Motivation, Middle School, and iPad Cool

Elaine Park


Our house is frequently really loud, as my seventh grade son, Drew*, races his long fingers at break-neck speed and top volume, up and down the piano, pounding out the Imperial March from Star Wars or some original composition of his own. His fingers are fast and strong, dexterous and coordinated. They are equally skilled at piecing together intricate creations out of his world-class Lego collection.

But because of a neurological quirk, this same child can’t tie his own shoes and has difficulty writing with a pencil or pen. He has a lot to say and wants to share it, but the frustration of handwriting often reduces him to despair, and is a frequent problem when it comes to completing language arts assignments. Like many parents of a child on the autism spectrum, I hope this can be resolved by his learning to type. Once Drew has mastered the keyboard, I believe the job of writing will be much less painful for him. It will free up his brain to concentrate on expressing himself instead of the mechanics of wrangling a pencil. For quite a while, I have even had thoughts of equipping him with a laptop for school. But since April 2010, I have dreamed of sending him to school with his own iPad.

Luckily the inclusion specialist at his school, Alice Gold, is not only on the same mental track, but is way ahead of me.


The phone rings a lot in Alice Gold’s office. It could be that a child is out of control in a classroom, or a parent is calling because a daughter can’t remember to bring her homework home. Or it’s a son who spends his recesses all alone on the playground because he can’t make friends, or any number of other professionals who need to confer with her. The front office has a question.

All of this activity is the daily bustle of an innovative inclusion program in a Bay Area elementary school that keeps children, like Drew, with Asperger’s or with high-functioning autism in the general education classroom. An aide accompanies them for part of their day, but otherwise they function independently. While some struggle with learning issues such as spelling or math, for the most part they do well-enough academically. Much of the focus of the program is helping students learn new coping and social skills so they can fully participate in their classrooms and on the playground at recess and lunch. The program is anchored on the belief that behavior is inherently a form of communication that expresses everything from happiness, to fear, and panic. When a student is having problems, staff focuses on discovering the triggers, and finding solutions to keep the student on track. Helping teachers and aides learn how to preempt meltdowns, redirect unhelpful reactions, and restore calm, is a major component of the support provided by the program.

For younger children providing this support can be relatively simple. Even though they may have intense problems with emotional and behavioral control, parents are often unconcerned about the extra help those children get whether it’s a classroom aide, a pullout class, or an assistive technology device for writing, like an Alpha Smart. But as children move into the middle school years, where it is social death to stand out, especially in a way that looks like a weakness, it gets harder for students to accept their support systems. Older kids can be less compliant, as well, as they start heading into the years of adolescent rebellion. Finding ways to help them, and motivating them to use the help available to them, can become a more challenging proposition.

It is a common axiom that motivation is what it’s all about when it comes to shaping behavior, and  a lot of Ms. Gold’s day is spent figuring just exactly how to motivate her kids, big and small. She frequently uses reward systems for desired behavior, that range from choosing a toy out of a treasure box at the end of the day, to earning marbles that can be redeemed at a certain point for a special prize. Drew gets tickets that can be turned in daily for pieces of Lego from a kit that builds a small space or land vehicle. Part of the agreement is that he gets to bring his creation home once it’s finished to join the growing fleet of wheeled and winged Lego parked around our house.

For the last five months, since our school district’s special education PTA gave her a grant to buy it, Ms. Gold has increasingly been using an iPad as an all-purpose behavior training tool. At its simplest, the iPad is a highly effective motivator in its own right. Some time spent playing a game on the iPad can be a gratifying reward for a student who completes a task or makes it through the day without running out of the classroom or hiding under his desk. For older students, who have grown out of their love of small plastic toys, or are immune to the allure of Lego, access to the iPad is a compelling treat they are willing to work toward.

The iPad became an invaluable tool for Ms. Gold pretty much right out the box, without taking up a lot of her short supply of time learning how to implement it. Its image-based interface fits in well with the strong visual skills most kids on the autism spectrum possess. The touch screen technology is easily manipulated and makes intuitive sense to pretty much anybody. There is virtually no frustrating learning curve. It is pleasurable to use; as the ads point out, it feels like “magic.” And for kids who are aware of pop culture around them- it is unequivocally cool.

For kids on the spectrum, being cool can be a rare experience, and Ms. Gold is capitalizing on this to help her students share social experiences with other students in their classes. She regularly holds a group that allows kids in the program to bring a classmate to play in the safety of her office during lunch recess. The chance to play on a coveted iPad makes this invitation rejection-proof and gives the hosting child a valuable opportunity to build a friendship with a peer.

Making friends is an important skill for kids on the autism spectrum to learn, as is using pragmatic language – the language of participation – starting with how to start and hold a conversation with another person, i.e. a real dialogue and not a monologue about Pokémon, and progressing to such things as maneuvering through a rapid exchange of insults, i.e. normal preteen-boy friendly chit-chat. As part of the inclusion program, my son has two social skills classes per week, facilitated by Ms. Gold and Sandra James, the school’s speech therapist. During these classes, pragmatic language, and the social behavior and thinking that go with it, get a lot of attention.

Game play is often Ms Gold’s tool of choice for helping students learn key social skills such as waiting for your turn, negotiating, winning and losing gracefully, and controlling impulses. Here again, Ms. Gold has found the iPad to be useful. As she says, “Instead of having to find storage space for 10 or 20 board game boxes, I can just use the iPad. Plus, parts don’t get lost. Can you imagine what it’s like for our kids to get a game set up and discover you are missing a piece?” Well, yes I can, from some (not-so-pleasant) experience in this area. I can also understand how stopping to help a child through the agony of not being able to play a game properly, or with a favorite game piece, can be a frustrating delay for the other kids in the group and eats into precious time carved out of their busy academic day to work on their social skills curriculum.

A big part of this curriculum involves playing strategy games. These games are especially useful for helping students hone their skills in perspective taking, which is so important to being a good friend, teammate, or class group member. Predicting and respecting the thoughts and feelings others can be extremely challenging for these children. Ms. Gold and Ms. James use games that are structured around anticipating another player’s move, or counter move, to give students practice in putting themselves in someone else’s head. The games also help students work on executive function skills such as organizing and planning, by requiring them to plot out moves far ahead in order to win, or at least not come in last. Game apps on the iPad, with their visual nature, are well suited for these exercises as many of the students are gifted visual thinkers. The iPad allows them to devote more of their brain power to strategizing than they might otherwise be able to with word- or number-based games. The virtual game pieces are also more easily manipulated than those of a physical game, which is helpful for students with poor motor control.

Of course the downside of a game that involves that much strategy to win is that you are also at the receiving end of someone else’s plotting, which can lead to all your best-laid plans being crushed. Having your brilliant strategy thwarted by another player brings in another important social skill the students need to practice – coping with frustration and disappointment. For many of Ms. Gold’s students being blocked from doing what they want to do is excruciating. Game playing during social skills classes gives her students a safe venue for working through and building tolerance to the uncomfortable sensations, both emotional and physical, this experience generates.

In some ways, the iPad makes all of these tasks more demanding and at the same time more desirable. Understanding that someone else wants a turn as much as you do gets a boot-camp level workout when the turn taking involves an object of craving, as the iPad is for most of us. On the other hand, the sensual nature of the iPad, plus its cool factor, deliver the high-level of motivation these students need to take on the brute force work of learning a skill set that is supposed to come instinctively. It can be downright painful, even when it’s a game, to experience frustration, rage, and panic while reshaping the most fundamental aspects of your response to the world. A tool that is fun to use and makes you feel good while you’re at it, goes a long way in helping these students find the strength and resilience they need to persevere in working toward their so-important goals.

The iPad has been such a useful device in so many of the program’s areas of focus, that Ms. Gold is now seeking out grant opportunities to buy several more units for the program. She is also hoping for an expansion in apps she can use. Many of the games that would appeal to her older kids are inappropriate because of violence, and most education apps are just too simple. Ms. Gold is looking forward to the day when developers create apps that can be used in a school setting by middle school students. “I’m waiting for the spelling apps that would help a sixth grader,” she says, “Or apps that let an eighth grader create a social story about being one of the only boys in the class who hasn’t their voice deepen yet. Or how to talk to a girl!”


The crashing crescendo is fading, Darth Vader has moved on to be evil somewhere else, and Drew is now absorbed in playing with Lego before settling down to his homework. This afternoon he will be using my laptop to write a five-paragraph essay. He has been perfecting his typing at school with Ms. Gold, using a keyboard accessory for the iPad. Whereas he used to strongly resist typing instruction programs, he is now more than eager to practice on the iPad. As Drew says, “It’s more fun and less boring.” After completing each session, he is immediately rewarded with some game time — his current favorite is checkers — which makes practicing even more palatable. Improved typing skills have made him more comfortable with using an Alpha Smart in his language arts class, and in turn his composition skills are improving and he is starting to have fun with his assignments. And equally wonderful for me, this incentive plan doesn’t bring a single piece of Lego into our house.

*Names have been changed to preserve student privacy.

List of useful apps 

  • Math: Freddy Fraction, MathBoard, Fraction Basics, NumberLines
  • Strategy games: Blokus, HD Jewel Trader, CityStory, TradeNations
  • Organization: UnblockMe
  • Typing apps: TapTyping, TypingClass
  • Spelling: Word Scramble, Spelit Rite, Textropolis, Boggle, Word Abacus
  • Language Arts: Sentence Builder, Dragon Dictation, Word Web Dictionary

School Inclusion Program 

  • Started in 2004 as a special inclusion program serving kids from kindergarten to eighth grade with an Asperger’s or autism diagnosis.
  • Provides aide support, IEP development and management, pull-out social skills classes, support for general education teachers, and mixed social groups with neurotypical peers.
  • Managed by an inclusion specialist with training in Autism Spectrum Disorders.
  • Supported by district behavior specialist.