The challenging behaviors and academic difficulties of secondary-school students are often misunderstood by faculty, who may resort to aversive interventions that only exacerbate these problems. In many cases, these difficulties arise as students strive for independence in all that they do. For example, personal supports such as reminders or other cues can begin to seem like nagging or harassment to them. Interventions that engage students' interests, while helping them take control of their own activities, can improve self-confidence, academic performance, and interpersonal behavior.
Over the past five years, I have conducted research with secondary-school students across Virginia, training them to use handheld personal digital assistants (PDAs) as time and task management tools, both at school and in the community.(1) Students with autism, ADHD, mental retardation, and other attentional or cognitive disabilities, have learned to complete and hand in their homework, manage medications, attend class and other appointments on time, and negotiate social challenges independently using these inexpensive technological aids. By learning to follow a schedule of their own devising, for instance, students are able to take charge of their daily lives, in preparation for the challenges that will face them in the world after secondary school.(2)
PDAs are available at any office supply store, ranging in price from less than $100 (for a basic model) to over $500 (for a premium model with expanded memory, digital recorder, and wi-fi Internet capability). Even the least expensive PDA allows students to create daily calendars with reminder alarms, and to develop to-do lists, course schedules, address lists, and other important tools. The devices come in two models (which use competing operating systems): Palm PDAs and MS mobile devices. Either model works well, though the Palm system is less expensive and offers more flexibility in customizing its features to the needs of a particular student. For most of my research participants, the basic Palm Z 22 ($90) has been sufficient for helping them better organize their daily activities.
Often parents seem doubtful that their teens can learn to operate a PDA, but I have been pleasantly surprised by how readily students take to these devices, often learning to use them entirely on their own. Typically, training takes only three one-hour sessions, followed by occasional trouble-shooting visits. On the first visit, I show the student how to enter data on the PDA (an onboard tutorial reinforces this training), load calendar and back-up software on their home PC, and help the student create four or five calendar reminder alarms for each day of the following week (typical reminders include medications, chores, homework, or extracurricular appointments). A return visit, a day or two later, includes training in the use of to-do lists and contact information. The third and final visit, one week later, involves a review of previous training, discussion of how well the student has begun to incorporate the device into her/his daily routine, and additional training in the use of auxiliary features (such as games, digital photos, podcasts, beaming information between PDAs, or other topics of interest to the student). Whenever possible, I include a parent in the training, to provide at-home trouble-shooting assistance and encouragement, as needed.
Though adaptive technology is available for PDAs (including wireless keyboards, vibrating alarms and screen magnifiers), the best candidates for using PDAs are students with sufficient dexterity to manage either a stylus or thumb-pad for entering data and those with functionally intact vision and hearing. Students seem to love the practicality of PDAs, their versatility and their "cool" factor, but for most students, the most important benefit is the freedom they provide from parental and faculty "nagging."
As students learn to use these devices to manage their activities independently, their self-assurance grows. Many students show improved academic performance and less reliance on social supports. As one parent stated, "The PDA is part of my son now. He carries it everywhere he goes, his whole day is right there in his pocket, and he's proud to be in charge of his own activities at last."
(1) This work was conducted at the Partnership for People with Disabilities at Virginia Commonwealth University, under a grant from the Commonwealth Neurotrauma Initiative Fund.
(2) The Partnership hosts an instructional website on the use of assistive technology for cognition at
Date: February/March 2008