Tuesday, June 18, 2013

How Young is Too Young?

I have to admit, I was a "behavior analyst" long before I became a parent. When I started using ABA to teach children with autism in 1996 it just "made sense" to me. The data analysis, adjusting teaching based on performance, shaping, prompting, fading, all of it just made sense to me. I couldn't imagine teaching any other way. I earned my BCBA certification in 2002 and became a parent in 2003.

As you've probably heard (or learned from experience), children don't come with instruction manuals. I'd heard this many times before we brought our newborn home from the hospital but it still surprised me. We came home with a baby and literally no instruction AT ALL! I did what I knew how to do. We fed her, changed her and recorded everything! We wrote down when she drank every bottle, how much she drank, when she slept, and every diaper change. This just lasted for the first few days, I think (maybe the first week... or two?).  We got the hang of things. However, I didn't really know how to be around her without feeling like I needed to teach her. The only way I knew to teach was with ABA! No, I didn't take data on every nursery rhyme I taught her or when she started independently doing the actions with them. Though, I did keep track of all of her baby signs and every vocal mand/tact.  I taught her how to mand, with full sentences, purposefully, a step at a time. (Her first 3 word mand was, "I want [marsh]mellow!".  We quickly added, "please".) I remember thinking that maybe all parents didn't teach "that way" but I didn't really know how to do it differently. I started teaching her how to read at around age 3. I used a programmed reading primer developed by graduate students at the University of Kansas (Go Jayhawks!) decades ago. We then used Programmed Reading until she started reading chapter books sometime in first grade.

The thing is, once she entered school, I started having more contact with other parents and with teachers.  Parents were pretty interesting. They said things like, "Oh, it's so silly when parents start teaching their kids to read so young! Wasted time! They all end up about the same in elementary school, anyway!"   Teachers said things like, "Don't worry, by the end of first grade, her peers will catch up to her." Right, just what I wanted to hear.  But it all did make me think. Was I pushing her (and eventually my son, as well) to do more than she was "supposed" to do?  Was I more rigid than most parents? We didn't have set times to read or "learn language". It was just built into every day.  But was I making it too important? Should we have just "played" more? I can't imagine we didn't play and sing and dance enough. We did a lot of that! And I have no voice and no moves!  I just wonder if they would have been the same or different either way? I happened to stumble upon the coolest, most fun, and scientific way of teaching children when I was 19 years old. What would have happened if I didn't? Would it have mattered? If teaching them early learning skills while they were "so young" was wrong, what was I supposed to do instead? What do other parents do?

Understand that I don't believe I did the wrong thing. I cannot parent another way because I don't know any other way to parent. But I tend to be pretty open to ideas from others and not very outspoken. I'm not a fan of conflict and would most of the time rather not respond when I feel another parent has a strong opinion about something. (This is not true in my "work" as a behavior analyst, however.) My kids read well. Math comes easily to them. I don't feel like it was wasted time.  But is there such a thing as teaching academics to children who are too young? It seems a bit relevant. I came across this movie, Nursery University on Netflix the other day. Does this seem too extreme? Would you feel differently depending on the teaching methods that are used to teach?  What about this story from NPR? Lots of parents are comfortable with "Baby Einstein". Why?  What's the difference between the Nursery University crowd and the Baby Einstein-ers?  What do you think about "teaching" babies?

My Memory of Dr. Donald Baer

I had the lovely opportunity of attending college and graduate school at the University of Kansas. I'm grateful I was able to attend when I did, when the program was small and the faculty were legends (Baer, Wolf, Morris, Bushell, Sherman, Sheldon, Miller, Semb, Cooper, and others!). And I think I would love to go back now, with the relatively new but also successful faculty and program. As an undergraduate in the program, I really had no idea how great the faculty at the University of Kansas was until I attended my first ABA Convention in Florida (1998, I think?). During the opening address, Don Baer was quoted and I thought, "Hey, is that our Don Baer?" What a newbie I was! 

My primary advisors in graduate school were David Born and Don Bushell (with Mark Matthews and Don Baer rounding out my committee). I started meeting with Don Bushell as an undergraduate, actually. I worked in a school he founded from my junior year of college through my time in graduate school. When I started graduate school he told me I needed to take as many classes with Don Baer as I could and I did! Every week we had research meeting. It was pretty magical. Don Bushell and  Don Baer attended each week and met with our research group, usually 3 to maybe 7 students would show up. Sometimes Dr. David Born would drop by, as well. I learned so much from Don and Don and the other students in the program on those Fridays!
I believe I took a class from Don Baer nearly every semester. When my first summer semester was coming up, I saw his name in the timetable but it said permission was required to join the class. I went to his corner office and knocked on his open door. He turned in his chair and greeted me with a classic, almost Santa Claus-like smile (very contagious). I asked him if I could take his summer class. The conversation we had was one I will never forget. First, he asked me why I wanted to be a behavior analyst. I thought I anwered his question but he had a way of teaching no matter what your answer was. He clarified and explained that as behavior analysts, we would be "outsiders" in the field of education. (Remember, this was in about 2000; a lot has changed since then.) He gave a few examples and seemed to question whether or not I was comfortable being on the outside. My response may not have been what other people would call "correct" but I felt comfortable enough... I responded with, "Oh, no problem there, I'm a Mormon!" To which he then flashed another terrific smile, put his hands together, and said, "Well, I'm a Jew!" He then filled me in on experiences he'd had when he was younger, his previous contact with "mormons" in Utah, and our "position" as behavior analysts/outsiders in the field of education. It was fantastic and led to one of my most stressful summers. You see, Don "let" me "take" "his" class. However, he stressed that he didn't typically teach in the summer. So, he told me what book we would be using and that he expected me to teach one or two chapters a week, complete with overhead projections. The first couple of weeks, it was just me and Don (in his gray gardening-type jumpsuit). Then another student enrolled and I was able to "teach" every other week. I remember being so nervous every week. He was just the type of person that brought out the best in people.  I wanted to impress him.... Not look stupid. I prepared the materials but Don taught me a lot that summer.. He didn't just teach "facts" he taught a way of thinking and of looking at things. I will always be grateful for being able to have that time with him. 

I've been thinking that I don't think I ever wrote this down. I'm not a "journal-er". But this is something I want to remember. I want to remember how if felt to be around people who just "taught".  I want to remember Don Baer and Don Bushell and research meetings. I don't want to forget my early days in the field and how they taught me to "think". And I thought maybe others might enjoy this memory of mine, as well. I mean really, he was just too cool to forget.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Shoe Tying

Okay, teaching children to tie their shoes does not have to be difficult. It usually just takes practice (lots of trials) and a consistent method. I've seen lots of different ways of tying shoes but this is the one with which I've had the most success.

A task-analysis for shoe tying:
Start with laces straight out to each side of the shoe. 

Take the right lace (A) and cross the front of the shoe.
Set it down on the left.

Take the left lace (B) and cross it over the shoe (and other lace).
Set it down on the right.

At the top of the shoe, pull up on lace (A) with your left hand to make a little tunnel (with B still on top of A). Hold on to it.

Pick up the end of lace (B) with your right hand (right side of the shoe) and drive it through the tunnel you are still holding with your left hand (sometimes this comes with train noises, "choo choo!").

Let go of lace (B) once it enters the tunnel, then grab it again with the same hand on the other side of the tunnel.
Let go of lace (A) and grab the end of lace (A), which should still be on the left side of the shoe. Now you are holding the ends of both laces.
Pull both laces.

Let go of both laces.
Make a loop on lace B (right lace) by touching the two dots together and pinching.

Do the same with lace A (left lace).

Cross the tops of both loops, with the right loop in front of the left.  Make sure there is a space under the loops.

Make 1 loop do a "flip", turning one loop completely under the other by pushing it over the other loop and through the space below the 2 loops.  Don't let go of either lace!

Pull them tight. The shoe is tied!

At this point you can pull on each lace until the ends are not dragging.

Keys to remember:
It is often helpful to start with extra-long shoe laces. You remember, right? Having laces that are too short can turn an otherwise successful attempt at tying shoes into a frustrating moment right at the end when you pull your loops and the end of the lace gets pulled out of the knot.  Start with long laces. It's also helpful to put 2 dots on the each lace where the points on the"loop" should touch. Kids can use them to learn how big the loop should be in order to tie successfully. (Most kids will start out using nearly the whole lace to make the initial loops.)

When teaching kids to tie their shoes, show them then physically help (prompt) them to do it. Don't be afraid to help until they don't need it anymore. Reduce the potential of frustration by practicing "success" (with you helping). This will help the activity become more reinforcing to them and will help them demonstrate persistence in learning the skill.

Demonstrate and Help/prompt from behind. Put the shoe in between their legs (right in front of them), facing the same direction it would be if it was on their foot. Initially, I wouldn't start with it on their foot simply because they will be putting a lot of effort into concentrating on completing the "right" steps (physically and mentally). We don't want to wear them out because it takes more effort to fold up their leg and keep it close to their body to reach the shoe in the first place. If you demonstrate how to tie the shoe from behind, they'll be looking at it from the same point of view as you. And when you help/physically prompt from behind, your fingers will be in the same positions their fingers should be in.

Follow the same task analysis every time. This is important as it will lead to mastery much quicker if the same steps are being practiced in the same order every time. If more than one person is teaching this skill to your child, make sure you are all on the same page.

Fade prompts (your help) gradually. Initially, physically help your child complete every step in the chain. Then fade how much you are physically helping (prompting) them. Normally, I like to teach skills by backward chaining. However, I've found that kids like to complete at least the first 3 steps in the shoe-tying chain independently pretty quickly. Just make sure that if they can complete a step independently, let them do it. If they are shaky or are not able to be independent, provide a prompt BEFORE they miss a step or complete an "error". This will reduce frustration and prevent practicing incorrect steps.

Initially, reinforce EVERY accomplishment, big or small. Tying shoes is hard. There are a lot of steps and most kids haven't had a ton of "that kind" of fine motor practice prior to learning how to tie their shoes. Reinforce independence as it happens (with each step). Make a big deal out of accomplishments at every level.

Let me know if this "makes sense". Are there other "tasks" you'd like to see "analyzed"?

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

"Waiting" with Children

I'm a little behind on my posts right now.  My apologies.  I come today bearing a gift,  however.  That makes up for it,  right?

In my experience,  waiting for an appointment,  waiting for food to arrive while at a restaurant,  or waiting for that seemingly never-ending process of taking pictures at the end of a family event with children  (who may be ill, hungry, tired, or feeling very energetic) can be relatively unpleasant. But, since those situations can be expected and planned for the pain can be mitigated. Pack a backpack with a few favorite toys, books to read/look at, puzzles, etc. and you and your children are good to go! Don't get me wrong, I know that learning to "wait" without "entertainment" is necessary. But I also know that children are not little adults. Patience is not a virtue that can be expected into perpetuity for a 2 or 4 or 6 year old. 

A couple of weeks ago I had dinner with a couple of friends and 2 very young children (under the age of 3).  The dinner went amazingly well. The children sat in the booth with us, remained quiet and appropriate at the dinner table for around 2 hours. How? The magic bag, which had a few crayons, a few trains, a few sheets of stickers and some rubber toys (among other things) and some fun adults. Every parent has figured out the magic bag... though I gotta tell you, I had forgotten all about stickers. They are magically time-consuming (and taking them off and sticking them in appropriate places is a great fine motor activity!).

 But what happens when the wait is unexpected (flat tire, traffic jam) and you have nothing prepared, or you (gasp) forgot the magic bag? Waiting with children with nothing to do can start to feel like torture after a bit. But I've found a magic list that requires little or no prepared materials!  Terri Mauro at About.com wrote a wonderful list of 101 Time Wasters that looks fabulous! There is SOMETHING on that list that will work with almost any child. I especially liked #90 Be mirror images and #87 Go on a "hike" with your two fingers walking over your child's arms, shoulders, and head (Describe what "he's" doing and maybe even draw a face and clothes on the "hiker" if you have a pen handy!).

Take a look at that magic list and let me know what your favorites are. Do you have any activities that you think should be added? I think I'll throw in a task analysis for shoe tying in the next post (that'll help with #13).