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.

Understanding Errors

Among materials Robert and I frequently use are folders made from pages taken from workbooks belonging to the series   Take It to Your Seat. We prepare each folder according to the instruction by cutting, gluing, laminating.  We  use one or two or three of those folders every day for many reasons:

1.To introduce a new skill/information and asses the level of help Robert would need to learn the skill presented in the folder.

2. For additional support.  For instance, when Robert was introduced to hemispheres through  different workbooks, the proper folder from the series provided visual support and allowed for extra practice.

3. To teach the skill intensively. We have just started working on three folders addressing making and reading graphs.  We will repeat the same tasks every day for two weeks. (I would not mind if Robert memorize the answers.  Memorizing is Robert’s weakness.  He would learn everything much quicker if his memory supported his learning. So ability to remember is a goal in itself. )

4. To escape the routine and incorporate  elements of play  in learning.

There is a problem, however, with using materials designed by somebody else while introducing a new concept, as those materials  don’t match exactly a particular student’s learning style and his “way of knowing things”.

One of the folders we made addressed categories of nouns: people, places, things.   When I was preparing this folder I knew that Robert had never before been taught those categories.   I knew I was entering unchartered waters but had an impression that the folder People, Places,Things was an easy and appropriate tool to introduce and practice  the task.  All pictures of people displayed community workers on their jobs and  all places were buildings (school, post office, garage, but no beach or park). What could be easier?  And yet as Robert was classifying, he made error after error by mixing people with places and things. The conclusion I drew was clear,  “Robert was not ready to learn to classify nouns.”  So I put the folder away.  I took it out a few years later (YES!, years) and noticed that Robert was still making the same errors.  But this time I grasped the essence of his mistakes.

Yes he mixed “a thing” with “a place” , and with “a person” .  But that thing was a school bus , that person was a bus driver, and that place was a school.  Robert was grouping objects that belonged together.  Categories were abstract and their force to attract particular pictures could not brake stronger bonds between “the bus driver and his school bus”.

The only way, I could think of,  to proceed with teaching  was to acknowledge the existence of those bonds and then let Robert break them.  So I placed on a separate piece of paper pictures of a mail man, a mail box, and a post office and  demonstrated to Robert that from there the pictures can go to separate categories.  Now, it was Robert’s  turn.  First,  I helped him gather pictures of a bus, a school, and a  bus driver  then I asked him to move the pictures to the appropriate categories.  That was easy.

After analyzing the way I taught Robert I realized that I didn’t analyze the logic behind Robert’s errors. Not all errors are random, and behind some of them lurks another stronger concept that controls responses. Understanding the concept behind the error is very important.   Sometimes it is impossible to find a reason for errors, but it is always a very good thing to try.

Moreover, I didn’t choose wisely the exemplars to be categorized. I used what I had in the folder instead of  thinking about possible implications for Robert of such selection.   For instance, it was not good to have only buildings as examples of places or only community workers as people . It certainly was a mistake to have objects related to each to each other as representing separate categories.

In the end, however, it was beneficial to use this folder. Have I had a perfect set of pictures, Robert’s grasp on categories might come sooner but  he still might remain confused about how to choose a key by which he was supposed to sort. The mistakes  Robert made allowed me to better understand the thinking behind his errors and adjust the way I presented the task.

That is why I frequently use different curricula addressing the same topic.   Small differences in wording or in presentation can reveal  cracks in understanding of the concept.  Such cracks should be remedied as soon as they are discovered.


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.

Importance of Little Words

There are long words like “multiplication” and “reciprocal” . Robert has difficulty saying them but understands their meanings.  There are also little words like “instead”.  Robert can say them, but is not sure what they mean.  When I advised, “Multiply instead of dividing” , it was the word “instead” that confused him.  Many speech pathologists  suggest to teach children with disabilities  those important little words  such as “First… Then, If, Before, After”  to give the children tools to mentally organize their space and time.  The word “instead” should join the list of such words.

The concept of replacing one thing with the other was unacceptable to Robert.  When he was younger he refused to wear new shoes or a new jacket. He screamed and tried to get out of his car seat  when I changed the route home.  He protested going on a different trail in the park he visited often  although in any new park he could follow any path. He had extremely hard time throwing away broken dishes or toys.  He didn’t want to buy anything new with a smart exception of food, balloons and bubbles. He , simply, didn’t condone replacing  one thing with another.

As  he grew, he became more flexible in accepting unavoidable substitutions.

Yet, they still confuse him. When Robert couldn’t follow my verbal advice on multiplying and yet was able to apply written algebraic  formula, I assumed that he didn’t know the word “instead”.  It is also possible that he knew the word’s meaning but was reluctant to replace a sign for division with a sign for multiplication.  He might perceived the very act of doing one thing (multiplying)  IN PLACE  of another (dividing) as utterly wrong.

Interestingly, when he saw written formula, his resistance disappeared.  With the support of the algebraic equation he divided fluently and soon mastered this algorithm.

What does the problem Robert encountered with the word “instead” tells  about language – thinking connection?  Can a person understand the essence (the act)  of “instead” without learning the term for this concept?  Does the knowledge of such words as “before, if, next, and instead” help elicit thinking or ‘only’ organize thinking?

Or, vice versa, does Robert’s dislike of replacing one thing with another results in diminished understanding of the word “instead”?

To what degree those of Robert’s behaviors which look like they were caused by  Obsessive Compulsive Disorder would decrease if Robert was familiar with the concept of “instead” ?

Those are important questions.  Since, however, I cannot answer any of them, I have to concentrate on finding a way to teach word and and the concept behind it.

As Robert applies written formula to divide fractions I interject the word “instead” every time he changes division to multiplication.  “Instead, instead, instead.”  Then I start the sentence and wait for Robert to finish, “You multiply….” Robert continues, ” Instead of…”

The hard to understand his approximation for “divide” follows.