By Raising Children Network
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Upset boy with cystic fibrosis learning a new skill with his carer
Sometimes children’s difficult behaviour happens because they can’t do what you expect of them. Children need to learn behaviour and other social skills, and you’re often the best teacher. In particular, children with learning difficulties have a lot to gain from extra opportunities to develop new skills.

Children’s parents are their first and most important teachers. Whether you realise it, every day you’re helping your children learn new information, skills and ways of behaving.

For lots of parents, teaching comes naturally. Others can learn how to teach their children skills. Research has shown several ways you can help children learn everything from basic self-care to more complicated social skills:

Instructions: teaching by telling

This is simply teaching a child how to do something by explaining what to do or how to do it.

You will find yourself giving instructions and explanations to your child all the time. For some children, this is the easiest and most efficient way to learn something new. But it’s not foolproof.

If you have a child with disability, learning from your instructions can be difficult. And everyone has heard a parent say things like, ‘How many times have I told you …’ or ‘You never listen …’. This is because instructions are not always the best way to teach children.

Tips on giving instructions that work

  • Give instructions only when you have your child’s attention. Encourage your child to look at you while you speak.
  • Use language that your child understands. Keep your sentences short and simple. If the task involves several parts, break down your instructions into a series of simple steps. This is particularly important if you have a child with learning disability – you will probably need to let your child learn each step before trying to teach a new step. You will also need to be patient.
  • Explain exactly what you want your child to do. What behaviour are you asking for? For example, don’t say, ‘Get ready for school’. Instead say, ‘Clean your teeth, and then get dressed for school’. Perhaps you can start with a couple of specific instructions like these, then try adding more steps.
  • Use gestures to highlight and point to things that you want your child to notice.
  • Watch the tone of your voice. Your child can be distracted by emotional messages in your voice (for example, if you’re frustrated or upset). Your child might focus on these signs rather than on what you’re saying.
  • Provide lots of positive feedback when your child follows your instruction. Be specific. Say exactly what your child did right or well.
  • Avoid giving lots of negative feedback when your child makes errors or doesn’t get it right. Instead, you might point out only one or two things your child might do differently next time.
  • As your child learns, phase out your instructions and reminders. This will help your child learn to do it independently.
  • Consider using a poster or illustrations to explain what you want from your child. Some children have trouble understanding words.
There are many reasons why a child mightn’t be able to follow an instruction. He might not understand. He might behave inconsistently while he’s learning, and get better with practice. Or he simply mightn’t want to do what you ask.

Modelling: teaching by showing

A three-year-old boy follows his father down the beach, imitating his walking style and every move that he makes. Scenes like this are powerful reminders of how closely our children watch and learn from us. Through watching us, they learn what to do and how to do it. In other words, they learn our approach and our style.

This learning through observation has been called ‘modelling’ by behavioural scientists. We teach our children many things by showing them what to do. For example, you’re more likely to  ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ your child how to make a bed, sweep a floor or throw a ball.

You can also use modelling to demonstrate other useful skills and behaviour like how to interact with others – for example, asking a teacher for help, introducing yourself to another person, greeting a guest and so on.

Modelling is a great way to demonstrate some of the subtle ways we communicate, such as body language and tone of voice, that are hard to explain in words.

Tips for modelling to work best

  • Make sure that your child can do what you are modelling. She won’t be able to copy you if she doesn’t have good enough coordination, physical capabilities or developmental maturity.
  • Start modelling only when your child is looking and you have his attention.
  • Get your child to watch first, then move slowly so that she can clearly see what you’re doing.
  • If the task is complicated, show the first part of the task and give your child a chance to practise. Then move onto the next bit. Start with the easiest parts. This is particularly important if your child has learning disability.
  • Point out the important parts of what you’re doing. For example, ‘See how I am …’.
  • Give your child the chance to practise after he has watched you. The more he practises, the better. Repeat the modelling if he needs to see it again.
  • Give praise and encouragement in the early stages of learning.
  • Gently guide your child physically through the actions – it can sometimes help her to follow your demonstration.
The challenge of being the major role model for our children is to demonstrate behaviour we value and like. But we also have to try to avoid behaviour we don’t like or don’t want to encourage. It’s a tall order for any human being!

Shaping: teaching by approximations

This approach is based on a very simple principle. Learning new behaviour is a process. Early attempts might only resemble the end result.

For example, when a child says ‘dada’, this might have been preceded by earlier sounds like ‘d’ or ‘da’. Each time the child makes the sounds, dad responds enthusiastically and positively. As time goes on, the earlier versions of the sounds receive less attention and reaction. Dad begins to notice and get excited about sounds that are more and more like ‘daddy’. Pretty soon, with dad helping to shape the child’s attempts, the child is saying ‘daddy’ clearly.

Tips on using shaping effectively

  • Be clear about what you’re aiming for. What behaviour, exactly, are you trying to get?
  • What is the starting point? What is your child doing now that could be shaped?
  • Start noticing and rewarding the starting-point behaviour. When that is occurring more frequently or reliably, begin to look for the next step. Give praise and attention only when it starts happening.
  • Move slowly. Wait until one step in your child’s learning is well established before moving on.

Sometimes we accidentally use shaping to encourage behaviour we don’t like. For example, a child asks for something in a conversational voice. He is ignored. He asks again, using a louder voice and a more demanding tone. This time, his parent notices and gives him what he asks for. Next time he wants something, he asks in a demanding voice … he is ignored … so he asks even more loudly and then gets a response. Over time, his demanding and loudness is being shaped into something worse.

You can use shaping to help your child learn a whole range of new skills and behaviour. For example, shaping could help your child improve table manners, politeness and sports skills.

Teaching step-by-step

Some tasks or activities are complicated or require a sequence of actions. For these, you can break down the task into smaller steps, and teach your child one step at a time.

Here is how you might break down the task of dressing:

  • Get clothes out.
  • Put on underpants.
  • Put on socks.
  • Put on shirt.
  • Put on pants.
  • Put on a jumper.

Each of these steps could, if needed, be broken down into parts as well. For example, ‘Put on a jumper’ could be broken down as follows:

  • Face the jumper the right way.
  • Pull the jumper over the head.
  • Put one arm through.
  • Put the other arm through.
  • Pull the jumper down.
The idea of step-by-step teaching is to teach each step one at a time. When your child has learned the first step, you then teach the next step, then the next, and so on. You keep going until your child can do the whole task for herself. You can use instructions and modelling (described above) to help your child learn each step.

Physical and verbal guidance
This can be helpful sometimes. Put your hands over your child’s hands and guide him through the movements. Phase out your help as your child begins to get the idea but continue telling your child what to do. Then simply point or gesture. Once your child has learned the new skill, you can gradually phase out both gestures and verbal prompts.

Forwards or backwards steps?
You can teach the steps by moving:

  • forwards – teaching the first step, then the next step and so on
  • backwards – teaching the last step, then the second last step and so on.

The advantages of teaching backwards are that your child will be less stressed and less likely to misbehave because the last step is learned more quickly and easily. Also, the task is finished as soon as the child completes the last step. Often the most rewarding thing about a job or task is getting it finished!

In our earlier example, a dad might teach a child to dress herself by starting with a jumper. In this instance, dad would help the child get dressed until it came to the final step – the jumper. Dad might help the child put the jumper over her head and put her arms in – then dad might let her pull the jumper down by herself. Once the child can do this, dad might encourage her to put her arms through by herself and then pull the jumper down. This would go on until the child had mastered each step of the task and could do the whole thing for herself.

Whichever method you choose, make sure your child has the skills and the tools to do as you ask. You might need to adjust the environment so it’s possible for your child to do as you ask. Or you might need to teach your child some basic skills before he can do a more complicated task.