How much is enough? When to keep going and when to switch gears

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I was watching a podcast a while back. The speaker talked about results from research into their self-regulation program. She said that, after three years, improvements were found. THREE YEARS??? That’s a long time. Children change and develop no matter what you do – the improvements they saw might have happened just because the children are three years older. Also, she said ‘improvements’ were found, not statistically significant improvements, just improvements. Unless something is done in a carefully controlled study and results are statistically significant, they’re essentially useless. 

Lots of parents have told me about how their children had worked on the same things year after year at school. Their IEP (Individual Education Plan) or IPP (Individual Program Plan) looks the same year after year, only the dates change. Why is this? It’s likely because the goals weren’t achieved. So why is that? And why do they keep flogging the poor child with the same things over and over? It may be that the goals aren’t appropriate but, more likely than not, the way they’re teaching the child isn’t working.

So, how much is enough? At what point should I change what I’m doing? In my experience, if a child hasn’t shown progress within three months of starting a program or plan, it’s time to stop and re-evaluate what you’re doing. You should see change and improvement before that but three months is the limit. If a child hasn’t learned what you’re trying to teach STOP. You haven’t found an effective and meaningful way for that child to learn.
The same thing goes for research projects like the one I mentioned in the first paragraph. If they hadn’t found any changes within three months of starting the project, don’t keep going. Stop. Evaluate what you’re doing and make meaningful changes. Face it, you’ve hit a brick wall. 

If you truly believe in the goal and what you’re trying to teach the children, try changing one or more of the following:

  • Content. Is the content interesting or is it the same old stuff again and again? Inject the child’s favorite topic area or affinity. Make that math lesson about counting, adding and subtracting Thomas the Tank Engine’s friends. Divide the train loads in different ways for Thomas’ friends. Categorize dinosaurs, flags, or computers, looking for similarities and differences. A colleague was telling me about a child who showed no interest in books. She tried a variety of different types but the child lasted about 10 seconds. Then she took him to the library and guided him to books about cars – his passion. He chose a fairly mature and complicated graphic novel about car repair. He can now listen to this book for up to an hour and he’s learning from it. What a difference passion makes to anyone’s ability to stick with a task.  
  • How you want the child to respond. Many children have fine motor problems so asking them to use a pencil or pen can make things more difficult. Offer to act as the child’s scribe so you write what they say. Give the child three or four options for answers so they can choose by pointing. You can also use speech-to-text apps – on a mobile phone, just tap on the microphone symbol beside the space bar and talk away. It’s a fun and easy way to help children respond to activities that bypass areas of difficulty. Work on fine motor skills separately. Don’t mistake children’s reluctance to respond for lack of knowledge.     
  • Amount of practice. Sometimes, practicing a skill three or five times and doing it well are much better than making the child do it ten times. Don’t make it tedious. Also, know when to move on. Some days are not as good as others. If you see a child struggling with an activity they can normally do, cut it short and try again another day. Keep it as positive as possible so the child will want to come back to it.
  • Structure of the activity. Does the student have time to look over the activity and ‘warm’ up to it? Are the instructions clear? How does the activity look to the student? Does it look too busy or too long? Does the student have any choice about which things are done first, second, etc. or how quickly they need to be completed? Timed tasks can be destructive with some students – you can lose them before you start.  
  • Assessment of progress. What’s progress? Is it 80% correct? 75% correct? Sometimes, it’s 55%. If you see a child’s ‘got it’, why press for more? Celebrate the achievement and move on to something new and/or more challenging. Repeating the same old thing again and again is mind-numbing for the best of us.

Remember, three months is maximum. If you don’t see progress, change what you’re doing. 

 Photo by Hutomo Abrianto on Unsplash

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