Give Kids a Smile Day, 3 Tips on how to make learning more fun for children with learning disabilities

     Today is "Give Kids a Smile" Day, you know, one of those random holidays you never knew existed, like "Talk Like a Pirate" day and "Eat Ice Cream for Breakfast" Day!  Well, in honor of today's holiday AND tomorrow's "Take Your Child to the Library" Day, we thought we'd share this thoughtful article with tips on how to help make learning fun for children with learning disabilities.  It can seem hopeless and disappointing to any child who isn't given the proper attention when trying to learn in school, which can make them give up altogether.  With just a little bit of knowledge in part of the educator, learning can be fun again for students with learning disabilities.  

3 Tips to Make Learning More Fun for the Child with Learning Disabilities 
By Heather Gilmore, MSW, LLMSW, BCBA 

Academic tasks can be challenging for kids with learning disabilities and related disorders (such as dyslexia, ADHD, Autism, etc.). If your child struggles with academic work, it makes sense that he tries to avoid doing the work or that he tries to rush through it to simply get it done and almost gives up trying to do quality work. Consider how it would be to have to do something that is so challenging for you day after day for many hours a day.

If your child struggles with learning academically, consider using the following tips to help him learn to like learning at least a little bit more.

1. Use Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is presenting something immediately after the behavior or activity of interest and then that behavior or activity happens more often in the future, as well. So, if you want your child to learn to spell and to hopefully not mind spelling, present something he enjoys such as video games immediately after one instance of spelling a word correctly. Then, build up how many words he needs to spell correctly in order to get the reinforcement.

Also, do not provide the preferred activity (video games) unless the child completes the learning activity without any negative behaviors (like crying or whining). People don’t typically learn to enjoy something if they whine all the way through it. Additionally, whining/crying is a way of displaying that you don’t want to do something. We want the child to “want” to do the activity.

2. Use Behavior Traps

The concept of behavior traps refers to how natural reinforcement contingencies can promote the development of new behaviors. This basically means that things that a person likes can support that person’s development of new skills and behaviors.

For example, present reading opportunities within activities that your child enjoys, such as video games. Another example for a child who is learning to spell is to have your child learn to spell words that are meaningful to them. Again, if your child is interested in video games, find words that they often see in the game or words that are related to the game to have them practice.

Albert and Heward (1996) described the use of behavior traps. They discuss the following five steps (excerpt from Amanda Yeager, M.A., BCBA, of Step by Step Academy):

“1)    Identify your prey—what academic/social areas does the student need the most help? Be sure to target behaviors that are relevant, functional, and behaviors that lend themselves to frequent practice opportunities
2)    Find powerful bait—what does the student like? Watch them when they’re alone or simply by asking the student and/or their parents and provide a variety for them to sample.
3)    Set the trap—place coveted materials in the student’s path. You can do this by forming classroom clubs, find classroom jobs for the student based off his/her interests, and/or enlist the help of his/her peers.
4)    Maintain your trap—Start small. Use variety and give your trap a break periodically
5)    Appraise your catch—assess the changes in the targeted skills frequently and directly. Make modifications or set another trap if ineffective.”

3. Decrease Response Effort and Decrease the Task to Reinforcement Ratio

In addition to not providing the “reinforcement” until the learning task was completed without problem behavior (as in #1), also be sure to make the learning task as easy as possible at first to make sure that the child can be successful for a few times before you make it more challenging. This is decreasing the response effort. Then very slowly make the task a little bit more difficult.

This is also related to decreasing the task to reinforcement ratio. For example, if your child is expected to sit through 3 academic worksheets before taking a break, let him complete only one quarter or one-half of a worksheet and then take a break. And slowly build the task requirement up from there.

This tip is meant to help your child experience more success academically so that he is more likely to feel that he can do it and maybe even have more of a chance to like learning once he realizes that it’s not so bad.

The expectations for every child may be different. Consider how your child is currently doing and what your ultimate goal is when trying to figure out how easy to make his work or how much work he should do before you allow a preferred activity and so on. A Board Certified Behavior Analyst may also be able to assist you with your child’s learning if you are in search of more help.

Regarding all 3 Tips, it is important to be consistent. You will rarely make long-term change in kids by only doing things differently one or a few times. Instead, be consistent and use the tips regularly and you are likely to see more improvement.

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