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Time for Change with Concept Learning?

March 15, 2023

Time for Change with Concept Learning? https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/change-with-concept-learning/

One of the keyways I have been supporting learners during my time as a special needs school teaching assistant and as an LSA at a local college, and now with my own daughter, who I am home educating, is by providing learning that is interest based. This means that the activities and tasks I provide revolve around what that child is interested in and uses their strengths to allow them to develop the skills they need to.

Eleven-year-old Isabelle is autistic, has learning difficulties, and I have been home educating her since August 2022. To develop Isabelle’s problem-solving communication, and reading skills, I made a pairs game that involved her favorite things- animals. Each card had either a picture of an animal or the description with facts about them on it. 

Isabelle straight away wanted to play the game which to her represents fun, and she could actively engage with the activity. I could have provided an activity where she had to look up facts about animals online and then write out the information, which is the more likely activity given in school, but Isabelle would have struggled with this. She would have lacked concentration, the ability to process what was on the screen and recall quickly onto paper, and she struggles with her writing due to her fine motor skills not being strong. The card game even provided her with the opportunity to practice her pincer grasp and coordination when picking up and turning over the cards.

I can remember sitting with a learner in their class at college, and I was supporting them with their recognition of nouns, verbs, and adjectives. The text they had been given was of no interest to them, and they were not engaging with the activity. 

I decided to produce a different type of text in a way that was visually more engaging as it had pictures with it. The text I made talked about the learner’s favorite interest, which was motorbike racing. Straight away it held their attention, and not only were they able to recognize the verbs, nouns, etc., as was the aim of the activity, but they developed other skills such as communication and recall by telling me about their favorite interest.

I have always been a firm believer of the importance of teaching and engaging with children in a way that puts their own interests and abilities at the front of anything else. If they are not interested or stimulated through the topic or how they are expected to participate, then this will impact the amount they get out of the activity. 

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Isabelle is not very keen on arts and crafts, but I know this can help develop several skills from fine motor to imaginative and cognitive development. So I sat and thought about what she does enjoy and what one of her strengths is: numbers. 

I didn’t ask  Isabelle to sit and draw a picture or make a junk model, which I knew she would struggle with due to her lack of cognition for this type of activity. She lacks the interest in making anything in the first place. Instead, I got out a beetle building game (you will find a lot of games in our household!). This game allowed Isabelle to still use her fine motor skills and cognition, as well as extra skills like math, but in a way she enjoyed and found interesting.

If I do provide any coloring for Isabelle, it isn’t just a picture. I provide her with color by multiplication, or I have made my own color by shape printables, as this allows Isabelle to engage with the activity.Although it involves coloring, which she can be reluctant to do, she focuses on the number part, and that makes her want to color in and complete the picture, therefore allowing her to practice pencil control.

I think it is also important to look at what your child needs to get out of the activity. Isabelle needs to develop life skills and basic math and English she will use in her day to day life, so these become the focus of the activities I provide for her through her interests.

This is another example of Concept Learning: Isabelle loves pouring and water play so to help her fine motor skills I made a potion-making station for her. This is just bottles containing glitter, coloured water, and different things from my garden such as flower, petals, and herbs. She loves Harry Potter and magic so this allowed her to have so much fun and not even realize the skills she was developing. Not only did she practice her fine motor skills but her imagination and her ability to follow instructions by reading the potion ingredients I provided here with.

When I worked in a special needs primary school, the first thing we would do when meeting new children would be to look at their EHCP and see what skills they already had, needed to learn, and most importantly, what they enjoyed doing. This way you could use what they were already able to do and, with their interests, develop other key skills they hadn’t achieved yet.

This knowledge is helpful when you home educate, as you can provide activities and resources specifically aimed at your own child, unlike in a mainstream school setting where they are more likely to be given the same task as their peers. You know your child and what they like to do and  are interested in, so you can use this as the starting point for their home education.

Build A Pizza: This game develops organization skills, reading, problem-solving, fine motor skills, and communication through the topic of food.

If they love doing sports, make their learning movement-based such as games that include throwing  or running to cards on the floor that have answers on them. They may enjoy making a fort to develop motor skills or learning about their favorite sportsman to develop their comprehension and reading skills. 

One of the important things I have learned while home educating is to look at your own situation and child, and do what suits them and you. Don’t Focus so much on every other home educator and compare yourself. You have to find your own learning methods and activities,  especially when home educating an autistic child.It’s more important than ever to involve their interests, putting their own abilities and needs above what you think you should be teaching and what you know they need to learn.

Even when Isabelle is learning skills such as money which do come under the National Curriculum, I put my own spin on it to make it relevant and the concept of interest to Isabelle. She loves playing with barbies and loves these small toys, so I added prices to them, and we played shops with them.

As with all the other activities and resources that I share on my blog, so many more skills and outcomes were achieved than if I had just pushed for the type of learning that is expected.

I haven’t once looked at the national curriculum since teaching my daughter. I personally believe that education needs to change and become more interest based and not one curriculum fits all. Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, and our brains all work in different ways regardless of having a special need or not. We need to think outside the box when it comes to teaching. 

More vocational areas available to children at a younger age would allow for their interests to be explored sooner rather than expecting every child to sit and learn about topics they may have no interest in and will not benefit from in their future. Yes, I could try teaching Isabelle using the national curriculum as my guide, but there is so much in there that will not benefit her and does not put her own abilities, needs, and interests at its center. She loves learning about countries and matching them to their capital cities, but she has no interest, need, or ability to learn about the historical aspects of geography or how rivers are formed. 

This flag-matching game allowed Isabelle’s interest in countries and their flags to be supported by kinaesthetic activity. If I had just given Isabelle some paper with flags on it and asked her to write the countries she would have been reluctant to take part and probably asked me to write the answer for her as she does not enjoy writing.

I did not plan to home educate, as I thought Isabelle would be going to a special needs secondary school, but there were no spaces for her.The only other option was for me to teach her, as she would have been at risk in mainstream school, and her learning needs would not have been met in a way that suited her. 

It isn’t always easy, and there are days that I wonder what it would be like if she had gotten into secondary school. But when I see how being at home has allowed her to be at the center of the learning, it has made me realize that a change needs to happen. Until that does, having knowledge about concept learning can at least enable parents and carers to better support their children’s learning in their home environment and support other home educators.

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