Wanted: A quantified child app for helping special needs kids

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boy measuring himself on wall chart

When you’ve got a special needs kid, you’re often trying successive strategies or interventions to help your kid develop new emotional, cognitive or behavioral skills. But if you’re also on the roller coaster of living with a challenging kid, it can be really hard to know whether your kid is actually doing better or worse — or even to stick with a game plan from one day to the next.

That’s exactly why we want to start tracking our son’s key behaviors (meltdowns, moods, and school refusals) as well as the factors that may contribute to them (food, sleep, medication, exercise and screen time). By tracking each of these variables consistently, and adding one new intervention at a time (like meditation) we hope to see whether new approaches actually have an impact on how he’s doing.

We could track these variables on a paper chart — if we were animals! But we’re not animals, are we? We’re geeks, raising a geeky kid who might actually take an interest in this project if it involved an iPhone and lots of cool charts.

Unfortunately, the apps that are out there seem to fall into four different categories:

  1. Behavior intervention for autism: In theory, apps for autistic kids could be appropriate for us. But they tend to encompass a lot of behaviors we just don’t need to track.
  2. Reward charts: I’ve previously explored different reward apps, and they’re not a good fit for us. For one thing, we don’t like getting too reward focused, or Peanut insists on getting a point or reward for every single thing he does. For another, they don’t capture a relationship between cause and effect: they just track individual behaviors.
  3. Gamification: There are a lot of apps that try to gamify habit formation: for a while, we experimented with habitica (when it was still called HabitRPG). But the game quickly became the end, rather than the means. We need something that is fun, but not TOO fun, or Peanut will spend all his energy figuring out how to game it.
  4. Adult health and fitness dashboards: There are a number of quantified self dashboards that let you integrate different life trackers, but they mostly focus on tracking health and fitness, and I’m not sure whether any of them could work well for us.

At this point I see three options for creating the kind of tracker I want:

  1. Using an Excel spreadsheet, and periodically producing my own charts. Groan.
  2. Setting up a Google form that lets me track our various items, and using Google forms to visualize our data. That has some advantages (simplicity, customization) but the major disadvantage that it would work for once-a-day submissions, but not so well for tracking data we need to add at various points in the day.
  3. Customizing a life logging dashboard. This is my preferred option: using one of the dashboard tools (like fluxtream or gyroscope) to integrate data we track in a few different ways. But I’m not sure which one will work best, or whether any of them will do the job at all. So I’m lazywebbing this one, and inviting wise friends to advise on which dashboard and apps can combine to meet the following requirements.

So without any further pre-amble, here’s what I’m hoping somebody can help us find….

Requirements for a quantified child app

  1. Mood tracking: I’d like an easy and fun way for Peanut to track his mood, ideally at a couple of points in a day.
  2. Food logging: We don’t need to log every bite or food, but we do need an easy way to track whether he’s eaten adequately (some days he barely eats).
  3. Custom fields: We need some way of defining our own set of additional metrics to track, with an option to create our own scale (e.g. being able to log an item on a 1 to 5 scale or as a simple yes/no) as well as support for a comments fields. Some of these metrics will be independent variables (causes) and others will be dependent variables (effects/outcomes, like school attendance).
  4. Fitbit support: I have a Fitbit I can attach to Peanut to track his exercise and sleep. I’d like this data included.
  5. Screen time tracking: I’d love to install something like RescueTime on Peanut’s Mac so we know how much time he spends online. If there were better user management on iOS I’d also track how much time he spends on each of our phones and iPads, but there’s no easy to way to distinguish the time he spends playing games on our phones from the time we spend playing games on our phones. And I really don’t want to know the latter.
  6. Multi-user/multi-device support: Ideally we will be able to update our common profile/database from multiple iOS devices, so whoever is on Peanut duty can update — and so that he can update, too.
  7. Complex permissions: We’d prefer to have three distinct user roles: Admin (defines fields), user (updates daily logs) and viewer (can see logs). We can live without it, but hey, if anyone is out there building, add this to your dev queue!
  8. Consolidated logging: I don’t mind integrating multiple services if they are automagically tracking data (like Fitbit and RescueTime) but I don’t want to ask Peanut to use three different apps each day in order to update his mood, eating and other activities. It’s OK if Peanut has to use one app to update “his” items (like mood) and if we grownups have to use a different app to update “our” items (like school refusals or meltdowns or eating) but nobody should have to use more than one app on a daily basis. Using separate apps for grownups vs for Peanut might be a way of meeting the complex permissions requirement, however.
  9. The fun factor: Apps that make it fun to update will make Peanut more likely to post updates himself. So the mood logger, in particular, should be fun to use.
  10. Great visuals: Part of the benefit will be for Peanut to see how these different factors affect his moods. We’d love something that generates engaging, dynamic visuals.
  11. Cost effective: Rationally, I should be willing to spend $2,000 per month on the combination of tools that actually delivers so much data that it transforms Peanut’s behavior, allows us to send him to school full time, and eliminates our dependence on a battery of therapists. But I don’t think I can get guaranteed results, so I’m going to say that we want to have all this for less than $20 per month. But obviously, there’s some wiggle room — I’m willing to pay more for something awesome that really makes a difference.

I’m going to keep digging for the solution (or combination of solutions) that will meet our needs. But I want to be sure that tendency to obsess over finding the perfect app doesn’t distract us from the need to actually start tracking, so I’d love to get advice and suggestions here, on Twitter or on Facebook.

2 Comments on this site

  1. Eric Fredine

    A few years ago, I tried a bunch of mood tracking apps and they were all terrible – either trivially simple or very cumbersome to track all the other data that can impact mood (sleep, caffeine, exercise, alcohol, etc.). It seemed ridiculous to me and I sort of mused about building something better, but never did. So, in a practical, immediate sense, all I can do is commiserate!

    But seeing your post reminded me of the problem and I found myself thinking about it again. It seems to me that a conversational interface might be a better paradigm – especially for the tracking part. Think slack-bot for mood and behaviour tracking. You might send the following sort of messages to the tracking bot:
    “woke at 7, very agitated”
    “ate some cheerios”
    “refused to go to school”

    The bot could also send queries from time to time:
    “have you had lunch yet?” —> sent if no lunch update received by the time you would normally send one

    Idea worth exploring?

    Cheers,
    Eric

  2. Eric Jain

    Have you looked at general-purpose tracking apps like Trackthisforme, Nomie, or KeepTrack? They’re easy to set up and use, don’t have any preconceived notions of what you want to track, and don’t try to gamify anything.

    To correlate with data from other sources like Fitbit and RescueTime, you’d have to pull the data into a service like Exist.io or Zenobase (disclaimer: I run latter). The last part, getting “engaging, dynamic visuals” and useful insights, usually requires some manual work 🙂

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