Making abstract concepts concrete for young children with social learning issues

By Jeffrey Marler on March 4, 2015 in Blog with No Comments

 Strategies parents can use at home

In our summer speech camp we use an interactive prop with the 5-8 year old group called Sensory Body to facilitate social learning. The camp setting is ideal for teaching the abstract concepts necessary for learning in a group and gives the kids opportunity to practice engaging with other people’s feelings.

But you can practice at home the same strategies our counselors use to teach concepts like:  

  • What does “Pay attention!” mean?
  • What is “personal space,” and how can we respect others’ boundaries?
  • What are “good” thoughts and “bad” thoughts?

These types of learning strategies are a Speech Pathology Free stuffchallenge for some children. They haven’t developed an innate understanding of these concepts from passive exposure at home or in groups of friends. They have to be taught.

Once you begin to see how these techniques can build bridges of understanding in your child’s mind, you’ll see all kinds of teachable moments in your own family’s everyday activities. It may be challenging to think this way, at first, because you learned these skills intuitively. You may not have realized before how abstract some of these ideas are. But with practice—and by knowing what to look for—you’ll be able to identify when you need to explain a concept to your child in more detail.

By the way, I want to assure you that it’s never too late to begin developing your child’s ability to think and connect in a social way.

Abstract Concept #1: “Pay attention!” Have you ever stopped to think about all of the physical behaviors and thinking processes that are involved with paying attention? What do we really mean when we say that? Most kids understand intuitively after hearing it repeatedly in different situations and seeing their parents’ corresponding reactions. But what if your child’s brain has a tough time making this connection?

One of our main goals is to help your child associate the concept of paying attention with his own behaviors. I like to call it “paying attention with our whole body.”abstract language special need learning

Tips for explaining to a young child what “paying attention” looks like:

  • Say “When you’re paying attention, your eyes are looking at my eyes.”
  • Later, you can introduce other body parts by saying, “I know you‘re paying attention because your eyes are looking at my eyes AND your ears are listening to my voice.”
  • Add that her feet stay still and her body is pointing toward you.
  • If it’s a group setting, explain that paying attention means her body is pointed to the center of the group like spokes of a bicycle wheel. Her hands are “quiet” and not touching others. Her eyes are looking at the person talking and her mouth is closed.
  • Because people don’t always look at someone every minute they are speaking, you could say, “I know you were paying attention, because you were able to follow my instructions.”
  • As often as you can, make a game of it, giving praise when she succeeds. Point out when and how you, yourself, are paying attention to your child. “I’m paying attention to you because my eyes are looking at your eyes. “ Or ask, “How can you tell I’m paying attention to you?”

During summer camp, we use Sensory Body as an active learning tool to help the children make the connection between their own eyes, (or ears, or hands…) and the Sensory Body’s. They are able to hold the eyes, ears, hands, feet, and even the brain, and attach them to Sensory Body in the correct location, while the counselor asks questions to reinforce the connection in their minds.

Abstract Concept #2:  “Personal Space” We intuitively pick up on social and cultural norms for maintaining appropriate distance between ourselves and others. We learn to discern when it’s OK to touch another person. But children with social cognitive weaknesses have a much harder time reading facial expressions, body language, or voice inflection. They often don’t make the connection that their behavior could be making someone else feel uncomfortable or might cause other children to avoid playing with them.

One way that ASPIRE teaches this concept is by introducing children to “the bubble.” We explain that every person has an invisible bubble around their bodies and that when someone “pops” their bubble, it can give the person a “sad” thought.

This idea of personal space is complex and involves reading a host of nonverbal cues like facial expressions and body position. We also have to empathize with others’ feelings. So when we work with kids in the clinic or at camp, we help them learn how to identify and explore their own emotions so they can better understand what makes them feel sad, angry, happy or shy. Then we can introduce the idea that other people’s emotions are affected by what we do.

Using Sensory Body as a visual aid, we teach them how we “think with our eyes,” that is, how we can observe what other people are doing in order to figure out what they may be thinking or feeling. This can be broadened to include other body parts, as well.

Try using the “bubble” illustration at home, as your child interacts with you or her siblings.

For more insight, take a look at our Sensory Body video (see the offer below) to watch our counselors using “the bubble” strategy. We’d love to hear about your experiences at home. Is there an example of a time you saw your child understand the feelings of another person?

Abstract Concept #3: “Good” vs. “Bad” Thoughts

This can have two applications:

  1. abstract concepts speech pathology therapyHow to take a negative thought your child is thinking about himself, like “I can’t do this!” and turning it around to a positive thought that makes him feel better: “It’s OK to make mistakes.”
  2. How to teach a child that having “good” or “bad” thoughts about other people based on what they do is normal, and that others may have “good” or “bad” thoughts about him based on his behavior.

One way to explain this concept is that “good” thoughts help us think about other people’s needs first, but “bad” thoughts cause us to think only of our own needs. When you help your child begin to recognize the relationship between negative/bad thoughts and self-absorption, you contribute to his social communication success. This will affect whether people want to interact socially with him in the future.

At home you can reinforce the idea of “good” vs. “bad” thoughts by communicating specific examples with the corresponding emotions. For instance, you could say, “When you picked up your socks off the floor and put them in the laundry, it gave me a happy thought about you.” Or “When you unbuckled your seat belt when I was driving, it gave me a scared thought about you, because you could have been hurt.”

Sensory Body

Because I think it’s helpful to see these strategies in action, I’d like to make the Sensory Body prop we use in our summer camps available to you at no cost, along with a video showing a camp counselor working with a class of young children.

Just fill in the sign up form and I’ll send you the templates and a link to the video. Creating the Sensory Body will be a fun craft opportunity for you and your child, and the video will give you even more insight of ways to teach him abstract social concepts.

I’d love to see some photos of your child learning with Sensory Body. Let me know what worked for you.

If you’d like your child to get even more practice with understanding abstract concepts, please contact our office to register him or her for summer camp, which will begin June 23rd and run every Tuesday through August.

To your family!

Dr. Jeff

Making abstract concepts concrete for young children with social learning issues

Strategies parents can use at home

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Jeffrey Marler

About Jeffrey Marler

Jeffrey Marler has written 44 posts in this blog.

Speech Pathologist, Communicator, Listener, Researcher, Therapist, | Southlake, Texas Dr. Marler is an internationally recognized clinical researcher. At ASPIRE – Innovative Language Interventions, PLLC, you receive care and treatment from a professional with 28 years of experience with learning disabilities and 15+ years as a speech-language pathologist. Dr. Marler has a PhD in Speech and Hearing Science with an emphasis in auditory-based learning disabilities. Connect on Google+

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