May 3, 2012

Get them "mentally engaged"!

For many children on the spectrum, because mentally "figuring things out" can be both scary and exhausting, they often seek to avoid activity that presents a lot of uncertainty. They often seek out activity that consists of very clear expectations that presents a very specific path for them to follow. They often avoid situations that require them to “think their way... through.” They want the one “right answer” and have it be the right answer each time! They often avoid situations that do not provide predictable certainty. They seek sameness and familiarity to minimize the chaos of uncertainty, and often do not "trust" their own judgment. Since "figuring things out" requires dynamically appraising what is expected, it also demands searching memory for past, similar situations to compare it to, looking at possible options, evaluating potential consequences of the options, picking and initiating an option, monitoring execution, and evaluating effectiveness. In addition, usually implementing the option runs into snags that require us to shift gears and modify our response for effectiveness. This dynamic process also requires the child to know when their response is "good enough" to meet the objective. Since they often do not know how to evaluate "good enough" they only see a perfect response as a "sure thing." This dynamic process of appraising, monitoring, evaluating, and modifying can be overwhelming for children on the spectrum. Please read below

Given that “mentally engaging” can overwhelm the child, over time we tend to frame activities so they don’t have to “think” much. We tell them the best ways to do things, do the figuring out for them, and shield them from the insecurity of “thinking their way through things.” However, by doing so, we reinforce the rigidity of only feeling safe in situations of predictability and certainty. The best thing to do is not avoid “mentally engaging” but provide ongoing “safe” exposure to it through “guided participation.” (see presentations “apprentice learning/ We-Do activity” and “ Effective teaching principles” and “stretching comfort zones.” ).

Instead of rushing through daily events, slow them down, do them together, and allow the child to “mentally engage” with your support. With the parent framing the activity to require a little “thinking” and then providing guidance through it, the parent can scaffold the demands to provide enough challenge to elicit “mental engagement”, but not so much to overwhelm the child. By doing the activity with the child they can pause and wait for the child to “think and choose” as well provide “cues” (clues) if they freeze. The parent can also “think out loud” so the child can reference and understand how they “think through things.” Learning by doing with, and referencing the more experienced adult, teaches the child how to “mentally engage.”

The secret is for the parent to carefully present “thinking” challenges that are “just right” (not too easy or too hard), pause and let the child respond, then help out by providing information, but not necessarily the answer. It is this framing the events to create a “thinking” challenge, allowing the child to contemplate, then carefully guiding the “thinking”, that teaches the child to feel safe “figuring it out.” If the child is resisting then the challenge it may be too difficult. Back up and provide smaller challenges, and/or give added guidance. If that still seems too difficult, then let the child “do it with the child”, slow it down, do the thinking, but “think out loud”. This way the child first references the thinking process before pausing to let him try.

This takes a little time to get used to. We are so used to “doing for” or setting it up so that the child doesn’t have to think. It is easier and quicker. However, once you get used to slowing things down, sharing the experience, it will become more natural to allow the child to “mentally engage” throughout the event. Usually you don’t have to create new conditions to teach this, there are plenty of opportunities in they typical daily routine.

You cannot learn to “think, contemplate, and mentally engage” without doing it frequently throughout the day. The routine day for most children is filled with numerous opportunities to appraise, contemplate, monitor and evaluate. These experiences strengthen the neuro-pathways needed to develop effective “thinking skills” as well as feel confident in using them. It helps develop the necessary wiring needed for dynamic thinking. Since the child on the spectrum tends to avoid “mental engagement” they do not give themselves the numerous exposure needed to develop strong wiring for dynamic thinking. Consequently, we need to provide numerous “safe” experiences , with careful guidance of the parent/teacher.

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