Put Away the Flashcards and Get on the Floor

Think about the last time you were learning something new. Maybe you are a grad student and that time is right now. Maybe you are a parent and the learning curve is steep, pretty much every day! What motivated you to seek out new skills? What kept you motivated? Maybe you want a new career as an awesome SLP or you want to make sure you are the best mom you can be for your kids.

Whatever the skill, you had to be motivated to take on new learning and you have to stay motivated to actually stick to it and learn something! Kids are no different! Well, except for the nature of their motivation, of course. Children have this amazing, innate drive to learn, exceeded only by the magnitude of their capacity to learn and to do so at warp speed. Like us, children have interests and curiosities and they soak in a learning opportunity through all of their senses to form a rich and meaningful, emotional experience. This is ENGAGEMENT and it is the essential counterpart to motivation that builds skills and relationships that last. Unlike us, young kids are not motivated by the same intrinsic drives that lead us to new, ambitious careers or family roles. They are driven by their own interests and curiosities and often, the pursuit of pure joy for its own sake. Let’s pretend I am. a 4 year old child with Autism who struggles daily to achieve the developmental milestones I need to grow and prosper. My motivation is what I’m interested in or curious about, my goal is joy, and I engage through my senses within emotionally meaningful experiences. Sound like anyone you know? How do YOU as my teacher, my speech therapist, my RBT or parent teach me lasting skills upon which to build my future? Start by putting down the metaphorical or literal flash cards, stepping away from the table, and getting on the floor!

Ok, so you don’t necessarily have to get on the floor. You can engage and motivate a child to learn hard, new skills at the table too. Or in the pool, on a train, or in a plane for that matter! The key is prioritizing the child’s engagement (not attention, that is different, more on that later) in the learning interaction and in the relationship. Sometimes, this means getting on the floor, at the child’s level, immersing yourself in his or her world. But putting engagement first always means that the child is in the lead, showing you his world of interests and curiosities, inviting you to experience her joy, and providing you with the foundation upon which to scaffold emotionally meaningful learning opportunities that lead to lasting skills. Engagement doesn’t mean that hard, meaningful work is not being done by you or the child. But engagement does mean that you might be having so much fun together that neither of you notices that you’re working! In engaging, child led interactions, there isn’t a “first you work, then you play” contingency- the work IS the play, the play IS the work. And through the joy, the excitement, the problem solving, the laughing, the goofing around, the trial and error, the messiness, you have these magic moments to teach new words, tackle math, reduce challenging behaviors, and so much more.

Ok so you are on the floor, now what?

  • Bring some engaging materials and activities to the interaction
  • Be a fun, sensitive, and cooperative play partner
  • Follow the child’s lead – what is she looking at? Touching? Talking about?
  • Model the new skill most of the time, avoid “testing” and provide well supported and motivating opportunities for practice
  • Place few demands and be flexible- if the child is unhappy or frustrated, he isn’t engaged
  • Add to the play, the conversation, and the learning opportunities by expanding on the child’s interest rather than directing her to yours

If you want to know more about engagement and child-led, play-based teaching- specifically to build communication skills- check out my upcoming, live webinar!

You can get more information and register here

What are you doing to engage your kids or students to learn new skills? Share in the comments below or ask a question to see how your fellow “teachers” can help you from the trenches.

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