What is the Learning Process?

How do children learn? I have discussed it some in the article, Working with Down Syndrome: Q&A. Now I would like to describe this process further, and how it applies to children with Down syndrome. More of our treatment procedures are also included.

All I’m thinking is that I have to get the child to say something. I start talking, trying to get him to talk. I get caught in that trap. What is going through your mind? I need a list of goals to be thinking about, not just the end result of talking, but the steps along the way. You work on memory, sequencing, problem-solving, concepts like under and on, symbolic play, family relationships? Pronouns? Colors, signing, counting, phonics? Give me your list. For example, the hide and seek game, what all are you doing?

Whee! This is a biggie. There are so many parts to this question that it may take a couple of pages to get through it all. But I will start from the beginning and work through it the best I can. First of all, I don’t ever worry about getting the child to talk. That is an obvious goal, but one that should not be bothering you. Talking will come. It is a natural process. All children want to talk, even those who are nonverbal and lower functioning. So, the first thing is to quit worrying about whether you are going to get the child to talk.
Second of all, it is not your charge to “get the child to talk.” You “can’t get” anyone to do anything they don’t want to do or are not ready to do. You should rethink your thinking. Think instead of getting the child to do something, you should be facilitating the child to do something. Your responsibility is to entice, prepare, encourage, stimulate, model, and support the child’s behavior. If during that sequence, the child speaks, you should feel great…and so should the child. Remember that communicating in itself is rewarding to the child. It is not necessary to reward him/her externally with a token, such as a piece of candy or a mark on a piece of paper. The child knows when he has communicated. Just show pleasure in that discourse with a smile or positive response.
The basic premise to my language intervention is that the child is the communicator and you are the facilitator. You are not the “teacher.”
The list of goals that goes through my mind varies from child-to-child and from session to session. I learn through watching the child and facilitating communication with what the child needs and wants, as well as what the child currently is struggling with. (I almost said what he can not do, but I have long since moved away from that form of thinking. I now know that so many of these children can do almost everything. The problem is that we don’t expect them to do it, so we never try to see if they can or give them a chance to try it.) My approach here is to reach much higher than I expect. Have the child spell a word that may be unbelievably hard, have the child demonstrate a concept that I would never expect  them to do, have the child read a book that is much too difficult, or have the child interact in a manner that is not expected of him. You will see the child can do part of it, will attempt it, or even sometimes surprise you and do it. This will tell you a lot about how the child approaches difficult and complicated situations. He may just say, “I can’t.” Here is where you are to then say, “What is this can’t stuff. Of course, you can. Do it!” This tells the child that you expect him to be successful, at least at some level.
When he attempts it and gets only part of it, you state, “Wow, did you see how well you did. And you told me you couldn’t do it.” The child might try it but do it entirely wrong. Your job is to figure out why he/she did it wrong. Did he read the word only partially correct, did he look or focus on the wrong picture in the sequence, did he listen to only the end of the sentence, or what? This tells you how the child is approaching the situation. You then must redirect the child to a lower level activity trying to get the child to be more successful with the entire task.
For example, in the “hide-n-seek” game, I start the activity by having the child match the figures to their names. This is my literacy related activity. It also helps the child work through his working memory the names of the figures. Depending upon the child, I will use four figures, sometimes six figures, and sometimes ten figures. The idea is work within the child’s comfort level. The figures also become an articulation practice in that the child will be expected to name them correctly. If not, we practice saying them. The written words help in this regard too. If the child leaves off a sound, we look at the written word and show him the final /t/ or /g/ and have him pronounce it again. Then, we cover the child’s eyes and hide one of the figures. The child has to go through his/her visual memory to see who is missing. He then has to say it correctly. This increases to people hiding, instead of just one, and then three. At some time, if the child cannot recall who is hiding, the written word is produced so he can read it for assistance.
Sometimes I only show the first letter of the word so he has to use visual closure to help recall the word. After doing this awhile, I usually have the child interact with the figures by having the child demonstrate he understands basic concepts such as walking, jumping, crawling, falling down, high, behind, first, second, last, between, in-front-of. I have the child interact with the figures to demonstrate that he has these concepts. Having the child do it at this time is much more interesting and motivating to the child than traditional therapy where the child is asked to point to the picture of behind, etc. I usually end this activity by having the child “assist” the figures in singing a song. Singing is a good way to practice saying words in sentences with rhythm. Nearly all children love to sing.
If during the hide-n-seek activity I see that the child can accomplish all of my expectations, I then up the bar and make it more difficult. If the child cannot do something, then we use that opportunity to assist the child in learning the activity. I do this through modeling and demonstration.
I guess it is time to tell you my theory of how children learn. It may help you to understand the basic premise for my approach.

Natural Learning
  • Exploration/Curiosity
  • Action/Fun
  • Guidance/Modeling
  • Limitations/Comfort Zone
  • Effortless/ Automatic

Exploration/Curiosity: All children have a natural curiosity to learning. They are born to explore and find out how things operate, how they work, and how to take them apart (not necessarily how to put them back together.) Your treatment, therefore, should follow this suggestion. Let the child explore, make the therapy situation fun to explore, stimulate the child’s curiosity. Use drawings to enhance early story telling, connecting the child’s world with picture symbols, and to capture forever the child’s events. When the environment or session is interesting and the child is exploring, learning occurs.
Action/Fun: All children learn through action and play. If you think about young children, you will realize that they turn every learning situation into a play situation. If they don’t act and play at it, they just don’t do it. It is not until the child gets older that learning becomes less play and less interaction. That is because our society and adult minds think that play is not learning. The truth is that the best learning comes from play and action. So, make your treatment session full of action on objects and situations. Make it fun. Children love to make up words, words that are not real but sound real. Use songs and music to learn about concepts and words. Songs like “Wheels on the bus” can teach articulation skills, like saying “sh”, concepts like “move on back”, as well as rhythm and intonation, along with sentence length. The “ABC” song can easily be carried over to Dr. Seuss’s “ABC” book, where the child can begin to identify and learn about the alphabet.
Guidance/Modeling: If you watch children learn, you notice that learning is a social condition. It stems from imitating others. Watching adults or other children do something is an excellent learning strategy. I use the example of trying to get a child to build something. If you tell the child to go do this or that, invariably it will be too difficult. If you say, “watch me do this and you try,” the child will be more successful. Language after all is an imitation or model of the social situation. Sure, Chomsky says the child has all the wiring within to learn a language, but with out a social model the wiring does not get connected. Thus, during your treatment, remember you are a model. Now I did not say be a teacher. We do not teach language to a child; for instances, we do not teach a child when to use the article “a” versus “the” (i.e., specificity of the noun), the child learns through his models. A child usually watches and then attempts things. If it doesn’t work, he tries again. Your job, then, is to be a model, set up the situation during treatment for the child to learn a concept, and if it fails provide the model. Remember don’t try to teach but engage. A good example of a modeling and guiding situation is joint-book reading. Typically the parent will sit next-to or with the child in the lap, and read a book. Through this engaging activity the child learns about direction of stories (i.e., front-to-back), turning pages, words go from left-to-right, that words represent pictures in the story, and pointing is a way of identifying. If parents ask appropriate questions, during the joint-book reading, then the child begins to learn to predict what is going to happen next, answer questions, build their vocabulary, and learn to interact upon request. If the chosen story is a favorite one, or is read and re-read many times, this usually increases the child’s expressive language and builds on improved comprehension.
Limitations/Comfort Zone: This takes us to the next level. In my opinion, children learn best when they are working within their comfort zone (taken from Vygotsky’s work.) Oftentimes we will ask a child to attempt something that is way out of their league (I know I suggested earlier that I frequently will have a child reach way beyond his level to see what they can do, but that is another issue and must come after a child is comfortable with exploring. I will explain this more soon.) When you begin to work with a child and you ask him to do something he knows he can’t do, the typical response is shutting down. He will not try. He refuses. Or, if he does attempt it, it is a weak effort. After all, is that not the way we all function? None of us like to do things we know we can’t do. Learning that foreign language. We know we can’t do it so why try learning to play the violin, attempting to draw a color portrait, writing poetry, or whatever. We like to do those things we are comfortable doing. So, during treatment, you must remember to work within the child’s comfort zone. I use the example of working at a level where the child is 80 percent successful. Anything less than that and the child is working at too hard of a level. Often therapists spend an entire treatment session drilling on the thing the child can’t do. There thinking is that a child has to practice his errors. How else can he learn it. My thinking is that most of the session should be practicing at a level where the child is most successful. Then when the child is comfortable practicing and doing, he/she will be willing and ready to reach above that comfort zone. They will be more of a risk taker. This is when you can reach higher, but not until they are comfortable at their level. Interestingly, children automatically will reach beyond their comfort zone when they realize that have mastered that level. This occurs in reading, writing, math, talking, play, etc. When children are beginning to read, many professional teachers recommend that the child be allowed to select books that are within their comfort zone. They should be reading books where they make only one error in ten words. We want the child to be able to read with pleasure and ease, not have to struggle with every word. The importance of reading is to obtain the meaning of the text. When a child is struggling the meaning is lost. Children will move up to harder reading levels when they feel it is comfortable.
Effortless/Automatic: Successful learning requires something being learned until it is automatic or until it has become effortless within the individual (a Piagetian concept). This means that when we are first learning something and it has not become automatic, we need to practice. We work at it until it just comes “natural.” Reading should be this way. Good readers move fluently and easily through text, reading each word using their internal retrieval matching system to keep moving. They do not stop until they come to an unfamiliar word. They then attack it with learned skills. Something as simple as hitting a baseball requires practice. You can’t just walk up to the plate and expect to hit the ball each and every time. You need to practice. Language is the same way. You can’t expect that the concept is going to be learned easily after only hearing it one time. This certainly applies to most of the children we are talking about. They need practice, and practice, and more practice. The art is how to do that without boring the child. Think of all of the children who have given up piano lessons because the piano teacher says, “you must practice, practice, practice.” And the child says, “Oh, is this going to be boring!” Your job is to make the treatment session fun, exciting, and practice, practice, practice. I do this by doing some of the same activities over and over, especially those activities that I know are fun to the child. We will do them again and again. I will modify them and make them somewhat more difficult, expanding their comfort zone, but also making it easier so they are much more successful. Repeating the activity allows the child to anticipate what is coming so then s/he will be ready to do it. An example of this is a repeated book activity. We frequently read the same story over and over. This allows the child to know what is going to happen next, etc. The child having a better knowledge will talk more, interact more, and contribute more. I will then make purposeful mistakes so the child can correct me, and in turn become the “teacher” of the situation. Many children who struggle with reading read each word with “pain.” They struggle to sound out the word. They appear as though each time they see a word it is unfamiliar to them and they are seeing it for the first time. This can be a retrieval problem, or a problem with embedding the sight word in their storage room. Reading has not become automatic; hence it is not fluid and “natural” to them. These children need work on retrieving and storage of pictures, words, and letters. It helps to start within their comfort zone and then reach beyond the zone. Practice on easy words, like their name, and then increase the task. Remember to always make it fun and engaging.

Why did you choose not to explain the camera to Douglas when you were video taping? Would that not satisfied his curiosity and possibly helped him to settle down?

Absolutely you are right. I typically would introduce anything and everything new to a child. After all they have human rights too, no matter how young or old they are. It was clearly a mistake on my part. I slipped into that old “bigger than a you” mode of thinking. The one where many teachers, parents, and professionals go about there day thinking children can’t think and don’t have personalities. See, even Dr. Tom makes mistakes…and it takes a good observing graduate student to point it out. Thank you.
On the flip side, however, there are some children who, if you point out something new, it will become a great distraction to them. For these children, it is better to ignore these things and get down to business. I see this often with children who have autistic tendencies. They will get focused on something and cannot get re-directed back to the activity. For this reason, you either hide the camera or turn the child away so his view is away from the object. Focusing can be a real issue with many children.
Children with Down syndrome have a problem with focusing. I explain this to parents as a two level focus, or perhaps three levels if you consider “not focusing” as one of the levels. The other two levels are when the child appears to be attending and interacting but inside is off on his own mission. The other is a clear focus where he is on target and responding appropriately. The best example of this is a young man with Down syndrome who was 8-years-old. Tyler was verbal and interacted well with me. We were working on early reading skills, early math skills, and increasing his expressive language. Now, Tyler came a long way to see me in the clinic, and I think the drive would put in a “sleep” mode by the time he got here. There were many days when his focus was not what it could be. Anyway, Tyler had learned through social-interaction to respond respectfully to his teachers and adults. He did this by providing appropriate feedback when he was being talked to. He would say, “Uhuh”, or “ok”, or nod his head in respectful reply. I would go on talking to him as if I was getting to him. I realized by looking into his eyes that they were not quite focused onto me or what we were doing, but they appeared to have a “far off’ look. Now, he continued to nod and respond appropriately on cue. I would then say something that was wrong or silly to test my observation and Tyler would continue to nod and respond respectfully as if what I said made perfect sense. I would say Tyler, “Pay attention” and his eyes and whole demeanor would change. His body language would straighten up, his eyes brightened up, and he would then begin to attend on task. Now if I would have not said anything and just been quiet to see what Tyler would have done, he would immediately readjust his focus because he was attending at some level but not at the higher processing level. Silence meant that I was waiting for him. So, that is another way I would get him to attend…that is, just stop talking and wait for him to focus in on my silence.
The point I am trying to make is that many of these children appear to be focusing and attending to a task when they really are not. Your job is to continue to “check-in” on them to see if they are at that higher level of focusing. Ask questions that demand a thoughtful answer. Ask them to tell you what you just said. Have them repeat what they are to do. Have them tell you or explain to you what they are doing. Watch their eyes and body language for appropriate attention. And, by all means, just because they cannot do something, do not assume that they can’t really do it. Assume that they were not really focusing in on the task at that moment, and have them try and try again.
In contrast, just because they can do it this time does not mean they can do it later. It may well be that they were not focusing the second time and their response is random.

I noticed that you preferred to sit next to the child when working with him, and you use a lot of physical contact to regulate the child’s behavior. Is this purposeful and do you have a reason?

Yes, it is purposeful and it does have a research-based justification. Part of the answer to your question comes from my concept of zone of comfort, where a child learns optimally, and also from my concept of engagement during learning, or a critical element to learning. I believe it is essential to connect with the child before any learning can begin to take place. A good way of doing this initial connection is through physical contact. That is, when your shoulder and the child’s are touching, or when your knee is in contact with the child’s, or when you place your hand on the child’s shoulder, a physical bond- connection occurs between you and the child. This connection provides a security to the child that sends a message, “I care for you and respect you as a person and a friend.”
The interesting thing is that I find this same connection occurs even among children with autism, who classically are supposed to not like being touched. When done correctly, even these children appreciate and want a physical connection with others.
The problems lie with how to initiate or begin this connection. You can not just walk up to all children put your arm on their shoulder, or touch their hand. Many of us have been taught in our Western culture that an adult, especially a male non-relative, is to be consider with caution…and then when you add the “Doctor” in front of the name, the child is sure that nothing good is about to happen. Therefore, in order to establish this initial contact, I approach the child carefully.
The first thing I have learned to do is to observe the child when entering the room. The child’s eyes and body language will tell you how comfortable s/he is with you. (I typically will greet the child in the waiting room with the parent. My initial contact will begin there with a handshake and an introduction of myself. We talk a little about anything so the child learns that I am interested in him/her as a person. I then try to get the child to take the lead on the way to the clinic room, so s/he can get his/her bearings of the surroundings. (I often think the child is looking for an escape route just in case things don’t go well.) When entering the room, I let the child choose where s/he wants to sit. I then sit some distance away, usually at least three feet. I start to dialogue with the child while continuing to watch the child’s eyes and body language. If the child is uncomfortable, his/her eyes will continue to search the room and explore those items that are threatening, but also those items that look like fun. The eyes on the fun things tell me where we will begin our session; namely, introducing the fun things and leaving the threatening things until later.
The body language also sends a powerful message. The child who is tense and closed-in, such as arms crossed or the body is partially turned away, is not ready for any close interaction. This child is saying, “stay away.” I respect this because I know if I intrude within the child’s space it will make him/her want to pull-back even more.

Remember, no learning can occur if the child is not feeling comfortable with you.

I do believe that each child sends a physical message as to their comfort zone and when that zone can be altered. Some children’s comfort zone is as much as three feet, others have a one foot comfort zone, and still others have an immediate non-zone area where you can go shoulder-to-shoulder. You can sense this easily by observing, and then begin to work to shorten the distance of the zone.
To decrease the distance of the zone, I begin by handing the child the fun activity that s/he indicated with her eyes. I let the child play with it independently. I watch to see if the eyes and the body language begin to change. Sometimes this occurs immediately, while other times I may need to introduce another fun activity. I then gently try to close the distance in half and wait to see what happens. Of course, I continue to dialogue and converse with the child waiting patiently for any change. Most changes occur within five minutes, but some take as long as 15 minutes. Once in a while I have had to wait until the next visit before the child’s comfort zone decreases. The point here is that learning should not occur until the comfort zone is reduced and a connection has been established.
Once I can sit next to the child and have physical contact, i.e. should-to-shoulder, becomes a regular occurrence, it can guide the child through the learning processes. You can, for instance, take the child’s hand and point to pictures in a book, or you can assist in writing letters and stories, or you can even resist the child’s impulsive reaction by gently holding the child back. With younger children, where signing (i.e., manual communication) is part of the treatment, this contact and physical engagement is a critical first step toward taking the child’s hands and shaping the signs.
Too often professionals want to sit across from the child. I am not certain why they want to do this. Perhaps they think the child needs to see them in order to learn a concept. Maybe they believe this is the “natural” communication style and should be followed. This could be true, but what I sense in these situations is that it sends a message to the child of a difference between “you” and “me.” That is, a distance where “you do this” and then “I do this,” is taught. In contrast, sitting next to the child sends a message of “we,” or together “we can do this.” Furthermore, the confidence level of the child is higher because s/he knows it is a team effort: the physical and intuitive “we” are approaching the learning situation together. We are, in essence, engaged in this activity together, with team support for any effort made by the child.
Some children need more control of their impulsive behaviors. Sitting next to them helps you to know when the child is not engaging in the activity, when s/he is trying to re-direct away from the learning task. That is, when the physical bond, i.e. the shoulder-to-shoulder, is broken a red light turns on within me to redirect my thinking back to the physical presence of the child. I need to see what and where the child’s mind is going. Is it time to change the activity, is it time to be moving elsewhere in the room or with another learning experience, or is it time to stop the learning activity completely and to go to a more fun situation?
Many parents comment how interesting it is that their children are so willing to work at learning with me much longer than they are with other professionals. Parents comment too how their children want to “lay” their head on my shoulder or rest their arm on my shoulder when we are working. In my opinion this occurs because the child feels comfortable and s/he wants that contact during the learning activity.
I would conclude by quoting a familiar old saying, “he who touches the heart touches the soul of a child.” Although this is only a metaphor, it is clear to me that “touching” physically can and does go directly to the heart and soul of the child. And, is that not the essence of being a teacher?

The question you answered about physical touch and these kids clears up a couple of things for me. I guess it should have been obvious to me — I can’t treat these kids like other kids I’ve known. With kids I’ve worked with in school, and with my own boys’ friends, once that rapport has been established, it’s usually there to stay. Isn’t that true of most kids and their teachers? When a second grader sees his old pre-K teacher, he runs to her and hugs her. That’s been my experience. Even kids who weren’t in that class will follow their friends over for a hug.
Am I right in understanding that to some degree it is necessary to re-establish this comfort zone regularly with the children we see? I’m sure that it would be easier if we saw them more frequently. I do see gains. You haven’t had to lie on the floor beside Douglas lately. Still, both he and Evelyn need a few minutes to settle in before we start asking them to do things.
Jane, on the other hand, seems perfectly comfortable in the clinic, hugging everyone she sees. Do kids like Douglas and Evelyn achieve that level of confidence and consistency in their relationships with you, or is Jane again the exception? I’m guessing that the younger kids are on their way to Jane’s level of comfort, although they may not get quite there.
It’s so cool how this is all connected. It goes right back to the answer you sent me about communicating with a kid on his level in order to connect and then redirect his play. (Remember — Douglas and Barney?)

Answer: Yes, typically after the connection has been made, you do not need to pursue it as often. I do see, however, kids just like your sample of pre-K teachers, where they still want to be close and to have that physical contact. With my older children, say around 9 – 10 years of age, they start to want to sit away from me in order to hold a discourse. I only assume that they have been socially established to sit away from the listener during conversations. Yet, even these children, when we get serious about learning a task, tend too “scoot” next to me in order to gain that “connected” learning situation.
The point is that initially with younger children you need to be aware of the “physical” relationship to assist in the learning process and to help maintain direction on the activity. With older children, this becomes less important if the earlier connection has been established. Yet, with those older students who are not in control or who are struggling with learning, it is important again to establish the “physical connection.” Even with these students, they need to feel your support and your “togetherness” …sitting close, touching the child’s shoulder, and “hugs” are important.
You might want to read a book about a young girl with Down syndrome. The title is, “How About a Hug,” by Nan Holcomb. I think it makes the point.

Could you elaborate on the five levels you refer to as stages that children go through during learning?

Natural Learning
  • Exploration/Curiosity
  • Action/Fun
  • Engagement/Modeling
  • Limitations/Comfort Zone
  • Effortless/Automatic

The above stages are a natural process of learning. Most children go through these stages and use them when learning something new. I addressed these stages earlier, but would like to comment on something related to these, which I refer to as Intuitive Knowledge and Rationale Knowledge.
As you can see from the above table, I believe that knowledge is divided between intuitive and rationale experiences. This is not something new to me, but has been part of general philosophy for hundreds of years. Some individuals include two other dimensions to their knowledge, but I try not to complicate these concepts too much. The idea I want to express can be easily presented with just the two types of knowledge.
In the oldest notion, the intuitive knowledge in what “we” possess within ourselves. It is the ability to infer and to make assumptions about others, their feelings, their intentions, and their reasons. Some philosophers would say this is your “soul” or your “inner” feelings. Many people will not go somewhere because they “feel” it is wrong, or they will not connect with another person because they do not have similar “inner personalities.” They cannot connect with that other person at a “personal” level.
This intuitive nature, to some, is located in the right side of the brain. It is kinetic, or movement driven; not to be confused with tactile where touching is involved. It is how you feel. It is directed from the left hand that goes to the right brain. Artists and musicians talk a good deal about “feeling” the music, which makes sense because the right side of the brain is typically the creative side. The right side of the brain is “gestalt” in nature, or perceives in the wholeness: it is not analytic or sequential in logic. The right side is the “personality” of the individual. It is the “I”, or the individual. Culture is a good deal intuitive and not so much social.

Intuitive Knowledge
  • Inner
  • Natural processes
  • Inferred
  • Assumptions
  • Implied
  • Impressionistic
  • Oneness
  • Intension
  • Kinetic
  • I
Rationale Knowledge
  • Societal influence
  • Based on Scientific enquiry
  • Observational
  • Rule based
  • Logical
  • Language based
  • Community
  • Extension
  • Sensorimotor
  • We, it

In contrast, the rationale knowledge is the observed behavior. It is what drives the Western science and research: the ability to measure what you can see. Rationale knowledge is sequential and linear. It is left brain and right hand directed. Much of society is rationale: Society is made up of rules on how we are to behave, the governing relationships of communication are rationale and social, and the reasoning for or against specific behaviors. Western society talks about rights of the individual, which means freedom to do this or that. Intuitive knowledge would say that freedom is not doing this or that, it is what one feels inside of them. Many individuals do not feel “free” in our Western free society. Because rationale knowledge is driven by observation and recording, we are constantly measuring “it” or talking about how “we” act. The child’s behavior is not acceptable to “us”, or the “we” society. So, “it” must be changed.    The scientist/educator says that if we want to change the child’s behavior “it” must first be measured and then with external rewards adjust the behavior. Rarely, does the scientist/educator want to know “why” the child is doing “it.” He is not interested in what is going on within the child, the inner intentions or reasons. To many scientist/educators those inner feelings cannot be measured so they do not exist, only those things that can be measured and counted are important for social and rationale knowledge. This dichotomy can be illustrated in the confusion between the social and rationale knowledge of children with autism.
Autism is a unique disorder that has several classical symptoms, such as, social interaction impairments, sameness/rigidity of behavior, language differences, and “Theory of mind” issues. In this last area, it has been demonstrated these children have difficulty taking the perspective of others—that is, not being able to see how someone else views the world. Consequently, they easily confuse their own identity with that of others. For instance, they might say, “You want a cookie”, instead of “I want a cookie.” They appear to be confusing their own identity with that of the listener, not knowing who “you” and “I” refer too. Now, linguists would argue that this is merely a confusion of pronouns based on syntactic order as to when to use a pronoun. That is, a parent might say, “You want a cookie?” The child, according to linguists, assumes the “you” in this sentence refers to the “child”; thus, the child uses “you” in the subjective position of his sentences thinking that is where he or “you” (the child) belongs. The problem with this reasoning is that the child never uses the “I” for the other person, which by logic we assume the child would do if the reasoning holds up. That is, since the child hears the parent say, “I need to go to work”, the child would assume “I” in this case refers to the parent. So, when the child addresses the parent, it would be logical for the child to say, “I (referring to the parent) want a cookie?” This just does not happen. The child with autism never refers to the other as “I” and to himself as “you.”
I (referring to me now and not you) argue that the problem with the child’s confusion stems from a “Theory of mind” difficulty, or a confusion between the rationale and intuitive knowledge. That is, it is a lack of intuitive “I” or a clear understanding of the social “we” relationship that is causing the problem. The child just has not developed a clear line of distinction between the two domains of knowledge. To them “you” can refer to the social “we” or to the intuitive “I”. They need assistance or help in making this distinction.
One way I have attempted to help these children learn to distinguish between their “I”, or intuitive knowledge, and the social “we”, is by having the child view different types of emotional eyes. I ask them to view their eyes in a mirror and to express the emotions of “anger”, “surprise”, “happy”, and “tired.” Then the child is asked to draw by tracing these eyes with a marker right on the mirror. The child then transfers the “angry” eyes, or the “surprise” eyes onto a piece of paper where they are labeled. Over several weeks, the children’s drawings begin to take shape and reflect more and more the differences between the expressions. I have the children look at my eyes, other adult eyes, and other children’s eyes to “see” what their eyes are telling us. The children with autism begin to include these emotional concepts into their expressive language when describing the various eyes. They may even begin to ask the other person to alter their states of emotion to see what effect it has on the eyes. In essence, the children are exploring their own eyes and those of others to learn about the intuitive/inner states of emotion. This is enhancing their “Theory of mind.”
In Chinese philosophy, especially Taoism, the two forms of knowledge, would be called the yin and the yang. The two forms seem to be, on one hand, in conflict or at least in opposition. However, the Chinese philosophy has demonstrated that the yin and yang are always connected to a core concept, a relationship that is driving both poles. For example, hate and love are both emotions, tall and short are both sizes, and war and peace are both governing states. Yet, hate and love are closely tied together, in that it is easy to fall into love and hate the same person with only a change in emotion, such as when the “love of your life” breaks your “heart.”
In the two forms of knowledge, i.e., the rationale and the intuitive, the obvious core relationship is learning. That is, both are tied closely together in the way we approach learning: both are necessary for learning. We need both for complete knowledge to occur. Even the Western scientist/educator uses his/her intuitive knowledge when conducting his/her rationale research. For instance, the discussion section of most research papers, where the author is asked to transfer the observed and measured results to applied outcomes, is an intuitive process. The measures or data cannot do this, only the intuitive assumptions, within the author about the data, provide this discussion. Interestingly, most readers of research papers go directly to the discussion section first because it is to them the most “relevant” and “meaningful” section. Why is this? It is because, it goes to the “I” within each of us. The “it” or the data is hard to relate too, it has less value. Therefore, even when we measure external behaviors, we want and need to transfer the observed behaviors to the internal states, the intuitive knowledge level.
With this in mind, and I apologize for going on and on about the two types of knowledge, but it is important to get a basis of this relationship so I can then move forward to how it applies to working with children. It is important, in my estimation, for educators to learn to be aware of both their intuitive knowledge and their rational knowledge when working with children. In most educational settings and treatment sessions, the largest time is directed through the rationale side of learning. We talk, we rationalize, we measure, and we adjust to fit the society rules. We measure the child who is not “typical” and try to adjust his “behavior” to be more socially typical. We do this by external rewards, praise, reinforcement, and models. But it is as important, and perhaps even more so, to “tune” into the intuitive part of the child, his/her “I”. If they are going to make sense of what is being asked they need to know “why” they are being asked to do it. They need to “want” to do it. They need to be able to “feel” it is the right thing to do. External reinforcement without internal feelings leads the child nowhere, or at most to minimal learning.
One way of doing this is to ask the child if they know what they are being asked to do. And then ask the child if they want to do it. Ask the child why they are in the treatment session and what they think they need to do to change their behavior. What do they want? This is a time to not be rationale and talkative, let the child do the talking and let the child set the direction. Use your facilitator language to get the information from the child, such as using open-ended questions, “What else?”, “What happened?”, “Are you sure?”, or reiterate what the child has said to see if the child will expand on it, or just state “tell me more.”
Include the child into the daily curriculum. Make them a part of what is being learned. An easy way of doing this is to through child narratives. Here the teacher supplements the child’s personal narratives into the regular curriculum. The teacher can either have the child tell the narrative and write it out for the child, like in the “language experience” approach to reading, or the child can write his/her narratives in a diary. In either instance it is important for the teacher to draw personal events from the child: the child should be telling or writing about events or happenings from their own experiences…their intuitive side.
To get a personal narrative it is important for the teacher to tell a narrative…or model a story. In essence, to get a story, you have to tell a story. McCabe and Bliss (2003) have several suggestions for starting narratives. They suggest you begin by having the child talk about injuries. Here is one of their story prompts: “Once I broke my arm. I had to go to the doctor’s office. She put it in a cast. Have you ever broken anything? Tell me about it.”
Personal narratives are an excellent way of helping the child explore his/her intuitive knowledge and an excellent way of bringing the “I” forth into a rationale “social” “we” exchange.

Explain your definition of literacy and how you use it to teach language and speech?

The most useful definition of literacy is that the individual must be able to read, write, speak, and listen. The speaking part infers to the child being able to articulate clearly in order to be understood, and it refers to the child’s language usage to be able to express ideas. Listening refers to the child’s ability to understand sounds, like in phonemic awareness, and to comprehend what is being asked of him. Listening also means attending to the task and directions as discussed in an earlier question.
I use all four of these dimensions to assist the child to be literate…that is, to be able to read for pleasure, to write his/her ideas, to speak his/her ideas, and to comprehend what is going on. A good way of demonstrating this is to show you how I have used this approach with a young 7 year old boy with Down syndrome, named Tyler.
Tyler came to me with poor speech intelligibility, producing many vowels and few final consonants. His expressive language consisted mostly of two words and some three-word phrases. He did try to explain a lot more, but his intelligibility was so poor, speaking too rapidly with poor articulation, that I could not understand him. He was not able to read any words, although he had a great curiosity when looking at magazines. He could write, inconsistently, his first name, but with poor penmanship. We had some significant challenges with several immediate goals. Our primary goal was to increase his speech intelligibility so he could be understood. Our long term goals were to develop a reading vocabulary and improved writing so he could function better in a classroom.
We began by using a mirror and a wet-erase marker. The mirror was placed flat on the table so it was in a writing position. We sat side-by-side…I was to the right of him so I could control his hand movement. I placed my hand on his, and we made the letter “o”. We made little a “o” and a big “o” saying them while we made them. I had him look at his mouth and my mouth saying this sound. We then used a squirt bottle to erase the letter. I asked him if he wanted to help. Of course, he said yes, and together we squirted the letter. I then handed him a paper towel to “make it go away.” Modeling the sense over and over again.
This little activity did several things: First, it initiated speech-sound production, where Tyler was watching his mouth move to form the sound “o”. Second, it taught him that the symbol/letter has a sound (i.e., phonics.) Third, it gave him ease of writing since I was using a wet-erase marker to aid in the writing. Together we were shaping the letter so he was quite successful. Fourth, we did some language training learning the concepts of big and little. Fifth, he learned to move from left to right in writing the big and little letters. Sixth, he received a language model that is functional and useful for making things disappear.
The next thing we did was to write the letter “m” on the mirror in a similar fashion. However, instead of just saying “mmm”, I said, “one hump, two humps” so that he knew the letter shape required two humps. Then I said, “This letter makes the ‘mmm’ sound” (having him watch my mouth and his in the mirror.) We again did all of the other things of squirting it and erasing it. He wrote the letter with my assistance. I waited for him to ask for the squirt bottle, which he didn’t ask, so I prompted him with, “Do you want the water to squirt it?” Where he responded “yes.” I asked for a complete sentence and modeled what I wanted him to say.
The third step was to combine the two letters. We made the “m”, then the “o”, and then the “m”. I told him to look at the entire word. I told him that these letters put together make the word “mom”. I asked, “Where is your mom?” He pointed to her. I asked that we draw a picture of his mom on a piece of paper and we labeled it “mom”. During this drawing activity, I used a Paper Mate soft-felt fine-point tip pen instead of a pencil or a broad point pen. These types of pens make it easier for the child to draw and write without having to worry about motor control. We then wrote “mom” on an index card and stored it away in a box for future use.
I then brought out the Mercer Mayer children’s book that is title, “Just Me and My Mom”.    We read that book pointing out each time the word “mom” appeared. I would ask him to turn the page, tell me what was going on in the pictures, have him find the word “mom” on the page, etc. I was using scaffolding techniques to get him to increase his language and to expand his comprehension. We then moved to the computer where we loaded up the Mercer Mayer interactive software for “Just Me and My Mom.” This was quite exciting to him. I let him have some control of the mouse, but I also controlled it for my teaching purposes. I had him move the mouse around the words to locate the word “mom”. I also had him tell me what was going to happen in the “secret’ windows located throughout the page. This became a great language tool. I talked about “next”, “before”, “behind”, etc. I asked him to tell me what happened when the tornado took the barn up into the air.
This was our first day.
On the next day, we went over the letters and sounds and introduced a new letter. This time we made the letter “a”, which is shaped like the “o”, but it has a “straight down line.” After writing this, we then made a “d”, which starts with an “o”, but has a tall “straight down line.” We then moved to the word “dad”.    We transferred the word to a card, having him write it and say it at the same time. I then introduced the Mercer Mayer story, “Just Me and My Dad.” We read it looking for the word “dad” throughout the story. We then went to the computer and loaded the Mercer Mayer interactive software for “Just Me and My Dad”.
This was our second day.
On the third day, we began to write together the words “mom” and “dad” to see if he knew which one was which. Of course he did. We then wrote his entire name, making the sounds for each of the letters, talking about how we form them, and practicing first on the mirror and then on a tablet. On the mirror and tablet, I drew two lines about two inches wide, with the Paper Mate pen. This I find is a guide for the child to place his/her letters and word within. I find that if you use standard notebook paper, or even the wide rule school paper, the marks are not bold enough for the child to see. For Tyler, we wrote the two words, sounding out the letters as we went along, and saying the entire word in Gestalt manner. I then had him write his name from memory…helping him with the letters when he could not remember them. We then attempted to write short sentences with the words mom, dad, and Tyler. These sentences were about four words long, for instance, Tyler see (purposefully not adding the 3rd person agreement) book.    Mom see dad. Dad see cookie (saying and tracking the words with my finger.) I have “magic pointing fingers”.(Halloween monsters fingers you can place on the child’s finger.) We then pointed out the words that I ask for. I asked him to point to dad, to mom, Tyler, etc. Sometimes I would ask that he point out the new word cookie. I ask him to find the letter that starts with “mmm”, etc. We ended this session letting him choose which story he wanted to read, “Just Me and My Dad” or “Just Me and My Mom”. (At this point, he could see the cover and know which one is which. Later on, I would type out the words and have him choose from the two typed versions.)
End of third day.
In this simple activity, I covered the basic four elements of literacy: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. To me this is a most powerful means of language enrichment and learning
Reading: Tyler used his auditory system to hear the sounds made by the letters (phonics) and used his visual channel to grasp the gestalt of the whole word “mom.” In essence, he was being asked to see and hear how the words were formed along with the blending of each element. Retrieval of the word was targeted along with a phonemic awareness activity.
Writing: Here Tyler was asked to begin to shape letters and words that made meaning. This is a motor activity, i.e., tactile/kinesthetic neural related.    The interesting thing is that many children process the gestalt of a word when they are asked to write motorically. Writing seems to help them store and retrieve words. Writing in this way is easy and fun. It connects the visual and auditory pathways.
Speaking: Tyler was asked to articulate the words and the individual sounds. This is the opposite of the phonics addressed earlier. Here he said the sounds and saw that the sounds were connected to specific letters. Furthermore, his articulation, or production, of the word was a motor activity, i.e., oral- motor, that tapped into his tactile/kinesthetic neural system. His auditory system was stimulated since he said the word out loud.

Listening: Tyler was asked to listen to the word. How it sounded and how it fit into a story line. This is a strong auditory activity. This activity taps into his vocabulary and comprehension domains of learning, and is even an auditory-retrieval activity, since he had to associate the symbols to meaningful relationships.
Thus, in this simple activity, Tyler was asked to interact in all of the basic inner neural systems along with the addressing the four elements of literacy.

Would you explain what you were doing when you were having Tyler tell a narrative story from the word list? It seemed like you were telling the story and giving him less opportunity to tell his own story. Can you explain your reasoning?

Yes, I certainly understand why it appeared that way. But, it is important to put Tyler into a developmental stage to better understand what was happening. First of all, Tyler has just begun to read sentences with fairly good fluency and ease. He has demonstrated some ability to comprehend short six- to-seven word sentences. It is now time for him to move onto paragraphs and complete stories. For him to be able to comprehend these longer passages, it is important that we know that Tyler can tell stories. In other words, if he cannot tell a story from a theme or a graphic organizer, he may not be able to retell what is going on in the stories he is reading.
I have found that when I first work on this task, the child has no knowledge of what is being asked of him. I go back to my five stages of learning and enter at the Guidance/Modeling level…remembering, of course, that whatever I am doing has to be an Action/Fun activity too and one where the child is Exploring/Curious. For the child to figure out what s/he is supposed to be doing, it is easiest to guide the child through models. That is why I did most of the story telling with Tyler. He just did not know what was expected. I gave him the model by telling the story. Of course, I expected him to contribute and to expand upon what I was saying, which, if you recall, is what happened. He heard my first three sentences, and he added his own sentence, “The bird was strong.”
If my five stage model holds true, then the next thing I would expect would be making sure that I stay within Tyler’s limits, or comfort zone. This I was quite conscious of. In fact, the entire activity was organized around his comfort zone. I had you choose words that he could spell and read easily. I knew from previous sessions that were words that he could use in single sentences. We had also practiced previously doing a similar activity of telling a story using other words. Thus, I felt comfortable that he was working within his limits and comfort zone.
I also made sure that if he were struggling to formulate a sentence, I assisted by helping him use the words appropriately. This is still within that limits/comfort zone level. In essence, if I pushed him too hard he would be struggling beyond his limits and he would shut-down. I wanted him to try anything and whatever he said would be accepted. This meant that he would try again, and again, and again.
The last stage of my five learning stages is the effortless/automatic stage. Well, Tyler is not there yet. To get there, he needs to practice and practice this activity several times. The more he practices, the easier it will be for him to tell a story each time.
Interestingly, when his skills at story telling get easier the level of his stories will also increase. That is, his limits/comfort zone will expand and he will provide more complete stories. When this happens, your guidance/modeling will increase and you will begin to request more of him. He will then begin to increase his story telling until you feel he has reached the level where he is ready to begin to retell the stories that he is reading.
You now have to begin over again. You have to start at his limits/comfort zone on retelling stories, provide the guidance/modeling, and work toward effortless/automatic retelling. Fortunately, having gone through these stages in the personal story telling, the retelling of stories that he has read usually comes much easier and more quickly.