How Learning Happens

I became a homeschooling mom in the recently concluded school year.  It was amazing to see a lot of doors open for my son and myself.  I realized that with our flexible schedule and a more functional approach in meeting the topic outline for his level, we can do a whole lot more!  We targeted skills that were not embarking all upon the academic road.  Our map led us to the smooth sailing rivers of growth mindset, steep valleys of executive function and to the wonderful trails of life skills! It hasn’t all been easy but it was worth it. And it got me thinking about learning itself.  They say learning never stops and that it pays to aim for life-long learning.

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But really, how does learning happen?

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines learning in two ways:

Knowledge or skill acquired by instruction or study
Modification of a behavioral tendency by experience

I love how these definitions precisely hit the keywords I am looking for!  Skill, study, behavior and experience.  As an OT, we teach our kids behaviors first to get them ready to learn new skills.  Sometimes, we also teach behaviors solely for behavior’s sake such as controlling one’s emotions.  We do these not by always giving explicit instructions but also, by putting them in facilitated and planned situations and circumstances to elicit target behaviors and skills.  This process is how learning happens — through experience.

For children, the best way to teach them is through play.  And the best kind of play, especially for very young children, is free play or child-led play.  When they get to choose when to play, what to play and how to play it, optimal learning occurs.  During play, they get to apply what they have observed around them and begin or rehearse imitating them.  In the process, they learn language, cause and effect, movement, and the list goes on! 

sunglasses, people, water

The following table lists an overview of what babies and children might learn in different activities you give them naturally or deliberately.

Crying, throwingfamiliar people, visual discrimination, emotions, face parts
Observing facescause and effect, language, attachment, self-soothing, motor coordination
Peek a boovisual constancy, coping with separation anxiety
Listening, “talking” to an adult, stories, musiclanguage, self-soothing
Put-together, pull-apart, stacking toyscause and effect, depth perception, hand skills
Feeding/eatingfeeding/eating, touch textures, coordination and hand skills
Dolls, cook set, miniature cars, toolspretend, body parts, self-care skills, language
“Reading” storybooks or looking at picturesdifferent concepts (colors, letters, etc.), language, emotions
Playing or going to school with peerssocial skills, language
Going to different placesexploring and applying concepts, space
Art activitieshand skills, sensory regulation especially to textures
Household choresroles and responsibility, executive function
Gadgetshow to use the gadget, self-regulation of use
Table 1. How Learning Happens in different activities

These are the skills on top of my head.  I am sure the list is longer than this article itself.  My point is, whether you are keen in teaching your children or not, learning happens.

But I am not, in any way, encouraging you to NOT deliberately teach your children!  I am, actually, an advocate of early intervention.  Being a “teacher” myself, I made sure that my son also reaped the benefits of my profession.  From the very start, I vowed to teach him whatever, whenever and however I can.  I was “intentional” in teaching him, whether I used his environment or myself as the instructor in more structured activities. 

However, it was important for me to make sure that his readiness is there, for the times when I went for structured play, especially when he was very little.

How, then, do we gauge their readiness for learning via structured tasks?

These are the “pre-requisite” areas if they are ready to learn by direct instructions in a more structured environment.

Cognitive Skills

Wikipedia defines cognitive skills as brain-based skills which are needed in acquisition of knowledge, manipulation of information and reasoning.  They have more to do with the mechanisms of how people learn, remember, problem-solve, and pay attention, rather than with actual knowledge.  In order to learn a new skill, perform well in a task being taught, and remember how it is done, one must have sound cognitive skills.

Examples of cognitive skills are the ability to copy or imitate, ability to follow verbal instructions, listening skills, and retention skills or memory to remember concepts.  It follows that communication skills, both receptive and expressive, are to be taken into consideration when looking into your child’s cognitive skills.

emotions, cry, sad

Regulation of Emotions

Emotional regulation or the ability to control your emotions is important in probably all dealings we have in our lifetime, dealing with our very selves included.  At any given point in time, if you practice self-awareness, you will find that thoughts and feelings occur pervasively in our system.  You remember your favorite movie scene and this brings a tear on your eye or a giggle. These two go hand-in-hand, incessantly poking at one another in an endless circle… until your brain knows how to hit the brakes and try to self-regulate.  Any emotions irrelevant to the task-at-hand, you filter and dismiss.

Believe it or not, your child learns to regulate his emotions from when he was a teeny tiny baby.  Just by giving him what he needs, i.e. milk, carry, diaper change, he stops crying.  Within the first year, for the luckier parents, the baby also picks up his own sleeping pattern by closing his eyes, or sucking his thumb in response to feeling tired or sleepy.  Through these routines, he learns how to regulate himself.  Of course, emotions and circumstances evolve in time and this demands a more developed approach in regulating one’s emotions.

Interpersonal and Social Skills

In order for any learning process to occur, especially in teacher-student/s (or parent-child) setting, both parties should be able to engage in a functional communication.  The teacher should be able to transfer information by telling, showing, or assisting.  The student, in turn, ideally should also be able to respond and express any concerns he may have on the lessons he is trying to learn.  While doing this, work behaviors also come into play.  The student should be able to pay attention, disregard distractions, control his impulses and tolerate difficulties.

Together with the abilities to comprehend and to regulate his irrelevant emotions, your child is also expected to filter irrelevant stimuli around him in the process of a more formal learning.  It is easy to assume that younger kids are harder to deal with.  We think how short their attention span must be and how they want to play all the time.  But the truth is, older kids, even a few adults, have concerns in this area.  As a teacher (or parent-teacher), you ought to stack up a few tricks to keep learning fun for your child and for you.

car, toy, childhood

This upcoming summer, some of you may be cooking up to teach your child a better behavior or a new skill.  I find that mine needs training in mastering his executive skills and I also look forward to giving him more opportunities to be responsible at home, thus, he needs structured drills.

Whatever it is, here are some tips to make learning a breeze:

  1. Everyone has his own learning style.  Find out what is yours and your child’s so you can work around it and use it at your advantage.

2. Set goals together with your child.  Make sure that you are on the same page and that you are not forcing it on him.  Hold a test run.  After this, you must have a clearer view of what you are dealing with.   Avoid stressing over the goals that you have set.  You can always rewrite it in a way that is agreeable to you and your child.

3. Get everything and everyone ready to learn.  Make sure the room is quiet and free of possible distractions.  You can also use the theory of sensory integration and promote a “calm alert” state before starting.  Do this by providing a tactile or a movement activity at the start to shake off surplus energy from your child.  This also includes you.  Unless you need it, put your phone down and focus on your task-at-hand with your child.

Motivation is an effective tool to drive people, young or old, to fulfill their dreams.

4. Find strong motivators for your child.  It can be in the form of rewards and tokens after your goal is achieved.  Tweaking the task itself is also key to keeping your child engaged.  Turning it into a game or in the form of an activity that he likes will surely keep the ball rolling.  Let us not forget you, set a reward for yourself after your session or after you have reached your goal.

5. Organize your “study time.”  You can post a schedule board or a checklist of tasks.  Write your goals or take a picture of it and place it where everyone can see it.  These strategies promote a clear expectation of what is to happen next and helps sustain attention along the way.

6. Be consistent but flexible when necessary.  Depending on what you are teaching, hold your “study time” or “training schedule” consistently. Also depending on your child’s response, be flexible to change the schedule and your responses after finding out what works best.

Feedback increases the quality of your performance and points where you are at to lead you where you are going.

7. Always give your child feedback.  Give him a pat on the back for doing well and for trying.  Celebrate little successes.  If your child can, ask him to give you feedback as well so learning happens on both sides.

Summer will, again, look like last year’s – spent indoors. I’d like to think that it doesn’t matter anymore.  We’ve done it before, we can do it again.  I wish all of us the best in our life-long learning with our child!  Smile!  Remember that “Success is not a destination; it’s a journey.” (Zig Ziglar)

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