)

Common challenges

  • Reading or spelling words that other kids their age can recognize and spell
  • Learning numbers, the alphabet, days of the week, colors, and shapes
  • Making their eyes follow the line of words on a page
  • Remembering what they just read

Common signs

  • Are reluctant to read and write, and read slowly and with much effort
  • Confuse letter names and sounds
  • Have messy, unreadable, or very large handwriting
  • Write letters backwards or upside down when they're in third or fourth grade
  • Confuse basic words like was and want or left and felt

Ways to help

  • Give directions verbally as well as in writing
  • Break down directions into small steps; give only one or two instructions at a time
  • Encourage kids to spell by speaking each sound aloud
  • Focus on the child's strengths, not weaknesses
  • Try not to expect reading or writing beyond kids' abilities

What to look for in an app

  • Opportunities to practice letter or word recognition and expand vocabulary
  • Tools that read words aloud and highlight words as they're read
  • Settings that allow for gradual increase in length or complexity of words/passages
  • Keyboards that read each letter, word, or sentence aloud as a child types
  • Automatic spell checking that tells kids when they misspell a word
  • Predictive text, which gives kids options to select from a few word choices.

Learn more

Our sources

Experts consulted

  • Melinda Techler, speech language pathologist and reading specialist
  • Amy Martini, reading recovery teacher, Ravenswood City School District
  • Gayl Bowser, independent assistive technology consultant
 

Math

Beginner

Math

 

Countless apps and other media are available to help kids develop essential math skills. With these learning products, positive feedback and encouraging characters can help kids build confidence and excitement about numbers and shapes and learn basic operations like addition and subtraction.

 

Early learners practice tracing shapes, counting, and following directions. Kids can tap out pirate drumbeats or use a spyglass to discover treasure as they learn basic math skills. Fit kids' photos into a cartoon pirate body to personalize the game.

Kids help Hana and Cory rescue sea creatures as they tackle math problems. With each rescue, kids earn a sticker to play with in the "stickery." Progress reports include data on the skills that kids have learned. Kids will enjoy this fun way to learn early math skills.

The Montessori method encourages kids to play with objects to build an understanding of math concepts. Montessori Numbers translates this method to the digital world, using blocks and number rods to help kids learn counting and quantity. It exposes kids to math in a meaningful way.

Block-style puzzles help kids learn to identify shapes and make relevant connections between shapes and objects in the world. Kids choose images and match shapes to fill them in. A more basic game for early learners shows only shapes and gives voice direction to help kids match them.

Five mini-games earn kids trophies and unlock the Key to the City. The city has objects to interact with and great features like profiles for up to four kids and feedback that can be adjusted to meet the needs of kids who have math challenges.

The new skills that kids learn with tools like Montessori Numbers or Jake’s Never Land Pirate School can transfer to everyday activities in the home, classroom, and community. Help kids make these connections by creating opportunities to practice in the real world. Have kids count objects, or challenge them to look for shapes or quantities in a game of I Spy.

Intermediate

Math

 

Countless apps and other media are available to help kids develop essential math skills. With these learning products, positive feedback and encouraging characters can help kids build confidence and excitement about numbers and shapes and learn basic operations like addition and subtraction.

 

One of Carmen Sandiego's henchmen has masterminded the theft of the Gateway of India, and it's up to the kids to find out who did it. They must solve 10 practical math problems to uncover the mystery. This fun educational game will help kids practice math skills without struggles or frustration.

This is a fun way for kids to practice counting money with coins. Kids choose from three straightforward modes of play: fill the piggy bank with the requested amount, enter the amount of money available, and add up a group of coins. Practice in counting, adding, and estimating money will pay off.

Learn addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, and more with this highly customizable math app. Kids use critical thinking skills and can hear problems read aloud to overcome obstacles to math learning. They'll find fun and fantastically varied math practice.

To capture the villains, kids add, subtract, or multiply -- sometimes all within the same problem -- to get a target total. This clever game lets kids practice math skills in a fun environment. Kids can choose from five different levels, from basic arithmetic to negative numbers and multiplication.

Make learning math engaging and fun with these great mini-games. Kids practice math skills and compete against others in multiplayer mode. They start by creating an avatar that moves from game to game and then earn trophies, certificates, and accessories as they complete exercises.

Turn apps like Marble Math Junior into a physical game. Create a maze out of paper or cardboard. Set up numbers written on Post-Its, coins, or other objects of different quantities around the maze. Have kids roll balls or marbles through the maze, hitting the objects in order -- from smallest to largest, or vice versa. Try different variations so they can learn different math skills.

Advanced

Math

 

Countless apps and other media are available to help kids develop essential math skills. With these learning products, positive feedback and encouraging characters can help kids build confidence and excitement about numbers and shapes and learn basic operations like addition and subtraction.

 

If kids don't understand the language of numeracy, they literally can't do the math. This animated, interactive online math dictionary explains more than 600 common mathematical terms and math words in simple language. This is a great resource for kids with math challenges.

Kids with no prior knowledge of algebra or arithmetic can learn to solve simple algebraic equations. This inventive game helps kids learn algebra through gameplay and without the use of intimidating math language. It's simple enough for beginners but deep enough for more advanced kids and teens.

Kids learn math through everyday examples, from judging how far you can drive on a tank of gas (using mileage-per-gallon estimates) to how distance and angles affect mirror reflections. Fun problems teach kids a variety of math principles, and resources for parents and teachers extend the learning.

This outer space-themed sim teaches economics in a fun way. Up to six real players can learn together about the economy and money management concepts like loans and interest, wages, and profit. Gazillionaire! is an in-depth economics sim disguised as wacky, space-themed fun.

Encourage kids or teens to play Gazillionaire! with their friends. They can even include you in the mix. Learning about money management in a fun setting with friends can help them overcome a fear of math and money.

Overview

Math

Challenges Overview

 

Kids need math skills to succeed in school, manage money as they get older, and one day get jobs. But for many kids, math doesn’t come easy and feels scary. For those who have a learning difference such as dyscalculia or a developmental delay, understanding numbers, equations, and other math concepts can be very tough. We know that anywhere from 6 to 14 percent of kids through age 19 have some type of learning difference in math. (Mayo Clinic, 2005). Here, you’ll find an overview of math challenges, along with suggestions for identifying and addressing kids’ math-specific learning needs. We also provide tips for finding effective apps and a list of related resources.

Download Overview (pdf)

Common challenges

  • Understanding what numbers mean and how math symbols relate to quantities/actions
  • Memorizing basic number facts in addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division
  • Developing memory strategies they can use on their own
  • Understanding words and language that describe math ideas
  • Remembering the steps of complex calculations
  • Handwriting and arranging numbers and math signs on the page

Common signs

  • Try to complete complicated math problems by counting fingers, pencil marks, or small blocks or objects
  • Can use number ideas at home but have trouble with formal school math
  • Count the same items or pictures differently when they try several times
  • Are unusually messy or disorganized with papers, books, and other things
  • Get different answers every time they complete the same calculation

Ways to help

  • Help kids show and explain what a problem means by using objects, pencil marks, etc.
  • Read problems to kids or help kids say problems out loud before and after
  • Ask kids to talk about how they are doing math work
  • Give kids a pocket-size facts chart so they can learn to do more difficult operations while learning basic math facts
  • Use physical materials to help kids make concrete connections to concepts like place value, fractions, decimals, measurement, money, percentage, and even algebra

What to look for in an app

  • Multiple ways to practice the same skills in different ways
  • Chances for kids to problem solve rather than demonstrate math ideas
  • Options for adjusting levels of reinforcement and stimulation to meet kids’ individual needs
  • Plenty of response time with chances to try again
  • Immediate feedback when kids are successful
  • Immediate and informative help to show what went wrong when kids make mistakes

Learn more

  • National Center for Learning Disabilities -- helpful site that offers many articles about social and emotional skills, with links to equally informative sites
  • AbilityPath.org -- online hub and community for parents of children with special needs
  • LDOnline -- working with your child's teacher to identify and address math disabilities
  • Social Thinking -- a treatment framework and curriculum developed to improve individual social thinking abilities

Our sources

Experts consulted

  • Barbara K. Polland, PhD, MFT, professor emeritus, CSUN
  • Kelly Priest, MS, partner at Social Foundations LLC
  • Joy Zabala, AIM Center director, CAST
 

Motor Skills

Beginner

Motor Skills

 

For kids with motor challenges, apps and other media offer fun, creative ways to move their bodies and use their digits. Products like these can give them practice with fine motor skills (like writing) and let them be active participants in games like bowling and basketball.

 

You'll tame lions and walk tightropes under a circus big top; you'll ride broomsticks and chase ghosts in a wizard's castle. Games are played with the Wii remote and the Active Life floor pad. Move and exercise while keeping your mind sharp with thinking games.

Tap out tunes like "Happy Birthday" or make up a new song. Playing on this xylophone is a great way for kids with motor challenges to learn fine motor skills like tapping a target and using their non-dominant hand. They can also develop writing skills by practicing hand and finger movements.

Kids practice writing letters, numbers up to 20, and simple words. By following Mr. Crab with a finger, kids write each letter and number. What's more, adults can adjust the difficulty level and features for individual kids with writing challenges.

Early learners practice tracing shapes, counting, and following directions. Kids can tap out pirate drumbeats or use a spyglass to discover treasure as they learn basic math skills. Fit kids' photos into a cartoon pirate body to personalize the game.

Assembling jigsaw puzzles by matching colors and shapes can be a great way to help kids coordinate their hands. In some, kids hear letters read aloud when they put pieces in the right place. Puzzles have a range of levels and options to customize.

  • Fun tools like these can help kids overcome motor challenges that make using a pencil or crayon difficult. Once kids have mastered critical skills using digital products like these, try going back to paper and pencil to practice the same skills in a different way.
  • Active Life: Magic Carnival and other games that have a movement sensor provide amazing alternatives for kids who have difficulty walking and running. Even if kids have trouble competing on the soccer field, they can still play games with friends and win.
  • Early fine motor skills like writing letters and drawing require that kids use their hands and eyes together. Help kids learn hand-eye coordination by playing games like Jake’s Never Land Pirate School at school and at home and I Spy in the car on the way there.

Intermediate

Motor Skills

 

For kids with motor challenges, apps and other media offer fun, creative ways to move their bodies and use their digits. Products like these can give them practice with fine motor skills (like writing) and let them be active participants in games like bowling and basketball.

 

Help kids grow in hand-finger coordination and writing skills. Kids practice tapping, pinching, and writing on the touch screen in order to build hand and finger strength, control, and dexterity. This app is specifically designed for kids with fine motor challenges.

Completing projects like these fun activities and crafts is a step toward developing sound routines and organizational skills. Kids can also learn how to write checks and balance a checkbook -- a great help for older kids who want to develop real-life skills.

Choose a color and a brush, and start doodling. Options to send doodles by email or play them live on the Internet make this a great social learning tool. Kids can draw with a friend or family member in the same city or on the other side of the country.

This dot-to-dot app can be customized for each user. Depending on kids' motor challenges, they either touch the dots individually or drag their finger between dots. As they complete the puzzle, the app celebrates their success. A great way to develop fine motor skills.

Kids can learn how to dance and move to music with this game, which encourages creativity and helps kids get in shape. Introduce kids with motor challenges to a number of dance routines that they can imitate in order to improve their own motor skills. Or they can dance to their own choreography.

From piano to electric guitar -- kids just tap and play. Kids will enjoy fun sparkle graphics as they make new melodies. With the many musical instruments to choose from, kids can get lots of practice developing their sense of musical pitch along with their fine motor skills.

  • Have a dance-off. Just Dance: Disney Party is a great way to bond during family reunions or parties. Mix up the teams so that kids with motor challenges are included, and face off for some healthy competition.
  • Once kids have developed some skill with DotToDot Numbers & Letters, use activities from DLTKS Crafts for Kids to reinforce their new skills with pre-made templates. 
  • Use the Doodle Buddy option to doodle over a photo and send it by email to friends and family. Kids can give themselves a silly new hairdo and send the photo to Grandma to spark smiles all around as they practice fine motor skills.

Advanced

Motor Skills

 

For kids with motor challenges, apps and other media offer fun, creative ways to move their bodies and use their digits. Products like these can give them practice with fine motor skills (like writing) and let them be active participants in games like bowling and basketball.

 

Make the formula pass through all the lab tubes until it gets to its final destination. To get it there, kids have to align all the lab tubes in the correct position. Kids will find this an engaging way to practice fine motor and visual skills for writing and hand control.

Kids learn about sports and healthy movement and practice motor skills in this polished collection of quick sports simulations. They'll become better acquainted with rules, strategies, and techniques as they perform movements that imitate those of actual athletes.

Kids develop cutting, pasting, and coloring skills as they learn to make paper toys to use in imaginative play. Instructions to fold, cut, and glue the free, beautifully decorated paper designs help kids use their fine motor skills in creative and innovative ways.

In this cartoon action game, kids tilt the device in order to guide the fish and survive. Tiny Fish must escape from the toxic ocean, eat cookies, and avoid looming predators like the urchin fish. Just try to survive in these lethal waters! A great game for improving two-hand coordination.

Imagine a virtual art studio that lets kids create art with everything from paints and crayons to chalk and buckets of paint. Kids build their art skills and practice motor skills essential for creative expression, school, and life.

Practice motor skills and learn new ones with a personalized workout. Kids can design the workout to target hands, legs, or core muscles. If kids have motor challenges, they can build coordination based on their individual needs and have fun working out at the same time!

  • The best way to practice fine motor skills is to use them in real life activities. Help kids label their own clothes, books, and games while they practice their writing skills.
  • Kids can use projects from The Toymaker website to make simple gifts for friends, family, and teachers. This is a great way to practice skills like cutting, pasting, and coloring while doing something nice for others at the same time.
  • Turn the idea behind Tiny Fish into a fun bathtub game with floating bathtub toys and a flat plastic plate and a bowl. Kids make the fish float from the plate into the bowl for some fun water play and some great practice with two-handed coordination.

Overview

Motor Skills

Challenges Overview

 

Motor skills are essential in order to walk, run, or even grip a pencil to write, but many kids struggle to master them. For kids with physical developmental delays or developmental coordination disorders, controlled movements can be a real challenge. Kids start developing the two types of motor skills -- gross and fine -- very early in life. Gross motor skills involve kids' larger, stronger muscles, which they use to sit, crawl, walk, run, and jump. As their bodies gain mobility and stability, kids develop fine motor skills, which require small muscle movements of the hands to do things like tie their shoes or cut paper with scissors. Read on to learn about ways to identify motor challenges and help kids improve both gross and fine motor skills. We also have tips for effective apps and a list of related resources.

Download Overview (pdf)

Common challenges

  • Small muscle (fine motor) movements like picking up small objects, drawing, writing, and fastening buttons and zippers
  • Large muscle (gross motor) movements like walking, running, and playing sports
  • Simple movements such as waving goodbye or more complex movement patterns such as dressing or grooming

Common signs

  • Weak or "floppy" muscles -- or very stiff and inflexible muscles
  • Unusual or underdeveloped movement
  • Learning to sit up, crawl, or walk much later than other kids the same age
  • Problems with fine motor tasks such as pointing, picking things up, drawing, and writing
  • Difficulty playing movement games like soccer and tag with other kids the same age

Ways to help

  • Work with kids to practice the specific movements that challenge them
  • Encourage kids to try increasingly difficult new movements
  • Divide difficult motor skills into smaller steps that are easier to learn

What to look for in an app

  • Opportunities for kids to practice hand-eye coordination
  • Chances to practice balance and gross motor activities via games with movement sensors
  • Options to adapt movement activities to make them more or less difficult
  • Speech commands for kids who struggle with typing

Learn more

Our sources

Experts consulted

  • Leigh Burley Fong, OTR/L, co-founder, Ready Set GO Therapy, Inc.
  • Lani Hessen, OTR/L, pediatric occupational therapist, clinic director, Kidspace