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A Special Robot for Special Tasks – an interview with the authors of the Photon Special Educational Needs Kit

The Special Educational Needs (SEN) Kit is the first of its kind in the world. The SEN kit authors are certified teachers-therapists. They see great potential in modern technologies when working with children with special needs – Renata Idzik, Agnieszka Setnikowska, and Małgorzata Rabenda.
We met with these three amazing women to better understand this innovative product and how it could change the way we teach children with special needs.

Let’s start with the most important question – what are the Special Educational Needs behind the enigmatic SEN acronym? 

Agnieszka Setnikowska: The term Special Educational Needs (SEN) applies to children who, for various reasons, do not fit into the standard educational model. These children require unconventional teaching solutions and approach as the standard ones simply do not fulfill their needs or abilities.

Malgorzata Rabenda: Each child is different and develops at its own pace. It is not very often that children’s interests and temperament go hand in hand with traditional education requirements – as it is supposed to be a one-fits-all solution. Mother nature blessed us with many different talents but ailments too. Some of us are in poor health. Others have an extra chromosome, yet others an exceptional sensitivity to environmental stimuli, and that’s just a few examples! Besides all those things equipped by nature, a small man who comes to kindergarten or school also brings whole emotional baggage, often related to his/her parents. When working with a group of about 24 children, it is quite challenging to meet each child’s educational needs simultaneously. Hence the need for extracurricular activities in smaller groups to give all these unique children what they lack in classes with other children.

So, the SEN Kit is supposed to respond to these needs to equalize these kids’ educational opportunities and facilitate teaching?

Malgorzata: Yes, the Kit was designed for educators who work with children that need more time to learn, recognize, understand, and express emotions. The Photon Robot assists children — it’s their companion in a world of rules and everyday life challenges. The robot has a lot of patience, can repeat the same activities repeatedly, and surprises entertains and motivates them to make an effort. The activities provided with the Kit are just simple propositions that educators should further develop. They should use their own ideas and adjust accordingly to the age and individual needs of the children they work with.

OK, so what is the suggested age of children that can enjoy all the benefits of the SEN kit?

Renata Idzik: Our Kit has been developed for pre-school children, early years foundation stage, and Grades 4–6. However, the activities prepared for Grades 4-6 could be easily adapted by educators/therapists to even older students’ needs. Our lesson scenarios are available for one-to-one sessions and group sessions.

How did you come up with the idea of using a robot, educational mat, and flashcards for your needs? How does this Kit differ from other teaching aids you used at work with SEN children?

Agnieszka: The fact is that in many countries, educational robots have long been used to support teachers and therapists alike in their work with special needs children. In Poland, this form of support is relatively new and is still developing.

Renata: And we all know that children love robots and all kinds of technological gadgets! Each teacher is tasked with the organization of learning support situations that meet children’s expectations. The Photon Robot energizes them to action, taking the initiative, activates the desire to learn something new. Our SEN kit is a comprehensive tool. The grab-and-go lesson plans also contain the necessary teaching aids: two educational mats, flashcards, and a robot. If you choose this Kit, you have everything you need to conduct engaging activities. And this makes our product stand out from others – our set is a ready-to-go therapist’s tool — right out of the box.

You are saying the SEN therapy is about teaching children how they like it – learning through play?

Malgorzata: Exactly, children of that age learn through play, plus any type of movement stimulates the brain. Movements, emotions, and multisensory cognition make information more easily processed by the brain and thus create a long-lasting memory. In the learning environment, our robot represents movement. The educational mat provides a boundary of a safe space where this movement takes place. This is a simple analogy to the world surrounding a child. Children need distinguished boundaries and transparent rules to feel safe. Graphic elements on the mat stimulate imagination, set points of reference, build a narrative, and stimulate conversation. The flashcards are graphical representations of things we want a child to remember. As we say, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

We are focusing on the robot, but the Kit also includes some accessories and lesson scenarios. 

Malgorzata: The SEN kit is here to assist teachers and create a comfort zone when it comes to preparing classes for special needs children. Apart from the robot itself, the Kit also includes two educational mats and 50 activity cards. There are five sets of thematic flashcards with pictograms to facilitate communication during classes – they are based on the Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) standards of communication. They illustrate emotions, objects, everyday activities; you have flashcards with numbers and letters useful when you practice reading and counting skills. There is also a set with symbols used in our application and images helping to develop spatial orientation, explain geometric shapes, and teach colors. 

The Kit is designed to support using activating teaching methods, encourages learning through play and experiencing motion. Activities with the Photon Robot require interaction and child engagement.

Renata: We have prepared a whole range of activities and games that could be used during therapy and lessons. There are activities for individual and group sessions, for pre-school and school children, group integrating games. We also focused on non-neurotypical children, such as those with autism. The SEN Kit contains 50 lesson scenarios intended for educational therapy classes and remedial classes focusing on children with autism spectrum disorders and emotional and social disorders. Each activity in the Kit is on a separate sheet. Activities may be used as inspiration for further development of games for children or specific lesson plans.

How do teachers and therapists use the Kit’s elements in their daily work with children? What really is a therapeutic activity?

Agnieszka: Our proposed therapeutic activities are designed to improve or develop specific skills in children and focus on developing spheres with deficits. In many instances, we tried to indicate, in the form of notes, specific issues requiring teachers’ special attention during play – communication, eye contact, creating a common field of attention, etc. But of course, teachers are free to apply these instructions at their sole discretion. However, it is important to adapt our proposed activities to the needs, abilities, and preferences of a particular child or group. 

Renata: Most of the lesson scenarios we are talking about require that the Photon Robot be placed on the provided educational mat. Proper preparation and use of this learning-playing space is further facilitated by the flashcards included in the Kit. The Kit also contains flashcards explicitly used in communication with children with autism spectrum or other disorders. Such children can communicate their needs, choices, and preferences through these flashcards. Lesson scenarios in the SEN kit are grouped by competencies. Still, therapists may use or adapt them to specific situations and children. Plus, assigning any of these activities to a particular age group is only conventional. Therapists and teachers know their pupils best. They know their needs, deficit spheres as well as current and upcoming developmental goals and should be able to decide which activities are suitable for them.

Malgorzata: Absolutely, each part in the lesson scenarios can be modified and adapted to children’s age and needs. It is essential to follow children’s way of thinking during activities and pay attention to what they do and how they feel about it. A therapist’s work requires a great deal of flexibility and quick reactions to motivate and stimulate action. You cannot discourage them at any point. Children should be happy when following instructions and performing various tasks. The activities we proposed focus on reading, counting, programming, logical thinking, and recognizing and naming emotions, and improving self-esteem.

What else can the Photon Robot do to help children during therapy?

Agnieszka: First of all, the robot can help to “break the ice” between the child and a therapist. It is an excellent motivation for learning. It is a very attractive toy for a child, and their desire to learn how things work is often powerful. 

Malgorzata: And we should not forget that the robot itself intensely arouses interest in children. Children can change the color of its ears, can program the robot to make sounds, and drive around the room — most of the teaching aids cannot do that! Controlling the robot allows the child to take responsibility for it, teaches the rules of conduct, and shows the consequences of actions. It is challenging for children with low socio-emotional competencies to receive feedback. They can hardly stand failures and are easily discouraged when faced with challenges. When playing with a robot, it is the robot that makes mistakes and receives instructions. The child is the one who “just” controls the robot and gets a signal that nothing wrong has happened. Mistakes are just a part of the learning process, and sometimes it takes several attempts to achieve a set goal. The robot becomes a child’s companion on its educational path. They plan, face challenges together, and overcome them together.  

Renata: By using the Photon Robot, which, as mentioned earlier, is very attractive for children but also stimulates them and motivates them to take action. Motivated kids do not need to be reminded of their duties and reprimands. You do not need to use motivational systems of punishment and reward. Using the robot makes children happy to perform various activities because they see these actions make sense. Playing with the robot is not about precise following the teacher’s instructions. The most important factor here is effectiveness when seeking solutions on your own.

How do you use the Photon robot with your proposed activities? Do you need therapists or children to learn to program first?

Agnieszka: No, not at all. The only thing the therapists and children need to know is how to operate a mobile phone or tablet. The application you use to control the robot works exactly the same way as any other mobile application on our smartphone. In my opinion, this Photon application is incredibly intuitive, and it only takes a few minutes to learn how to use its basic functions. Suppose the child has difficulties with motor skills or is just beginning an adventure with the robot. In that case, you can choose the most basic control interface called “the joystick” in our application. However, if teachers and children know the very basics of programming, such as arranging blocks with instructions – then they can make their classes even more attractive by coding instructions in the Scratch interface, which is also available in the application.

Renata: In fact, to work with this robot, basic skills in operating mobile devices, such as a tablet or smartphone, are usually enough — and probably we all have these skills nowadays. The Photon application offers several interfaces. In our proposed lesson scenarios, we focused on using only the three most basic ones. Our experience shows that children are doing really well when using these interfaces. The teacher decides on which one to use – makes a decision after observing children during classes for a while. I would also like to clarify that the interface’s choice is only a proposition, an inspiration for the teachers. If you think that it’s too difficult or too easy, change it. 

Malgorzata: The Photon Robot is straightforward and intuitive to use, but the teacher does not usually have to control it. When designing the SEN kit, we have adopted the approach that the teacher’s role is to supervise, and it is the child who controls the robot. 

One more question. Do you have any advice for teachers who work with special needs children and would like to use your SEN kit? What would you tell them?

Agnieszka: Be creative. The robot and the activities we proposed are certainly a great starting point, but what we really wanted is that lesson plans are just an inspiration for the teachers. They should make the most of the ready-made plans and then use the product to further develop their methodology. The robot, flashcards, and educational mats open the door to a new world of many possibilities. We really wanted to create a kit that helps teachers and children develop every day and that they develop the Kit as they work with it.

Malgorzata: I would like to add that we all need to have an open mind regarding changes in our teaching methods and a bit of self-motivation. It is crucial to know how to teach to support the learning competencies of the future. When thinking about the children you work with today, consider what they really need. What challenges do they face? When thinking about challenges, you should be aware that this robot is a tool that helps shape the skills and attitudes of children and achieve educational goals – it’s good to keep that in mind when working with this Kit.

Renata: It takes a bit of courage, initially. Courage to take up new challenges, sometimes to overcome your own fear of modern technologies at work. Teachers need to believe in themselves, their abilities and skills, and sometimes fight with the stereotypes that advanced technology cannot or even should not be used at work with special needs children. Please remember, the change starts with us. We wish everyone results and a great time with the Photon SEN Kit, as it was a great pleasure for us and fun preparing the Kit.

I wish you all the best too, and thank you for your time!