How do we know when our kids are ready to move on to a new skill?
Since I deal daily with Rett syndrome, a land of ever-shifting terrain, this question is close to home. Rett syndrome, along with so many other disorders with a neurological component, presents an ongoing ebb and flow of skill gains. And skill losses. But for today, let’s look at how our family has recognized that our daughter was ready for greater challenges. The cues she gave weren’t always the standard ones we look for in typically developing kids.
1) Increased interest in new areas. Sure, this sounds pretty typical. But we have to look past the situation at hand to see the broader implications of readiness.
For example, our girl was a diehard Wiggles fan. The bright colors, the catchy songs, the silly humor, the MEN were all attention grabbers for her.
But when she began to show interest in documentaries about penguins, she indicated readiness to take in information in new ways. We could see that she no longer needed the multisensory input of bright colors or music or MEN to keep her interest. She showed us that her attention span exceeded the 60-second vignettes that made up the Wiggles show.
She was ready to enter a new world of information input, one which was supported by the general education classroom and age-appropriate learning venues. Even if it meant being taught by a woman.
Might I add this was a joyful time at our house? While my husband and I are indebted to all the Wiggles men and their Big Red Car for the smiles they brought our girl, Henry the Octopus was enough to make me hurl. We were not sad to see Henry or Dorothy the Dinosaur exit from our lives.
2) Boredom. Particularly for kids confined to wheelchairs, boredom is often expressed as shut-down. Sleep. Faking sleep. They escape from a boring situation by checking out.
The other option for them is tantruming. Screaming. Doing anything loud or aggressive that will get them removed from a horribly boring situation.
I suspect the route a child chooses has much to do with personality. Our daughter shuts down when she is bored.
When a child is bored, they are ready to move on. They may not have mastered a skill in its entirety, but they may be ready to generalize it to new situations.
Take, for example, an occupational therapy activity that was suggested to us. We were to assist my daughter, with as minimal assistance as possible, to scoop a walnut out of a bowl, carry it in her right hand across midline, and drop it into a second bowl. Repeat for 30 walnuts. Switch bowls and repeat for the left hand. Ho-hum (I see you yawning!).
After the second or third time I brought out the bowls of walnuts, the poor child would drop her head to her chest and fake sleep. Had she mastered the skill? Absolutely not. But she was ready to apply it to something else that would keep her brain engaged.
So we started sorting plastic letters into piles of capitals and lower case, using the same movements of scooping, crossing midline, and releasing. We did the same to separate consonants and vowels. She never did learn to love the activity, but at least she was able to stay more engaged in it when we brought it into a learning realm she was ready for.
3) Stagnating IEP objectives. This is a huge problem for children who have difficulty expressing themselves. I have seen it not only with my own daughter, but many, many other kids with complex issues. An example is the IEP with the goal for identifying colors (red, yellow, blue, green) from preschool until high school. Unbelievably, this happens in real life. No joke.
When an IEP goal is repeated several years in a row, the child is ready to move on! There are several scenarios that may be at work; each one suggests that the child is ready for new goals.
a. The child has mastered the goal. Move on. So what if the concept is easy and comfortable to teach? The child deserves to be challenged. Move on.
b. The child has internally mastered the goal and either cannot express it or, more likely, HAS expressed it but we’ve missed the responses. Move on.
c. The child hasn’t mastered the goal. Move on. It may not be intrinsically important to the child. It may be that our system for teaching that goal has been inappropriate. It may not be broken down to fit the child’s capability. There are many other reasons a child may not master a goal. But why waste their time doing the same thing that hasn’t worked in the past? Move on.
Granted, there are some situations where maintaining a skill is the objective. We see this with our daughter and physical skills; just keeping what she has is forward progress. I don’t see these as “stagnant” goals. Ideally, her continued goal to “walk 300 feet with assistance” would include fading of the levels of assistance, but for now, just walking 300 feet with as much assistance as she needs would count huge in my book as progress.
4) Bonus: They just do it! This is the miracle of child development when it happens. While it’s not unusual for typically developing kids to spurt forward without much warning, sometimes our kids with disabilities will also magically sweep us off our feet. Suddenly, everything comes together. It may be out of the blue or it may come after months and months of rehearsal. Maybe they go from standing to propelling forward with steps (don’t pinch me if this ever happens. So far, it has only occurred for my daughter during my REM sleep). Maybe they invite a classmate to join them in play for the first time. Maybe, FINALLY, they reach out to touch fingerpaint after years of
tantruming over balking at all tactile sensations.
One instance that has happily etched itself forever in my memory was when the consonant “m” came together for our daughter after she’d lost her ability to speak. Her sister, then a toddler, had been rehearsing a nursery rhyme by filling in the word “moon.”
“I see the ____ and the _____ sees me,
God bless the ______ and God bless ME!”
Little sister was reciting the rhyme for Grandma, filling in with the word “moon” (and “me!”) at the correct pause. Our non-verbal daughter started to get agitated, so Grandma asked her if SHE wanted to recite the poem. Happy smiles; that’s an affirmative, Captain.
Oh great, I thought. She’s going to be so disappointed when the word doesn’t come out.
BUT IT DID! Well, close.
“I see the MMMmmmmm,” she fills in, right on cue. Timing is another part of our daughter’s apraxia that is impossible for her to control. BUT SHE DID IT!
“…and the MMMmmmm sees me.
God bless the MMMmmmm and God bless MMMmmm!”
Grandma and I could hardly see her for the tears puddling in our eyes, but the look of pride on her face was priceless! Everything just WORKED!! This so rarely happens for her, but when it does, it is a monumental occasion. And I’m happy to report that “mmmm” continues to be a consonant sound she has been able to maintain, especially because it makes up the bulk of that most important word—mom. What mother could ask for anything more?
Barbara at TherExtras has launched a blog carnival to discuss the topic of readiness. I hope you will check out her post and join in the fun!