Unclear on Yes or No, Following Body Language

Robert’s speech therapist from his summer program noticed that Robert still has a lot of problems with answering “yes and no” questions. However, she also observed, that when” yes and no” questions are asked outside of the therapy sessions  in “natural” school environment, Robert makes fewer errors.

For the last few days, I have been practicing with Robert these questions using sets from Functional Language Workbook of Activities for Language and Cognition  by Leslie Bilik-Thompson and I have to confirm that Robert’s responses have been erratic.  He answers yes and no haphazardly, switches from one answer to another while simultaneously he is paying extremely close attention to the tiniest movements of the muscles on my face.  I know I do something to my face when I think about the proper response to  yes or no, and Robert can read that.  I don’t know how Robert can decipher and interpret  almost invisible tension of the muscles around my jaw, or around my eyes, but he he clearly decodes when they tell, “yes” and when they say, “NO.”  This uncanny skills demonstrates  itself mainly during our teaching sessions.  Robert wants to answer what I want to hear.  Even if the answer is in his head, he doesn’t bother to retrieve it from there.  He wants to find clues on my face.

I realized that a few years ago.  I thought I addressed this problem by camouflaging correct answer by thinking about the wrong one.  When the  answer was  “yes” I tried to think about “No” and Robert answered, “No”.  When I shifted my thinking from yes to no, Robert followed changing his responses from  “yes to no”.

The second observation made by the speech pathologist, that Robert makes less errors in “natural” settings , allowed me to  realize to what degree, “one to one” arrangement of a teaching environment  reinforced Robert’s ability  to read facial expressions and, sadly,  prevented him from relying on his brain. It is not a surprise that this problem  presents itself most evidently during exercises with “yes and no” questions.  It is not new, however.

In my old post Teaching as Dismantling, I described the first time I encountered this problem when Robert was 3 years old.  Based on unnoticeable to anybody else movements of my hands, he pointed correctly to twelve animals.  At that time he did not have any receptive language and he certainly did not know what toucans or walruses were. I understood that as long as Robert would base his answers on the wrong set of cues, he won’t learn reading appropriate cues.  I knew it then, and I know it now.

I tried to address that issue in many ways.  When the response to the question is a noun, a verb or a two or three words phrase, Robert makes less errors, as difficulties in reading my expressions prevent him from relying on them.  I learned to lower my head, cover my mouth, turned away.  But,  with “Yes and NO”  it is much harder.

I asked Robert to close his eyes while listening to the question and answering it, but his anxiety interfered with such a great idea and made it useless.  I tried to hide half of my face behind a book.  Robert became even more tense and tried to read my eyes.

If the “desk” teaching is not extended  to  “natural” settings, Robert won’t find a reason to consult his brain to help him find proper replies.  In one on one setting Robert’s the purpose in answering is not to find an answer which matches his prior knowledge of the world but to make his teacher happy.  And to make the teacher happy, Robert has to read the answers off his teacher’s face.

Pulling Out of Helplessness

I cannot help myself.  I want Robert to answer correctly whatever is there to answer.  So I give him signals. I don’t know what those signals are. But Robert deciphers them anyway. I catch my fingers  moving themselves toward a word that completes the sentence, or toward the  correct estimate of a number on a number line.  I put the hands under the table so they stop interfering.  But inside my mouth the air position itself in anticipation of the word that is an answer to the question I have just asked my son. My lips don’t say the word yet, but are shaped already for the first sound.  Robert knows what I want him to say because I am already saying it, even if I don’t hear myself.  I catch my tongue conspiring with  my lungs and my mouth to help Robert demonstrate to me that he knows the proper response. To prevent my mouth from meddling in Robert’s learning I leave Robert at the table and go to the kitchen.  Before I go I tell Robert  to read carefully each phrase printed on  one of 12 strips of paper, decide if it relates to the sun, the earth, or the moon, and place the strip with the sentence in a proper space.  From the kitchen I look  back and see that Robert doesn’t touch the strips of paper.   He waits for me to return.  “Use your own mind.  You know it.  You know that all”  I repeat from time to time as I watch Robert’s hands. I see pieces of paper slowly filling empty spaces below “sun, earth, and moon”.  Very slowly.

I ask, “Are you ready or not yet? ”

“Not yet”.

A few more minutes and a few more encouragements from the other room I ask again, “Are you ready or not yet?”


I return to the table and we are checking together if the phrases properly relate to the objects.  Seven correct answers, five wrong. Enough to assume that Robert hasn’t assigned those strips of papers completely randomly.  This is a success.  Because the goal for Robert is not to be correct yet, but to TRY to be correct without help.

In the past when Robert knew something well, like  multiplying two digit numbers by one digit, he could work alone on the whole page of problems.  He automatically followed a simple algorithm.  When, however, Robert was not completely sure how to respond, he would wait and wait and wait for me to come.  He wouldn’t touch the problem without me being present and giving him those unnoticeable  to me  cues.  The fact that today Robert worked independently, not afraid to make mistakes was a step out of learned helplessness.  The fact that in, at least,  a few instances he used HIS knowledge was a small  step but the step into independence.


Before Robert’s third birthday, he and I played with Duplo blocks. We built  simple structures by lining  the blocks along the edges of the base or stacking them on top of each other.  To make those structures  a little more interesting I began to  alternate blocks.  White, red, white red.  Soon, Robert followed building white and red towers or white and red paths.  It seemed  such an easy task to learn  that there was no point of practicing it over next year or year and a half.  During that year, Robert was practicing matching by color, matching identical pictures, or matching pictures of the same, but differently looking,  objects. (For instance, differently looking tables.) .   When he was already four and a half years old, I noticed that he couldn’t complete a simple ABABA pattern.  So I brought back Duplo blocks assuming that Robert would recognize the task he had already mastered 18 months before and build the tower alternating white and red blocks. But he was unable to do that.  He placed red on red and white on white.  The paths could be all white or all red. Moreover, this time, I was unable to teach Robert to alternate colors  I tried many times and failed.  ( In the end I used Robert’s strong urge to match by color by having him to match the path I built with alternating colors.  Later, a friend of mine advised me to use a kindergarten level computer program where the skill of  completing patterns was taught by matching the pictures in the top row by placing identical ones in the row below. When the identical matching was completed, the pictures from lower row were immediately transported to the top row to extend the pattern.)

When I realized that Robert could not alternate blocks by colors, I began to doubt my memory.  Could Robert really complete white and red pattern before?  Did I make it up? How could he unlearn the skill that came to him so easily before?  Where his resistance to alternating colors came from?  Did too many months of  identical matching resulted in Robert’s strong conviction that this is the only way to go?

I can only hypothesize why Robert lost the skill he had.  Yet I strongly believe that had I continued working with Robert on varying the tasks presented to him, he might have not developed this rigidity in thinking. If the matching of “same with same” were interspersed with practicing patterns, the learning of a new skill might take longer but the “unlearning” might not happen.

On Laundry and Learned Helplessness 1

Around his 11 birthday (+/-1) Robert began helping with  household chores.  He folded laundry and  put away dishes.  At first, he was only assisting me.  Later, he took over and didn’t allow me to help him. Whenever I tried to join him, he directed me to the computer desk,  ordered me to sit behind it and not interfere with his work.  He repeated, “Robert, Robert” to make sure I understood that all the work was his to do. I tried to leave something for him to do every day. When he worked, I didn’t have to watch him. He was busy, focused, and didn’t do anything inappropriate.  When he didn’t work, he had to be observed closely.

Around that time he started doing laundry at home. He put dirty clothes in a washing machine, pour a cup of a detergent, turned the machine on, switched the clothes to the drier, set the drier on, and took clothes out.


1.He didn’t separate whites from colored or even black clothes.

2. He always put ALL the dirty clothes from a hamper or two into the machine.

3.When the washing machine stopped mid-circle because of the imbalance , Robert took dripping clothes out and placed them in the drier.

I had to intervene.    Whenever I heard the washing machine being turned on I ran to the laundry room, removed all the clothes (wet already), and told Robert to separate white and not white. Except he didn’t quite comprehend “not-white” and seemed to respond  only to the “white” part of the “not-white” phrase.  He made many mistakes I corrected.   Robert didn’t say anything, allowed me to correct him, but as soon as I left, he added all the remaining clothes to the washing machine.  This chain of events repeated itself a few times.   I always demanded that he separates whites and not whites. He always had problems  with that request.  I always stopped him from overloading, he always overloaded later. He didn’t protest, but as soon as he saw me disappearing behind the corner of a staircase, he returned to the laundry room and tried to “fix”  the laundry the way he considered it fitting.

Then one day he stopped putting clothes in the washing machine.

He continues to take dirty clothes to the laundry room.  He tells me to do laundry (“Laundry, laundry”) when his drawers get empty.  He still switches laundry from the washing machine to the drier.He still takes laundry out and folds it.

But for the last eight years, he has never turned on a washing machine.  Never.

With all my corrections, explanations, and instructions I convinced him that he was not able to  wash clothes.

And he believed me.

Could I do anything differently? Of course.  I could have prepared just one load of laundry for him to do each day, so he wouldn’t be able  to overload.  I could later add one or two differently colored items to the hamper, show them to Robert as standing out, and take them out with me upon leaving Robert in the laundry room to ” independently” initiate washing .

I wonder why I didn’t?

Teaching as Dismantling

I don’t remember all 12 animals pictured on the wooden pieces of the puzzle.  I  remember only four of them: elephant, giraffe, walrus, and toucan.  I also remember being hot and cold from conflicting emotions.  Robert and I were sitting at the small but heavy, wooden table across from each other. The wooden puzzle was placed on the table.  I held two pieces at a time in my both hands and asked Robert to point to one of the two animals pictured on these pieces.  He did. He did it again.  Every single time he chose correctly the animal I asked for. At that time I believed that Robert didn’t know any words receptively.  And here he responded correctly every  time.  Well, at the beginning I was only asking for an elephant or a giraffe or for another animal while contrasted with an elephant or a giraffe. I could believe that Robert knew those after many trips to the Zoo and some other learning opportunities I provided before.  I could believe that.  I almost did.  But when Robert could differentiate between pictures of a toucan and a walrus I knew something was wrong.  I knew but I still hoped it wasn’t.  So I changed presentation format.  Now, I took two pictures and placed them on the table. I lowered my head. I folded my arms.  I asked the same questions.  Now Robert answers became random.  He didn’t know “walrus”.  He didn’t know “toucan”.  And he didn’t know “elephant” or “giraffe” either.

So why his responses were correct? I knew, I must have done something to direct Robert’s attention toward proper answer.  I still don’t know what it was.  Nobody was there to observe from the side.  Was that slight movement of my arms or my eyes? Was that the  tilting of my head?   I don’t know.

What I, however, realized then was that Robert knew something.  He knew how to read what picture I wanted him to point to.  He knew that from reading cues I was giving him unaware of that fact. He knew something about me, I didn’t know myself.

I also realized that I would have to dismantle his way of reading cues before I could teach him my way (our way) of responding to the environment – physical, acoustic, human.

Seventeen years later I still wonder if that is possible or necessary….

Learning Robert 2

I noticed that the posts that I wrote first are displayed below those I wrote later.  That wouldn’t be a problem if all the posts were separated essays not connected to each other.  But they are not.  I am describing a process.  It started with an unusual event (a student understood computer voice but not people’s voices).  It lead to formation of two hypothesis explaining the event.  Now I will write about another event that puts different light on the first one  …

In the first week of September 1996 there was a breakthrough.  Robert’s new teacher Karen was able to lead Robert to mastering auditory discrimination between two labels “touch cup”, “touch spoon”.  Again, I am not sure if those were exactly those two labels.  I think it was a “cup” and something else. Still the important thing was that Robert finally could touch one of two objects at least 80% correctly when asked to do so. 

As soon as I heard about this breakthrough which involved only two labels I took a set of picture cards (Schaffer’s First 100 Words) and spreading randomly 2-5 of them a in front of Robert I asked him to point to the picture representing the object I was naming.  He could point to at least 50 pictures correctly.  So I called the school.  We set a meeting and Robert demonstrated for his teachers and clinical supervisor his ability to label those 50 words.  That was clearly not something they expected.  After all he was hardly able to differentiate between just two of them after almost 12 months of intensive teaching.  And how intensive!  Three times a day, each time consisting of three chains of 10 trails.  “So”, I remember clinical supervisor saying,” Let’s make sure Robert REALLY knows those words.  Lets take three of them: bed, table, and chair and work on them in discrete trails format.”

And work they did.  The teachers worked on these three words every day:  90 times a day posing one of the three demands, “Touch a bed; touch a table; touch a chair.”

Two or three months passed by.   Again I spread 3-6 pictures  in front of Robert and repeated previous routine.  Except that this time I was choosing from two sets of Schaffer’s cards – 200 total.  Robert pointed correctly to at least 100 of them.  Just to clarify.  I asked for the same picture a few times demanding that Robert chooses it from different groups of pictures.  He KNEW 100+ words.

But there were three words that proved to be extremely confusing for Robert.  He was aiming his hands at them and moving it quickly back or redirecting for something else.  He looked at me trying to deduce from my face or my body language if he made a right choice.  He clearly was not sure what he was supposed to point to.  He knew 50 new words as compared to the previous informal evaluation, but he didn’t know bed, table and chair. He didn’t know the words he was so intensively taught.

This development lead me to a new hypothesis on Robert’s ability to learn from computer program and not from his teachers (or me).  It was the method of teaching that inhibited his learning. Constant repetitions, even if he answered correctly installed doubt in Robert’s mind as to what the answers should be.  Teacher was asking over and over for one of three items, no matter if Robert’s reply was correct or not.  Forget reinforcers – candies, chips, or sips of juice.  They didn’t lead Robert anywhere.  They were not cues for him.  The cue was that he was asked again and again.  That cue meant that he was wrong over and over.

I wonder what would happen if I didn’t check Robert’s receptive vocabulary at home.  If I didn’t realized that he unlearned things he was taught and learned things he wasn’t taught formally. Would his teachers ever doubted the method?  Probably not.  They were recording dutifully each single answer.  They might do some scientifically looking graphs. That would not bring them closer to the general facts about Robert’s learning. About what he knows and what he doesn’t.

The explanation of what makes me go on and on in teaching Robert those things that other people consider ridiculous given his IQ comes from the second conclusion: I also do not believe that Robert learned all those 50 words in a few days after “breakthrough” I think he knew them long before he was able to DEMONSTRATE his knowledge.

So, there must be a phase when Robert “knows” but cannot communicate his understanding or retention of information.

But that is again another story.

Teaching Robert First Words

It would be interesting to hear other people explanations of this strange development described bellow.

Robert didn’t have any receptive language for the first 4 years of his life.  He had a few “expressive” sounds – words’ approximations – to ask for things he considered important.  I just remember one: “juice”.  I know he had at least two other, but I don’t remember them now.  Still, for six months before his fourth birthday his ABA teachers/therapists tried to teach Robert to discriminate receptively between two objects. Evelyn and Caroline were doing this through discrete trails format.  They placed two items in front of Robert and asked him to touch either object A or object B.  Thirty times in the session.  Three sessions a day! After correct answer the therapists  gave Robert a piece of cookie or candy, after incorrect answer they didn’t give him anything.  Between two answers the therapists took time to record the replies and the level of prompting.  They also moved the two objects  either putting them back in the same spots or changing their positions.   They did it for six months from September of 1995 till end of February of 1996 but Robert seemed oblivious to their demands.  He couldn’t pass through the threshold of 80% correct answers. So the therapists kept on repeating the task and Robert kept on failing it.   At first I was teaching Robert in the same way. Soon, however,  I became concerned that because my  foreign accent differed from the correct American pronunciation of the teachers, I might confuse Robert  and inhibit his learning.  So I stopped.

Nonetheless, during this time we purchased relatively simple computer program First Words I.  The program was similar to discrete trails in its approach to teaching receptive labeling. It showed two pictures (later three, if I remember correctly) and asked the student to touch one of them.

But there were differences.  The program didn’t show the same pictures again and again for 10 or 30 times.  After each answer, correct or incorrect, the screen produced two new pictures.  Moreover, for the same word , for instance: “table”, it switched between two different images of the object.  As you might guess, the program didn’t feed Robert any cookies or candies but instead displayed a happily jumping icon after correct answer and highlighted the proper picture after wrong answer.  And soon Robert, working mostly independently, taught himself receptive labeling off all 50 words in this program.   For the six next months he was demonstrating ability to respond to computer’s voice and continued to learn from next level First Words II .  I am not sure if he was also learning from the  First Verbs during that time, although we bought that program as well. Yet, he still couldn’t differentiate between ANY two objects when his therapists/parents ask him to.

That lasted for another six months – from March to  September of 1996.

This phenomenon forced Robert’s therapists and PhD level supervisors to come with different hypothesis as to its cause..

What hypothesis could that be?

Teaching Robert 3

There is a danger of imposing our ways of teaching on the student without understanding what the student already knows and how he/she knows it.  This might result in the “object” of our educational efforts to loose what he/she had known  before we started to push our knowledge on him/her and  not grasping our “ways” of doing things.  For instance, there are few approaches to teaching a child to subtract large numbers with regrouping.  One is to just go one step at a time as needed.  To take one out of tens place and change it into ten ones and so on.  The other is to analyze the whole minuend and do all the regrouping at once before subtraction.  This is what my son attempted to do while working with me.  Except I didn’t grasp that fact and consequently I tried to stop him every time he was trying to do just that. I “made” him to subtract the way I was teaching him.   Since he couldn’t explain to me what was his method he ended up confused and I had much harder job of teaching him “my way” than I would have if I understood his approach.

Those problems are, in my opinion, very frequent.  They do not apply exclusively to children with special needs.  They are frequent in education of typical children and result in reduced performance on tests and maybe later in life.  It is an imperative that teachers realize that what children know and how they know it might affect the results of teaching.

Those problems, however, have much more serious consequences in education of children with special needs as it is much harder to understand what the students know already and HOW they know it.

This post refers to my latest observations.  Observations I made not only of Robert’s difficulties in learning, but also of my arrogant attitudes toward teaching. These attitudes  do not give “an object” of my endeavors any credit for thinking independently.  And consequently they lead to learned helplessness.  The child stops trusting his own thinking and continues to look for clues in the environment. And those clues might be very misleading.