Posted in Play, Literacy, and Learning, Self-Help and Self-Regulation

Environmental Control for Toddlers and Preschoolers: Switch Control Units

Anyone who works with toddlers, has a toddler… or has ever seen a toddler in passing knows that a desire for control is a fundamental characteristic of 1-3-year-old children. Erik Erikson, one of the most influential early developmental psychologists, developed a theory of psychosocial development that included 8 primary developmental phases, each with a defining “conflict” at the center of emotional development (see Kendra Cherry’s Psychological Stages article on VeryWell for a good overview of Erikson’s psychosocial stage theory). According to Erikson, between the ages of 18 months and 3 years, children’s psychosocial development is defined by the conflict of “autonomy vs. shame and doubt,” where toddlers strive to prove to themselves and others that they can do things on their own and make their own decisions. Although the field of developmental psychology as a whole and our understanding of young children’s social-emotional development in particular has advanced considerably since Erikson developed this theory, and we now know that psychosocial development is a lot more complicated, the drive for autonomy continues to be a defining component of toddlerhood, at least within many Western cultures.

Environmental control is an area of assistive technology that addresses the ability of individuals with disabilities to operate equipment within their environments. This includes the ability to control lights, appliances (e.g., fan, remote control, microwave, dishwasher), entertainment technology (e.g., TV, radio), communication technology (e.g., phones), and security equipment (e.g., alarms, door lockers/ openers, security cameras). Recent innovations in this area, including the expansion of integrated “smart home” technologies, have dramatically increased opportunities for people with disabilities to live independently and/ or increase their independence in many aspects of self-care.

Many environmental control units (ECUs) are actually mainstream devices used by people with and without disabilities. For example, TV remotes and personal assistant devices such as Amazon Alexa and Google Home are widely used regardless of disability status.

While typically-developing toddlers are probably not normally in charge of turning on the air conditioning or monitoring the security cameras (but who knows- I don’t know your kid), they do have plenty of opportunities to begin to “control” their environments. I know many 2-year-olds who are obsessed with light switches and love pushing the buttons on TV remotes. I even worked with one 18-month-old who seemed to prefer turning the air conditioner in his bedroom on and off over playing with his toys (which for obvious reasons, we worked on redirecting 🙂 ). In addition, typically-developing toddlers practice influencing their environments through spontaneous play, experimentations with early mobility, and by communicating with others (for example, when asking for something from a parent or bossing around a sibling).

Toddlers with severe/ multiple disabilities often have decreased opportunities to experiment with and explore their environments. In addition, sometimes families and childcares have a hard time helping children with disabilities to be active participants in daily routines and special celebrations. Adapted environmental control activities can be incredibly useful for increasing children’s opportunities for cause-effect experimentation and social participation within their daily lives.

Switch control units, such as the PowerLink 4 by Ablenet, are an incredibly effective means for allowing young children to experiment with early environmental control. These units connect to a capability switch and have a set of outlets which simple, standard electronic appliances can be plugged into, allowing children with physical disabilities to turn on and off simple appliances such as lights, fans, radios, blenders, etc. Below are some ideas for using the PowerLink (or a similar switch control unit) and a switch to help a child with physical disabilities to participate in daily routines. (Note: I’m going to refer to the PowerLink for the rest of this post because it’s the most common switch control unit, in my experience, and the one with which the most professionals are familiar. But I’m in no way affiliated with Ablenet, and I think you should use whatever similar device you have available to you 🙂 ).

Music and Stories: The PowerLink and switch can be paired with a radio or cassette tape player to allow the child to turn music on and off. If there are siblings or classmates present, the child could direct a game of “freeze dance” in which all children “freeze” whenever the music is turned off and resume dancing when it is turned back on. In addition, if you happen to still have a cassette tape player, the PowerLink can be paired with it to allow a child to turn on and off music or cassette tape audiobooks (maybe they could lead a story time activity?).

Temperature Control: Many of the children  that I have worked with have had significant trouble regulating their body temperatures. The PowerLink can be connected to a personal fan, which a toddler can be taught to turn on and off to gain increased control and self-help skills related to maintaining a comfortable body temperature. In a preschool or elementary school setting, a small desk fan or space cooler could be secured to a child’s wheelchair tray or desk and connected to a switch to allow the child to regulate his/ her own temperature (note that an outlet in the room would need to be available so that the PowerLink could be plugged in, however).

Lights: Floor lamps, table lamps, plug-in nightlights, etc. can all be connected to a PowerLink to allow a child to turn them on and off. I used to work with a toddler whose home health nurse had set up Christmas Lights in the shape of a tree on his bedroom wall. We then connected these to the PowerLink to allow him to turn them on and off.

Cooking: If you like to involve your kids in cooking, the PowerLink is helpful for allowing young children with disabilities to take an active role. Simple appliances with a wall plug and on-off switch, such as a blender, hand mixer, etc., can be attached to the PowerLink and turned on and off by the child. Just be sure to take all appropriate precautions to avoid any risk of cuts/ burns when involving your toddler in cooking activities.

Get Creative!: There are a lot of different ways in which switch control units can be used to give toddlers and preschoolers more independence in play and self-help activities within their daily lives. For example, a professor of mine in an Assistive Technology for Infants and Toddlers course that I took as part of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Assistive Technology Certificate Program suggested attaching a hair dryer to the PowerLink, then helping a toddler with motor disabilities use it to blow down blocks in a tower. If you come up with any non-traditional ideas for using the PowerLink of your own, definitely share them in the comments section below!

Ultimately, as with all assistive technology, switch control units can help toddlers to increase both their self-help skills and their opportunities to connect and engage with others. It’s never too early to teach children that they have a role in controlling their own environment, and it’s never too early to incorporate them into family traditions and routines :).

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