Using Kinect in Special Ed Classrooms: Advice from Loudoun County, Virginia teachers

We continue to hear inspiring stories every day about how teachers are using Kinect for Xbox 360 to bring learning to life in the classroom. Today’s USA Today features a story by Greg Toppo about how special education teachers at Steuart Weller Elementary School in Loudoun County, Virginia are using the Kinect with their special needs students.
When Adina Popa, Technology Resource Teacher at Steuart Weller began encouraging her colleagues to explore how they might use Kinect for Xbox 360 in their classrooms, most had never used the technology before and had to start from the beginning to determine how it worked and the ways they might be able to incorporate it into existing curriculum and goals.  In classrooms that serve students with special needs, and for the teachers who work with children on the autism spectrum, it was no different. 
The Microsoft Education team talked with a few Special Education and Technology Resource teachers from Loudoun and asked them to share advice with other teachers who may be interesting in exploring similar assistive technologies. What follows is an interview with them and some example lesson and activity ideas they’ve developed.

You can also find much more information about Kinect in the classroom on our web page here that includes more than 200 school activity plans. You can also hear more from Steuart Weller in this webcast here.
Microsoft:  Tell us a little about how you got introduced to Kinect and began thinking about implementing it in your classroom.
Lynn Keenan, Board Certified Behavior Analyst:  I had never seen or used the Kinect in an academic setting until our Technology Resource Teacher approached me last summer and invited me to play and brainstorm ways in which we could incorporate it into our classes and curriculums.   Early on in a training session for all the teachers, I immediately saw the potential it held.  I had to think through what skills typical children needed to be able to interact with this technology and to identify some of the behaviors that were impacting my students’ ability to interact with their peers both with this technology and in the classroom. We had to figure out the gaps and the concrete pieces that were missing and assess how we might be able to use the Kinect to help address.

Adina Popa: We already had a huge initiative underway – effective integration of Promethean interactive whiteboards in the curriculum.  What sold me on the idea of using Kinect was the fact that it can be used in conjunction with the board, in a very interactive way.  It was soon very clear that Kinect was a welcomed addition to our existing technology.  We never looked back and students love the lessons our teachers created! 
Microsoft:  What did you have to do first to begin to unpack things?
Lynn:  At the very outset I had to figure out what I wanted from it, what goals it had the potential of helping me meet.  For instance, there are certain IEP goals towards which we work with children on the autism spectrum. Goals such as requesting help, asking for food/bathroom break/other necessities, using language to interact with peers, understanding and using gestures, understanding facial expressions, cooperating with peers, following directions.  For these types of goals, there were a number of ways we could use the Kinect to start exploring some exercises.  So far, we’re seeing encouraging progress.  The potential for the technology goes beyond these goals, but this is where I’d recommend for teachers to start. I’d recommend they analyze the goals of the students and decide which specific goals could be targeted using the technology.

Microsoft:  What kinds of progress are you seeking and what have you discovered?
Lynn:  We looked for ways to help the students work on behaviors such as making positive statements to each other, testing their ability to help each other out.
With children on the spectrum, we know they are often very competitive.  They want to be the leader.  Part of the diagnosis is not thinking about “the other” in most situations.   Well, one of the great things about most of the Kinect games is that they allow children to work WITH a peer versus against a peer.  It facilitated the kids instantly working together.   We’ve seen it help with verbalizations, even helping the kids to give instructions to each other!
I’ve learned that as we put goals together, teachers need to add reinforcement components as well.  We allow the children to earn points for targeting goals (beyond the game points they can earn) and demonstrating target skills.  If they earn extra points, they get an award.   Teachers understand that just like any other skill being taught, reinforcement of target behavior is necessary.  In this way, the Xbox and Kinect are just another tool that fits into the existing behavior system already present for each student.

Microsoft:  Any initial hurdles on implementing a new system like this?  And tips for overcoming them?
Christopher Bugaj, Assistive Technology Trainer:  When implementing a new technology into an existing routine, natural challenges are going to occur. Practical things like, how does it work, where is going to go, when do we use it, who sets up profiles, getting some experience using the gesture-based system, and how to navigate the various screens are all things that take a little time to figure out. Once those things are worked out, the technology fits right in as a part of the routine, not something that’s been added on. We like to think of it like mixing two colors of Play-doh together. At first, it might look like a glob on the outside but once you play with it for awhile, it all just swirls together.
Set rules for the children and outline them, even practice them before playing the game. Things like staying in the squares/areas outlined, only using positive comments for your peers, and waiting to take turns are useful skills to practice.
It’s also helpful to create profiles for the children participants, to track improvements over time.   We found good tutorials on account creation at
It takes a few days of pure experimentation with the system to figure it out and gauge student reaction.  One thing that worked well for us is doing a whole group activity where students helped to set up the teacher avatar so the kids can see exactly how that works. Once they’ve help customize the avatar for the teacher, they are eager and ready to customize their own avatars.   Another thing I’d offer is the advice to start with one or two students whom you believe will be successful and use them as models for the others.  Furthermore, like any activity, it can be scaffolded to meet the needs of the individual student.
Microsoft:   Are there specific Kinect games that you began with and that you’d recommend?
Lynn:  We looked at games that presented simple concepts, games that allow the children to problem solve at a basic level.  Some of our best progress has been with Kinect Adventures, with Avatar Kinect, Air Band and with Kinect Sports.  Honestly, we are just scratching the surface right now.  Even setting up the avatar and going through the Kinect ID set-up routine serve as functional activities for the students and help with orientation. Start with one or two games or activities and explore them until your students are ready to move on to something else.

Microsoft:  What does the conversation look like for teachers who may want to bring this up with administrators and other stakeholders at the school and classroom level?
Chris:  We encourage teachers to begin a dialogue with their Principals, with their Technology Directors (if they have one).  Bring them into your bigger purpose and goals.  Explain those goals that you’re targeting — that it’s not just about kids playing games.   As you get buy-in to goals, that goes a long way in bridging all your other tasks, such as working with your Instructional technology Lead on needs like day to day issues, entering WEP keys or getting hard wired, unblocking issues, or any other technical hurdles that need to be worked through in a school setting. Furthermore, reinforce the idea that the best learning occurs when a student is fully engaged and immersed in the activity. Finally, bring in research about how using kinesthetic activities in a classroom stimulates the brain and prepares students for active learning even when they are not using the technology.

Lynn:  And for communication with parents, there is nothing here that we’re trying that couldn’t also be worked on at home.   We are seeking to make progress on these basic goals.
Adina:  With Avatar Kinect, some of the students are creating their own “social situation stories” where they showcase growth areas.  We find that parents are extremely interested in reviewing these at home to help students work on specific, targeted behavioral skills.   There is so much more sharing of progress with these stories that comes alive through the process.
Microsoft:   So, for teachers who may be a little overwhelmed at starting something new like this — what would be your best advice?
Lynn:   I would start by encouraging them to take one step at a time but to try a new thing.  Have fun with it! Play with it.  Enjoy working with the kids while figuring out goals to target.
Chris:  Don’t be afraid to make a mistake and to figure it out as you go. When appropriate, let the students help you. Learn right along with your students and include them in the implementation process. This is another amazing tool to add to your arsenal of tricks to reach kids in new and exciting ways.


From Steuart Weller — Non-inclusive list of skills that can be taught/learned via Kinect for Xbox 360:

Hand-eye coordination
Problem solving
Sensory-body coordination
Behavior reward
Presentation skills
Facial Recognition
OT goals (fine motor skills)
Following directions
Understanding attributes
Peer Imitation
Replacement behavior
Spatial concepts (over, under, on, off, etc.),
Temporal concepts (first, last, before, after, next…),
Pragmatic skills (making requests, answering questions, asking questions, greetings, conversational turn-taking)
And many more!

Ideas for gesture-based activities
Any Kinect activity allows our students to interact with same-age peers.  Sometimes the repertoire of personal interests for our students contains activities and multimedia that are not age appropriate.  Using this kind of technology not only raises our children’s motivation to learn needed skills but also allows them relate to same-age peers.  As one of them said, “Xbox makes me cool.”  

1. Alphabet letters with Googly Eyes and ActivTable (or interactive whiteboard)
SKILLS: Letter recognition, Phonics

 – Prep work (no technology)
Through this multi-modal activity students draw alphabet letters, and come up with words that describe these letters
 – Kinect Googly Eyes
Take each letter (one at a time) to give it life through Googly Eyes, transforming it into a 3-D object that mimics students’ movements.  Record the student reading the letter, and associating it with the word s/he came up with.  Students take turns in creating these letter videos.
 – Download the videos created with Googly Eyes unto the ActivTable where there is a list of definitions.  Through the ActivTable’s multi-touch technology, several students associate the words with their correct definitions.

2. Paint with Kinect Sparkler
SKILLS: Writing, OT fine motor

Students who need to practice certain movements with their hands can do so with Kinect Sparkler. Through Kinect Sparkler students take a picture of themselves and then draw sparkly lines (drawings, letters, etc.) on the picture they took.  

3. I Spy
SKILLS: Matching, following directions, understanding attributes

Through this activity students receive a description of an object /texture/color and then look for that item in a Kinect Adventures activity.

4. Motor Skills through Air Band
SKILLS: Peer imitation

Students increase precision of their motor skills by participating in a live rock band, with contemporary music.  As children use body movements that mimic the playing of an instrument, AirBand detects the instrument and automatically adds it to the screen. 
5. Express emotions via KinectMe
SKILLS: Recognizing facial expressions, replacement behavior

– Students use the interactive whiteboard to identify, draw and sort facial expressions.
– Students use Xbox Kinect to take pictures of different facial expressions via KinectMe.
– Students record their voices, explaining scenarios in which certain facial expressions are shown.  
6. Dance party via Air Band
SKILLS: rhythm, coordination, counting

Use AirBand’s lively music to have a dance party through which children learn about rhythm, coordination, counting, etc.
7. Live connection via Avatar Kinect
SKILLS: conversation and facial expression

Connect children with peers from other classrooms or schools via Avatar Kinect.  Record conversations, analyze facial expressions, and learn specific concepts (i.e. prepositions shown through their Avatar).
8. Story sequencing via Avatar Kinect and ActivTable (or interactive whiteboard)
SKILLS: story sequencing

Record a story, broken into several sequences, import the videos unto the ActivTable, and order the video segments, after discussing as a group which place each segment should take.
9. Social skills stories via Avatar Kinect
SKILLS: social skills

Instead of using a traditional way to analyze and create a solution for a social situation, use Avatar Kinect to record that response!  Unlike with the traditional model students look forward to creating solutions and replacement behavior scenarios.  Furthermore, they want to see their Avatar Kinect videos over and over again.

(When preparing the story, use the interactive whiteboard to brainstorm solutions to different scenarios).

10. Work on relationship-building with Kinectimals
SKILLS: relationship-building

Building relationships and maintaining them is an important goal that can be addressed with Kinectimals.  Through this game students play and share adventures with cuddly cubs, solving mysteries and building bonds.

11. Sports Math
SKILLS: decimals, percentages, fractions

Students use Kinect Sports (any number of games that allow gathering total scores; bowling or darts for example).  In small groups students use the data collected to transform the total score/s into fractions, decimals or percentages.

Use learning response systems to send answers to the interactive whiteboard, where the answers are recorded and placed into a table.

12. Collaborative Avatar creation
SKILLS: matching activities, categorization, spatial concepts (over, under, on, off, etc.), temporal concepts (first, last, before, after, next…), pragmatic skills (making requests, answering questions, asking questions, greetings, conversational turn-taking)

Work together to customize an avatar, either one on one with teacher, as a group to customize teacher’s avatar, or as a group to customize student’s avatars

13.  Prepare the space for Kinect activities
SKILLS: Spacial

Before starting a Kinect activity, it is important that students understand and use the physical space they are allocated on the floor.  To address this skill, place a mat on the floor, or use tape to define the perimeter of the area in which the activity will happen.  Before turning on the Xbox Kinect, have students do a few exercises that allow them to understand the limits of their space.

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