Discovering the Path of Microsteps

The skills were  simple. Basic really.  There was nothing to them.  They were so simple that the very idea that they should be taught seemed ridiculous.   The children either had  inborn potentials to demonstrate those abilities at some point of their development or did not.  If they did not,  nothing could be done.  Although the teaching would help a child to go over some rough surfaces, or climb a few steps up, at least the path for teaching and learning was already cleared. Everybody more or less knew  what to expect on the developmental curve.

I did not.

When Robert was two and three years old, I couldn’t “teach” him even one hand movement from any of  the children’s songs and finger plays.  I dutifully learned them all and tried to pass my knowledge to Robert.  I sat on a chair, he sat on a table.  We faced each other.  It had to be this way as in any other arrangement, Robert would run away after  the first few notes.  Somehow, he did not even try to escape from this position. He appreciated my singing and  all the silly movements of my fingers, hands, and arms.   He smiled all the time.  He was happy to participate but only as long as I kept moving his hands.  He repeated neither a syllable nor a gesture. He kept placing his hands in mine expecting  me to move them accordingly, but he did not move them himself.  He smiled  while I led his hands  through the steps taken by Eensy Weensy Spider.

I used the same  tricks that the generations of mothers and  nannies created and mastered over the ages  to help their charges appropriate new abilities easier and quicker:   I went faster.  I went slower.  I stopped in the middle of the song, as if I  needed help remembering next word and next gesture.  I stopped just before the last word and the last movement so Robert had an opportunity to fill the blanks. I exaggerated.  I whispered.  I changed the pitch.  Robert, still smiling, did not show any inclination to initiate, continue, or finish the finger play.

It was after the first application of  Applied Behavioral Analysis methodology in its most rigid and plain form – discrete trials – when Robert for the first time learned to imitate my singular gestures such as clapping, spreading arms out, touching nose.

Each skill was taught separately and with heavy reinforcement.

Saying,”Do this”, followed by a gesture to be replicated by Robert.

Helping Robert to copy the movement with some level of prompting.

Reinforcing him with a piece of candy and words, “Good boy.”

Repeating the same procedure again.  And again,  And again

Of course, there were small variations in regards to delays, level of prompting, schedule of reinforcements, but the idea was the same:  to teach the most simple, singular skill.  Not a skill in connection with other skills, not a skill that changes depending on circumstance but one that is clearly presented, easy to follow, and doesn’t depend on anything else but demand, “Do this” accompanied by a model.

Our goal was not to bushwhack through wilderness.  Our goal was to carve a new trail. To do so, we had to slow down and work on finding  ground for every step our feet would have  to take.

1.In one of the previous posts, I had already made a distinction between TEACHING IMITATION  and TEACHING SEPARATE  GESTURES . I cannot stress it enough that the purpose of teaching clapping, touching nose, tapping on the table is mainly to provide a repertoire of tasks to choose from while teaching imitation.  That mean that the child has to attend to the stimuli, and differentiate between the demonstrated movements imitating only what was shown, and not the whole bank of learned gestures.

2. Although I consider discrete trials crucially  important, I also believe that when overdone, over-repeated, and not subjected to regular check up (Something different from collecting all the data), they can have a stifling effect on overall development. Discrete trials are  powerful tools, but only when applied smartly.