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What I said about Technology for small children before Covid - and what’s changed

If we quickly rewind to my posts from a year or more ago, let's take a look at what I was saying - something along the lines of:

“Beware! Avoid your child sitting in front of the screen – limit screen time – don’t just leave your baby / toddler in front of a screen blaring out a cartoon or other things without knowing exactly what your child is watching.”

It seems almost crazy to tell you now that some children I’ve been working with more recently during the pandemic have actually blossomed using the online methods.

In recent months, small children from Nursery right up to University students are spending hours in front of the computer, with online learning forcing eyes, attentions and minds squarely onto the screen.

Am I saying that I want to change my advice?

Yes, actually I do!

Covid has wrenched out of the hands of parents and educators and people like me the possibility of limiting children’s exposure to things on the screen.

However ,I have to admit, we’re seeing real progress in some children’s communication and play behaviours.

Having observed over the past few months, small nursery children and those with additional needs of various sorts being put into distance learning programmes. This means they need to spend 2 – 6 or more hours on a school day focused upon their screen.

I've made some observations about this forced change. Read on to find out why I now believe this:

Screens can actually be beneficial for some children, particularly those with special needs, depending upon how they are used.

I have watched with wonder, as teachers have grasped this massive challenge with both hands and their hearts, and have stepped into a different, and differently effective, mode of communicating their students.

Here are two examples:

One Special Learning Teacher I work with closely had the challenge of working with several little ones whose attention and focus even in the physical Nursery classroom were all over the place.

They rarely sat in one place – except when the screen was showing a cartoon or music that mesmerised them often for half an hour or more!

Then they would sit quietly.

It was passive listening and looking and made no demands upon them.

So you would think that with their fascination with screens this would be their heaven – to have to sit in front of the screen to have their lesson!

But no!

As soon as their teacher appeared and wanted their attention to do some of the learning they would have been doing in school, they would be off on an exploration around the house – anywhere but in front of the screen that they loved so much!

Because it was no longer passive.

The teacher took ideas from her experience and from discussing with us in the Inclusion Department, and devised ways to start getting her little student engaged.

She got the active help of the parent too.

From getting the child’s interest, and keeping it for gradually increasing amounts of minutes, these children started to respond and by the end of this unique term, I saw them learning with her and their Mums (amazing people, Mums) in front of the screen, for a full session, and interact, and listen, and start talking when talking was something some of them found really hard.

Some children with autism or with difficulties in organising themselves and processing found this a calmer, more orderly way that helped to organise their learning, and give them a structure and control that helps them focus.

Example No. 2

Another child who had started in nursery with very few sounds and significant speech disorder, has had speech therapy in school and at home over the years till she is now in Year 2 and has sorted most of her sound-system out – except for confusing ‘k’ and ‘t’, and ‘g’ and ‘d’ sounds.

She could say the sounds, when she thought about them and where she was making them in her mouth – but getting the sounds correct in sentences was still a challenge for her, especially as she is a chatterbox, and loves to chat about everything!

Another of my colleagues had been working with her very effectively in school, till Covid.

Then we had to think how were we to continue to get her to practice as she needed to carry over the correct sounds into her talking?

Using some great materials that I have often used before, the teacher prepared wonderful, clear, simple lesson plans to implement the speech practice and routines this little girl needed to get to say sounds correctly and start self-correcting – and she responded so well!

By the end of the term, she has made real progress in monitoring her own speech and self-correcting when she says a sound wrongly.

Make screen time interactive to make it effective

So – I think the big difference in the advice I should have been giving before is,

make sure you are sitting and talking with your child when he/she is watching things on TV.

Ask questions, comment, respond to your child’s questions, get them to show you things, point our things they may not know the names of.

The reason distance learning is working for these children is that it is an active, interactive, live person getting the child to respond, one who is sensitive to what the child needs to see or hear in order to make progress.

Somehow, counterintuitively, the distance learning situation has made it possible for many children with special needs to thrive. Have you found something similar? Or have you experienced the opposite? I would love to know. Leave a comment below or feel free to email me with your thoughts.

- Margi


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