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Polton teachers find a new way to communicate with students

The idea of going outside for recess took some getting used to.

For one 3-year-old student in Sara Beth Hefner and Jenny Riat's preschool class at Polton Elementary school in Aurora, the prospect of the playground was still novel. At the beginning of the school year, the thought of leaving the relative safety of the classroom for a foreign landscape of swings, slides and crowds of older students was downright frightening.

The fact that she couldn't communicate with her teachers in a traditional way made the thought of the outdoors even more intimidating.

"She was afraid to go outside," said Hefner, an early childhood special education teacher.

Along with Riat, a speech language pathologist, Hefner works with students who have specific learning needs when it comes to communication. Luckily, the pair had a way to make the big world of the outdoors less daunting.

They used a tablet computer, one of four brand new iPads purchased with Educator Initiative Grant funds of nearly $1,000. The money was awarded through the Cherry Creek Schools Foundation, which is dedicated to impacting all district students, investing in innovation in the classroom and building long-term relationships in the community. Using a free app called TinyTap, Hefner and Riat created an individualized piece of software for the student.

The teachers built a menu of pictures on the app, images of wagons, swings, sandboxes and other features of the playground they could use to tell the student exactly what was awaiting her outside. That direct communication helped the preschooler overcome her fears.

"Now she goes outside … She's more willing to try it," Hefner said. "She's in control of her day and her environment … Crying can mean a lot of different things."

Those kinds of breakthroughs have become common in the classroom, thanks to the new means of communication made possible through the iPads. The 3-year-olds who struggled to convey their thoughts, emotions and fears now have a go-to way to express themselves; by simply tapping pictorial cues on the screen, they can express a wealth of ideas.

"We have a lot of icons to help with language," Riat said. "They can have a voice in the classroom … They're learning to communicate with everybody, and their words have power."

During a typical warmup session, a group of four 3-year-old students considered their classroom options. There were blocks to stack, puzzles to complete and books to read. Thanks to the software available on the four iPads, they could quickly and easily voice their preferences. That included letting the teachers know when they were thirsty, or when they were feeling physically uncomfortable.

"I want to drink ice water," a prerecorded voice chimed from one of the iPads as a student tapped on the proper pictures. Hefner quickly obliged with a sippy cup.

Giving students a quick and easy way to voice such basic emotions makes a world of difference in the classroom, Riat said.

"This gives these students the opportunity to say what all of the other kids have an opportunity to say," Riat said. "We work on so many skills throughout the day … It helps them be engaged in learning, and it's changed how we teach our class."

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