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If you have ever worked with anyone, young or old, who is struggling to learn a new skill, you probably know how difficult it is to stay positive and motivated. I have read numerous articles over the years stating how important it is to keep encouraging the learner. Without this support, the learning process often falls short. I agree, but would like to add that our knowing when and what to encourage is even more important.
In the day-to-day process of teaching, giving positive feedback often gives way to frustration and negetivity. What starts out as, "Good...,good..., that's right..., ok..., good, yes, that's it...good...", frequently ends up as, "Why can't you do that? I've shown you a hundred times already! You're doing it wrong again!"
With any significant disability, physical or mental, the process of teaching is always challenging. With each new skill, the "student" is required to learn and retain a "string of steps". When these are mastered and put together, a new skill or task is learned. In the process of practicing the steps of a skill, the brain must eventually see all the steps as one task. When this takes place, the skill becomes part of memory. In order for the "student" to do the activity independently, this must take place.
I would remind you here, as I have done to many parents and care providers over the years, that learning is always happening. It does not stop as long as we are alive! Don't give up!
When we were learning, there was a basic process. Someone demonstrated or modeled the steps of a task, then encouraged us to repeat the pattern. For a period, we were encouraged as we tried each separate step. However, once we had the basics down, the praise started coming at the end of the whole routine, and not for the individual steps. That parent or teacher would begin waiting until all or most of the steps had been completed to give the praise, "Great! You tied your own shoes!"
You can imagine how much energy it would take to continuously give praise to every step of every new skill a young child would learn during the developing years. We would simply find ourselves wanting to do something else. Patience would wear thin. Our attitude towards teaching would take a turn for the worse.
So many parents and teachers find themselves falling into this pattern. Unfortunately, the "student" also falls into a pattern. This is commonly known as "prompt dependency." After each step the "student" will stop, believing that the task is complete and will wait for the teacher to give praise and direction for the next step. The brain will see each step as a separate task, not connected as we do. The memory will not be complete. And, no matter how much praise we give, the learner will continue to stop between steps.
A critical point in teaching anything is knowing when it is time to move from teaching the steps to practicing the task as a whole. Most parents will note that this happens fairly quickly for their non-handicapped children. A few demonstrations, step-by-step encouragement, and then praise for the complete task even if it is not "perfect".
With a special needs "student" those who teach will often note that even though individual steps seem to be mastered, each step may not be consistently performed or completed without a good deal of encouragement. Some days, however, many of the steps are being completed with only occasional assistance and lots of praise. This is the time for us to consider reducing the amount of talking during the completion of each separate step. If a gentle nudge or limited physical assistance is needed during the process, provide it without interrupting the flow of the steps. Once the entire task is complete, bring out the big band and give a cheer! This process of "fading" prompts will allow the student's memory to recognize the whole task and not just the parts.
The parent or teacher should then encourage task completion, giving it a name or label,(i.e. "Wow, you brushed your teeth all by yourself!") Not only will this help commit the whole task to memory, but it will also foster self-confidence, self-reliance, and most importantly, independence!
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