helping child to learn
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Kids Students Tips & Tricks Blog/Vlog

Growing up, in many ways, is a series of ‘firsts’ – your first day at school, for example, or learning to ride a bike, your first holiday at the beach, or the first time you were allowed to walk to the local shops by yourself.

Many adults, particularly when we’re feeling jaded from the daily treadmill of working and paying the bills, look back on our childhood days and long for the time when even the smallest thing seemed novel and exciting.

But it’s easy to forget that some children, especially those with special needs, find new experiences frightening or overwhelming. This can lead to them refusing to go anywhere, meet anyone or try any activity they haven’t previously encountered. Not only is this frustrating, but it can also limit what the rest of the family is able to do.

So how can parents persuade reluctant kids to embrace new challenges?

Gentle Persistence

scaffolding to learn to draw

New experiences are part of life and essential for developing a child’s skills and confidence says Dr Stella Acquarone, a London-based child and adult psychotherapist with a PhD in Psychology. “Parents sometimes make the situation worse by giving up too easily,” she comments. “If they know their child finds something difficult, they go along with it because they don’t want to make them more unhappy.”

A better approach, she says, is to gently encourage a child to try a new activity, taking it step-by-step and reassuring them that you will support them. “You say, ‘Yes, you can’, whether that’s something like swimming or cycling or trying new food. Don’t let them fall into defeat. You need a combination of love and toughness.”

With some children, especially those who are younger, Dr Acquarone recommends ‘scaffolding’, meaning mum or dad sits behind the child to guide their hands to perform a task – drawing a picture, for example. In the same way, she says, a parent might move the child’s feet to show them how to pedal a bike.

Youngsters can be coaxed into trying new foods, she advises, by cutting vegetables into different shapes or arranging food into ‘faces’ on the plate. Maybe a favourite teddy can ‘taste’ the food before the child does. “Don’t get stuck in the ‘You must eat – now!’ approach,” she cautions. “Fun is very important. The way you speak also matters when you introduce a new activity,” she adds. “Put energy into your voice, use inflexions to create a sense of possibility. Your children need to be animated by you.”

New Activities Are Unpredictable

sen child being shown days out

SEN teacher and tutor Sandra has many years of experience working with kids with special needs. She says that many children find any kind of change or ‘newness’ difficult because they’ve never done it before and don’t know what to expect. “We all like to know what’s happening in advance, don’t we?” she speculates. “I’ve got a diary, for example, otherwise I wouldn’t know what my day looks like.”

In the same way, she points out, anxious children can be reassured by visual prompts before they try something new. If you’re planning a family outing to a place you’ve never previously visited – a castle, a theatre or a museum, for example – you can often find photos or videos on the venue’s website so that a child knows in advance what it will look like.

A simple, visual timetable showing a few, planned events – using the format, ‘Now, Next, Then’ – can also make a day more predictable and reduce anxiety, she advises. And if your child has sensory issues, she adds, keep a calming toy, such as squishy putty or a scented hankie, in your handbag to defuse any unexpected meltdowns while you’re out and about.

Trying New Things in the Classroom

child learning new things in the classroom

Exploring different topics and finding new ways to solve problems is also an important part of classroom learning. In this instance, a tutor needs to build a good rapport with a student, taking the time to listen and find out what motivates them, Sandra explains.

“You have to start off by following what the child is interested in,” she says. “If they’re interested in trains, for example, you use that topic in their lessons. After a time, you can very slowly introduce something else – buses, maybe – so you’re gradually extending their interests. You want to give them confidence but not be too comfortable.”

“We all need to try new things to expand our minds and grow,” Sandra concludes. “Pushing yourself outside your comfort-zone improves your self-esteem. It’s the same for kids with special needs.”

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