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Between kids chattering, bolting from their seats or simply staring out the window, keeping students focused is a constant battle for Alexandra Beckman, a special education teacher of fifth- and sixth-graders in Ozark, Missouri.

“It’s probably how I spend the majority of my day,” Beckman admitted. She recently tried a new approach to claw back time for teaching core subjects – not cajoling or commands, but a simple question: Am I on task?

This query popped up repeatedly on students’ mobile devices, announced by a flashing screen and awaiting a tapped response of “yes” or “no.” Every answer became a nugget of data that an app called I-Connect graphed and made visible to both teacher and student for periodic debriefs.

“There’s still a huge teacher component. Too often, people expect technology to do everything. But how teachers use it can make a big difference.”

Beckman is among several teachers to pilot emerging “self-monitoring” applications for students with chronic behavior and attention problems. Self-monitoring students, who are often but not exclusively those with learning disabilities or attention disorders, work with teachers to set classroom comportment goals, such as coming to class prepared 75 percent of the time. Then they track their own progress.

Howard Wills, a research professor in education at the University of Kansas’s Juniper Gardens Children’s Project, leads the development of I-Connect. According to Wills, self-monitoring motivates students, “by making them partners in a strategy for improvement.” Rather than after-the-fact scolding or banishment to the principal’s office, self-monitoring is proactive and gives students much-needed practice in self-control.

Pencil-and-paper self-monitoring has been used for decades. Typically, students fill out photocopied score sheets during class and hand them in for review.  Sometimes, teachers offer a small reward (such as candy or extra free time) for reaching a behavior-improvement goal. Technology is relegated to timers, such as vibrating pagers, that cue students to score their behavior at regular intervals.

Wills spent years helping teachers implement this sort of self-monitoring. It worked, but was cumbersome, potentially drew unwanted attention from classmates and generated data that wasn’t often used beyond a daily tally. Then, Wills bought his first smartphone.

“I was floored by the ability of this thing to keep me organized,” he said. “It had alarms, calendars, checklists and prompts. It could even track my steps.” In short, it seemed perfect for self-monitoring. In 2010, Wills and colleagues at Juniper’s technology innovation lab set out to create I-Connect.

Around the same time, another group of researchers, led by two special education professors, Ted Hasselbring of Vanderbilt and Allison Bruhn of the University of Iowa, began work on Score It. In this app, both student and teacher are frequently prompted to rate the student’s recent behavior, such as being respectful and being ready, on a sliding scale.

Both apps have undergone years of testing with students of various ages and aptitudes. The studies typically include just a few students, because validation requires two trained observers to make detailed notes on each student’s behavior several times a minute – before, during and after the intervention. Score It should be publicly available at the end of May and I-Connect’s creators hope to have it ready within a year.

Howard Wills, left, and Phuong Tran, researchers at the University of Kansas, review the app they are developing to help children monitor their behavior in class. Credit: April Fleming

Meanwhile, the teachers in the pilot studies often keep using the apps after the studies finish, including Kristi Emerson, who piloted Score It with one of her at-risk students at a middle school in Mount Pleasant, Iowa.

“If we can help students realize, ‘Hey, I am in charge of my behaviors and choices,’ then they start gaining confidence,” said Emerson. “They see some success, and that snowballs.”

Beckman, who tried I-Connect for two boys with autism, pointed out one obvious advantage over paper-and-pencil: kids dig devices. “My students really liked the technology piece of it,” including the instant graphing of their progress, “so, they bought into it much faster,” she said.

“If we can help students realize, ‘Hey, I am in charge of my behaviors and choices,’ then they start gaining confidence. They see some success, and that snowballs.”

One of Beckman’s students used the app during math lessons and the other during writing. After about 30 days of the intervention, the student in math (also diagnosed with the developmental disability fragile X syndrome) increased his on-task behavior from 19 percent to 63 percent. The student who self-monitored during writing lessons, meanwhile, improved from 9 percent to 91 percent in on-task behavior. Both students also had substantial academic gains.

Self-monitoring must be precisely targeted. If a student gets engrossed in reading, then he doesn’t need to be pestered by an app every minute. But, if this student can’t focus on math worksheets for more than three minutes at a time, then a little on-task reminder during these lessons every couple minutes could be quite helpful.

The idea is to break up a big behavior challenge into manageable chunks. For some students, the prospect of focusing for an entire school day can seem daunting. Staying focused for the next two minutes, however, until your app checks in again to ask how it’s going, is much easier.

Then there’s the social aspect. Lachelle Clemons, who piloted I-Connect with special-education students at the high school in Stockton, Missouri, said that carrying a mobile device “took away some of the stigma” that could come from a paper checklist on a student’s desk, visible to peers. Nevertheless, the app developers downplayed the role that technology itself has in the success of a self-monitoring intervention.

“There’s still a huge teacher component,” said Hasselbring. “Too often, people expect technology to do everything. But how teachers use it can make a big difference.” What should be rated? How often? How should feedback be dispensed? Should rewards be offered?

Both apps are customizable. They can be set to check in once about punctuality or homework, while prompting self-reflection on a particular behavior every two minutes and on another behavior every five minutes. As students make progress, the goals and frequency of prompts can be adjusted.

The data amassed by the apps should inform those choices, although Bruhn admits that, for now, this usually requires her sitting down with teachers to go over the data together. She and Hasselbring hope to automate recommendations about when students may be ready for a less intensive intervention, using algorithms embedded in the app.

After all, the goal is to hone the ability to focus, organize thoughts and control emotions, to the point where they’re ingrained and motivated by the academic and social rewards they can bring. One of Beckman’s I-Connect students, for instance, has largely transitioned to general education classes, reducing his time in her at-risk classroom from nearly the entire day to just an hour. Still, she added, some level of support may be needed long term.

“This app can help students make these transitions,” she said, “because it can easily go with them wherever they go.”

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter to get a weekly update on blended learning.

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