Early Learning

Full Video – 16 minutes

In this module, we will give your some general teaching strategies to help your child learn new skills! Keep in mind that developmental milestones, like using a spoon and constructing simple sentences are actually learned skills. 

While some children naturally reach their developmental milestones and learn the skills with no extra instruction, others need a little more help. Ff your little one is showing delays in reaching some of their milestones, you can help them!

First, we’ll discuss ways to figure out why your child is having problem doing a skill. Next we talk about how to set up the environment to promote learning by providing access to fun activities. We’ll then show you ways that you can identify and use reinforcers to teach news skills such as shaping and chaining new skills.

Next we’ll break down the teaching process by talking about prompting, and responding to errors. Lastly, we’ll show you how to put all these strategies together to teach new skills and help your child use the new skill in many different situations. 

The first step to teaching new skills is to figure out why your child isn’t showing a certain skill. If your child does not know how to perform the skill, then you can work on teaching.  If they know how to do the skill but don’t want to do it, then you can identify reinforcers to get them motivated. 

If your child can perform the skill but does not do it consistently or in the right time and place, then you can focus on teaching the skill in certain situations. If they learned the skill and can only do it in situations that are just like the teaching situation, then you can focus on teaching more broadly and across situations so they can apply the skill in more varied situations. 

The next step is making sure your home is ready for learning. There are a lot of things that can be distracting and interfere with learning if we’re not careful.  This can include the number of people, room temperature, brightness of the lights, noise, or even odors. If there are a lot of things to look at outside of learning materials this can also be distracting. 

For example, it may be difficult to focus putting pieces into a puzzle when there are people speaking loudly or a television is on nearby. The environment cannot always be changed but if there is anything you can do to make learning easier, you should try to do so. 

Another way to promote a healthy learning environment is to encourage good behavior from your child. This can be done by providing high quality reinforcers for asking nicely and following instructions. It’s also important to make sure that you are matching the task to skill level. Providing tasks that are too easy may cause boredom and tasks that are too difficult might cause frustration. Lastly, you should be prepared to provide prompts, additional cues, or models to show your child how you want them to behave. 

Another important way to promote a healthy learning environment is making sure that you are providing lots of opportunity for your child to choose. When teaching new skills, you can give your child choices over types of tasks, order of activities, and how to complete activities and what items or activities they would like to earn following activities. 

We’ll be talking a little more how to identify things your child likes. It’s also important to have fun and new tasks so that learning can seem more fun. Finally, a consistent routine can make things more predictable for your child, which has also been shown to improve learning and overall appropriate behavior. 

Now that we’ve thought about how to make our setting the best we can for learning, we can move onto teaching new skills. We do this by using reinforcement. Recall that reinforcement occurs when things that follow behavior cause it to happen more often.

To use reinforcement we need to first figure out what things are reinforcers.

Some things can act as reinforcers naturally – these are food, water, attention, comfort. Other things come to act as reinforcers over time because they are learned, such as a tantrum in the store to get candy or a treat.

The first way to identify reinforcers is to watch your child in free play situations and see what they like to do. How your child chooses to spend their time when there are no limitations points to these things being preferred activities. Do they have a favorite stuffed animal, a toy, or something else that they especially like? Knowing this information can help you arrange the environment to teach new skills. 

And remember “Grandma’s Rule.” This is when you allow your child to do a preferred activity only after they do a less preferred activity. Using this approach, you can provide the preferred activity after a new skill to get them to do the new skill more often.

Another way to identify reinforcers is to give your child choices and see what they pick. Do you want to play with a puzzle or leggos? Whatever they pick will probably be a reinforcer. 

How effective reinforcers are will depend on how and how often they are presented. Motivation for a certain reinforcer may shift if the delay to is too long. For example, you may skip eating at your favorite restaurant if you have to wait 2 hours for a table and instead eat at a less preferred restaurant where the food is available immediately

These same principles are at play with your child and how they learn. If the quality delay or amount is off, the reinforcers may not support teaching the skill. To avoid this, it’s important to have a good variety of reinforcers and not give too much to keep your child motivated. It’s also important to think about if your child can get other reinforcers that may compete with them wanting to do the skill. 

If the choice is between playing video games and getting ready for bed, they’ll probably keep playing video games. In other words, if they are able to do something more fun than the work, they probably won’t do what you are asking them to do. You have to be ready to arrange the environment so you have more control over activities and then can use them as reinforcers. 

Once we know what are reinforcers and how to use them we can start teaching new skills.  Now we’ll go over the shaping and chaining methods to teach new skills.

We’ll first talk about shaping new behavior. Shaping can be used for things like language development, increasing time spent at meals, or tolerating certain activities. It first involves setting a goal behavior. 

For example, say your goal is to have your child sit nicely in their high chair for the entire meal. If at this point they are not sitting for 10s, it would be too big of a jump to expect that they’ll be able to meet that goal. So, we can use shaping to help you get there. You’ll start at the point that your child has been successful. If that is 10s, you’ll provide reinforcement for sitting nicely for 10s. Then you can gradually increase that time until they are able to eventually sit for much longer.

Shaping works when the child is motivated to get the reinforcer. Shaping is a helpful strategy in several ways because it can be used to teach new skills. It also typically relies on positive reinforcement and is well-liked by clinicians and individuals. 

Here is an example of shaping vocal responses. You’ll notice that therapists are also proving prompts on what they want the child to say. This is faster than just waiting for more complex vocal response to occur. 

Chaining can also be used to create new forms of behavior. Behavior chains are just a group of behaviors that generally occur in some set order. Each behavior serves as a link in the chain. They make up most of our daily routines. Activities such as brushing teeth, taking a shower, getting dressed, and making meals are all behavior chains. 

Sometimes completing these chains is reinforcing. Making a delicious snack is reinforced when you eat it. At other times, you may need to add reinforcers into completing a chain, starting with completing one link and then two, and so on. 

The first step to teaching a chain is to break the chain down into its links or component parts.  Next, we can start teaching the chain. This can be done by starting with the first link in the chain and adding on in the set order. For example, when teaching handwashing, you can start with turning on a faucet as the first link. Then it would be turning on the faucet, wetting hands; and then the first two steps plus getting soap. Then ”links” are added until your child can perform the complete chain of washing hands. 

In order to teach new skills, we can use reinforcement alone, such as in shaping procedures, but this may not always be appropriate. For example, if we waited for a child to respond to “What’s your name?” when he had never said his name in the past, training would most likely not work. 

For that reason, prompts are often used. In this example, we can prompt the individual to say his name following the instruction and provide reinforcement when he correctly responds. This would continue until we can slowly decrease, or fade, the prompt and the individual now responds appropriately to the instruction. 

A prompt is something you can do to make a skill happen. Your are telling, showing, or giving clues to your child to get them to do the behavior.

In order to prompt effectively, you need to first identify prompts that work. It is important to note that just because prompts work does not mean they will be easily faded. For example, I can physically guide a child’s hand to touch a certain picture but that doesn’t mean they are paying attention enough to the picture to do it on their own. 

So, it’s best to use prompts that bring your child’s attention to what they should be focusing on. Once your child is doing the skill with a prompt, you can fade out the prompt so the instruction works by itself. 

This picture shows some different prompting strategies. The bottom of the triangle has the more intrusive or intense prompt and the top of the triangle has the less intrusive or more natural prompts.

A physical prompt occurs when you provide hand over hand guidance to fully get your child to do the behavior. For example, when learning to use a spoon, you may place your hand on top of your child’s and guide them through picking up the food and bringing it to their mouth.

An example of a partial physical prompt is when teaching to use a spoon instead of placing your hand over your child’s hand, you may provide a little less support by holding their wrist steady. Physical prompts are best used when your child needs to learn how to do the movement of the behavior.

Model prompts occur when you act out the behavior to show your child what behavior you want them to imitate. So you may show them how to eat with a spoon before passing them the spoon to try.

You can also use a visual or picture prompt by showing a child a video or picture of eating with a spoon cutting with scissors.

Using verbal and gesture prompts you would tell them, “Eat with the spoon” or gesture to the spoon when they are supposed to use it.

Ultimately, you’d want to fade out all prompts so that you child can do the skill by themselves. 

The ultimate goal of teaching new skills is to have your child use the skill in different ways or be able to problem solve. For example, when teaching your child to identify apples, they should be able to respond to multiple types of apples, not just a red apple. When you teach this skill, it would be important for you to show them many different types of apples and reinforce when they call each an apple.

We also want to teach them skills so that they can adapt when the environment might be a little different.  If they come across a building with different doors and door knobs, they can change their behavior to open the door by pushing, pulling, and so forth. 

We hope that this provided you with useful information to better understand how your child learns and to teach them new skills. 

The first step is to understand why the skill isn’t happening. For example, does it need to be taught? Is your child not motivated? Understanding the why will help you know how to help your child moving forward. 

As we’ve discussed, reinforcement plays a big role in establishing new skills so identifying and effectively using reinforcers is another important step. Now when teaching a new skill, you’ll know how to prompt your child and correct mistakes. Finally, practicing the skill as much as possible can help your child be able to use the skill across situations and build upon it to do more and more things!