Skip to main content

University of Michigan School of Information


Media Center

UMSI welcomes media inquiries

Designing better apps for students with special needs

Thursday, 05/02/2019

K-12 educators have been using technology in the classroom with increasing frequency but not always with great success, particularly when teaching students with special needs, says one University of Michigan researcher.

That’s why Gabriela Marcu, assistant professor in the School of Information, has focused her research and technology design work on communications strategies that engage teachers, parents and students in team-based solutions.

During two upcoming conferences she will share research from studies that highlight the problems with existing apps, and work toward tools that do more to help children with special needs and the teams that support them.

Marcu, also an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Michigan Engineering, believes technology, when well designed, can improve children’s behavioral outcomes and empower parents and teachers who often are strapped for time and resources.

“We’re all more connected than ever, but in special education communication is still quite a challenge,” Marcu said. “As a designer I would like to shape the future of technology so we can make this better with the right tools.”

Fixing parent-teacher communication

Making sure parents and educators are on the same page when it comes to behavioral intervention is critical to the success of students with special needs, and the mobile and social technologies we use every day could be the tools to get them there, Marcu said.

The work teachers do in the classroom must be reinforced at home, yet that cannot happen without good communication, Marcu said. Traditional methods like paper notes and even more contemporary forms of communication like email often don’t work.

At the CHI (human-computer interaction) conference May 4-9 she will present “Breakdowns in Home-School Collaboration for Behavioral Intervention.” 

Marcu and colleagues conducted research with teachers and parents of students receiving behavioral and mental health services to address autism spectrum disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, conduct disorders, anxiety, trauma and other needs. 

By law these students receive Individual Education Plans (IEP) that require, among other things, documentation of progress toward goals stated in the plan. Yet, parents often don’t hear about the plan or outcomes because of these communication breakdowns.

The team talked with educators and parents in the United States and Sweden to find out how the communication normally occurred and attitudes about how well it was working. Among the concerns:

  • Parents have little face-to-face time with school practitioners and, therefore, limited opportunity to build a working relationship.
  • Communications were not getting through, or when they did parents said it often was too late for them to do something to address an issue.
  • Educators were sometimes worried that if they shared information with parents about problem behaviors at school, this could lead to family conflict. This led to them curating what information they would share with parents.
  • The communication usually only flowed one way, particularly when using paper-based methods. Parents and teachers both wanted two-way communication in order to ask one another questions and work together.

Marcu found some use of apps and websites to facilitate communication about the IEP, but overall she was surprised at how many existing tools don’t meet their needs. She is, therefore, designing new apps together with parents, educators, and children to improve their usability and usefulness.  

Students as agents of change

For the second study titled Supporting Behavior Management with a Classroom Display Providing Immediate Feedback to Students, Marcu and colleagues developed and deployed a prototype to provide communication about expectations and consistent feedback to students with emotional or behavioral needs.

“The goal was to give children more agency over their success,” Marcu said.

The researchers conducted 30 months of fieldwork across four classrooms in both special education and regular education. Through 265 hours of observation, interviews and focus groups they explored the challenges educators faced implementing behavior management strategies. 

Together with educators and psychologists, they came up with an idea for a classroom display that would give the students custom feedback about how they are doing toward their personal behavioral goals. They used human-centered design to develop a first prototype and see how its use affected a first grade classroom over 10 months of the school year. 

On May 20-23 she will share the results of this study at the Pervasive Health Conference.

The teacher uses an iPad app to give students points for safe and appropriate behaviors, using categories that help students understand what physical, verbal and social behaviors are expected of them. A display mounted on the wall at the front of the room shows a cartoon frog for each student in the class, each sitting on a lily pad. Each time the teacher logs a point using the iPad app, the student gets a notification through a frog in a pop-up message and sound effect. 

Students trade their points in at the end of the day for a reward and the program resets for the next collection cycle.

We were definitely concerned about this backfiring, and that publicly displaying this type of information could lead to students feeling embarrassed or shaming one another about their behaviors. But that is where careful design comes in, by developing these technologies together," Marcu said. "What we found was that the display was so positive and encouraging that it actually led to students supporting one another to meet their goals.” 

Papers available at 

- Laurel Thomas, Senior PR Strategist, Michigan News