Practicing the Foundational Skills

**This week I’m attempting to answer a reader’s questions.  You can find the entire series here.  Next week will be back to business as usual.**

Yesterday, I mentioned some foundational skills that really help learning activities work well in our home.  These were obedience, listening skills and comprehension, attention span, and self-control.  There are many ways to help little ones practice these skills, this list is just a few ways we put them into practice.  By NO means are these the ONLY way to teach these concepts.  The point is giving them opportunities to practice the foundational skills on a consistent basis.  Feel free to share other ideas! 

Focused Play – As an early crawler, I gave him a toy and we play with that toy for a certain amount of time (a couple of minutes at first).  If he starts to wander off to play towards something else, I tell him we are playing xyz now and point out a new aspect of the toy, basically try to get him to notice something about it that he hadn’t yet noticed.  We started SMALL, just a couple minutes.  After awhile, he could play on his own with a toy for longer and longer.  His attention span was increasing.  He was learning how to explore and even investigate a toy.  This really helped when we began table time later (see below).  This was a long process.  ALL crawlers and early walkers like to wander.  The exploring they naturally do is great and offers lots of developmental opportunities too.  There’s plenty of time in the day for both exploration AND for focused play too.  My perspective is, being the adult, I have something to offer J…. including in play.  In my opinion this is actually an early learning activity in and of itself.  It’s not abc’s but it’s something that will later help them learn those things. Focusing for extended periods of time is something they learn.  I believe we can help them learn it little by little. 

Blanket Time –  Basically you give a visible boundary and teach them to stay within it.  We started this around 10 months, using a blanket.  There were no crib rails or seatbelt restraining him; he had to learn to control his own desires and stay within the boundary simply because mom said so.  We started with 5 minutes, twice a day and worked up to 30 minutes once a day.  We also started with me playing with him and worked towards him playing alone.  It was not easy but I saw HUGE benefits once he learned.  By 12 months I could do this out of the house with confidence that he would control himself and obey happily for the entire 30 minutes.  He even asked for blanket time both at home and while we were out.  This one “activity” helped J practice all of the foundational skills.  He had to LISTEN to mom’s instructions, practice SELF-CONTROL in order to OBEY those instructions, and he it really really helped to lengthen his attention span (since he had to play with the toys provided on the blanket rather than roaming from one toy to the next every 5 seconds). 

Reading   this is a proven way to encourage listening skills, comprehension, and attention span.  It’s also a very easy thing to do and it’s fun! Sit them in your lap, on the couch, on a blanket and read.  Ask questions as you read to keep them involved and encourage listening skills.  Have them stay in one place to practice self-control.  After awhile, you’ll notice they are able to pay attention for longer and longer reading sessions.  They will also be able to comprehend more intricate storylines pretty quickly.  You could also practice this by playing books on tape or just record yourself (and other family members) telling stories.  Listen to them in the car or while preparing dinner.  They don’t need to have a book in front of them while listening, they can work out that imagination too. 

Conversations Talking WITH J, as opposed to talking around him, about him or to him really makes a difference.  Waiting for a response from them, makes them aware of how a conversation works.  It gives them an incentive to listen which in turns helps them practice listening.  Of course the 3 months old won’t answer your questions, but that doesn’t mean we can’t start modeling the process that early.  The 10 month old might be able to sign a simple response, the 18 month old might be able to give a one word answer and the 3 year old might go on and on and on and on and on.  

One time I accidentally dialed a friend’s number on my cell while I was taking J on a walk around the neighborhood.  The phone was in the stroller pocket and I had no clue my friend was on the line.  She remarked later, “I heard you talking to J saying, ‘Here’s the end the street.  To be safe, let’s stop here and make sure there aren’t any cars coming before we cross.  Do you see any cars J?… Oh you’re right, I see that blue car coming too.”  She found it funny that I was attempting to hold a conversation with my 10 month old.  Of course he didn’t respond to me that day, but he was growing more and more aware of his surroundings, learning to listen, learning that a response during the pause was anticipated, even learning to always stop and look for cars before crossing the street.  The only way they learn to listen is if we give them practice at it AND incentives to listen.  Why should they listen to us if we aren’t ever giving them the opportunity to respond?

Table Time – We started table time with just a few minutes a couple times per day in the highchair.  I used very simple activities that capitalized on his interests at the time (mostly the in and out game) and we slowly worked to increase the amount of time he could handle in one sitting.  We worked up from needing 3 or 4 different activities each time to just one.  My goal in this was extending his attention span, working on obedience and on self-control (keeping toys on the table).  I was not focused on teaching academics at all in the beginning because I didn’t want to expect too much.  A side benefit was great practice with motor skills. 

Piece by piece instructions – This really helped J practice listening skills and obedience.  Instead of calling his name and telling him what I wanted him to do all at once, learning to split up the instructions into the smallest parts made a huge difference.   “J, come in here and pick up your toys,” sounded more like:

“J “ (wait for response…in our house that meant he needed to look at me and when he was able to crawl/walk, move to where I was)

“Pick up your truck.” (wait for him to finish)

“Put your truck in this box.” (wait for him to finish)

If there was a problem with him following through, I could easily pick out which part of the instruction caused it.  This helped me determine if he simply didn’t understand the instruction, didn’t hear my instruction, or was testing mommy to see what happens if he doesn’t obey!  We could then focus working on the very specific problem.  Once I knew he understood, I tried really hard not to repeat anything.  This helped improve his listening skills since he had to listen the first time.  It also improved obedience since he knew he had to obey the first time.  As he got better, I could group more instructions together.   

To be completely honest, this one was hardest for me.  It just wasn’t natural for me to go SO SLOW in instructions.  It still isn’t, though it is easier.  I kept forgetting to stop and wait after I called his name.  That one took awhile to become habit (or closer to a habit).  To this day, if J is having a rough week with obedience, I look at how many instructions I’m giving him at once.  I pull back on that and he starts improving so much.  It’s a way to keep us both consistent I think, which leads me to…

Consistency –Consistency in my expectations and in my response is absolutely key.   It is also a pain in the neck.  I don’t always WANT to be consistent to be quite honest.  Many times I want to just take a break from being mom.  When I do, I kick myself later while having to correct the bad habits that J learned during my siesta.   The older they get and the better their foundational skills are, the more we can take a mini-break without making major steps back (judging from both motherhood and teaching).  But my almost 3 year old still thrives best under consistency.

Practice, Practice, Practice – 3 minutes will eventually turn into 10 minutes, 30 minutes or 1 hour; ignoring will turn to hearing, listening and responding and (the most rewarding part) LEARNING from us.  We just have to keep at it!

What have you done to help practice foundational skills like obedience, self-control, attention span, and listening and comprehension skills?  I would love to hear ideas! 

What other foundational skills do you think are important?

To see the other posts in this series, click here.

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