Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Feeling competent

This is a lesson learned very recently. I have just finished ordering, unpacking, and setting up a brand new desktop computer. At the moment, I have three computers I am juggling, trying to find documents, mailing lists, blogs, etc. that are saved somewhere and need to be moved so I can get at them. What I want to share is the sheer exhilaration I felt when I realized that I had managed to get things up and running, with Internet access, ALL BY MYSELF!

Maybe you remember a child's book with that title, or at least that theme. Maybe you still read that book to someone in your life. Maybe, like me, you really haven't given the topic much thought lately. I don't think it hurts any of us to stop and think how great it feels to accomplish a task (simple or complex, techy or not) without needing help.

For a full day and then some after my computer was fully functioning, I just had to mention to anyone who would listen that I had really done it! I was glowing in self-satisfaction. It felt (and still feels) wonderful.

Let's think about the people in our lives who are greatly limited in what they can do for themselves. Let's think about the IEP's we write for kids in school, all too often focusing on the deficit model. We discuss the PLOP (present level of performance) and then quickly move on to everything that needs fixing, and that list becomes the tasks we work on at school and at home. Personally, I can't think of anything more discouraging than spending a day with folks who know all my weaknesses and, with the best of intentions, set about helping me to "improve."

What if we started with strengths, provided numerous opportunities for success, and then ever so slowly introduced something a little more challenging?

Since I look at just about every area of disability as motor-related, rather than cognitive (i.e. making the least dangerous assumption), I DON'T mean dumbing down the curriculum. In fact, I really mean just the opposite. Move the level of instruction forward and upward just as fast as possible, but keep the motor response needed to show understanding well within the person's physical abilities. KEEP IT SIMPLE when it comes to the actual "work." Let them experience success.

We are always trying to find the perfect balance between academics and functional life skills when we are talking about kids with disabilities, especially if they are more severely impacted by their condition. Independence in activities of daily living also gives one a huge sense of satisfaction or competence, so we don't ever want to do for someone what they can do for themselves, and don't want them to fall into "learned helplessness" because someone is always there to help. But I vote for Velcro shoes over struggling to learn to tie and loose fitting clothes that are more easily managed, whatever it takes to allow a person to do as much for themselves as they possibly can - minus the frustration of endless drill on the task.

Back to my latest "aha" moment. With all my success in this new tech adventure, I would be remiss if I didn't offer thanks to the people in my life who have so patiently answered my questions and talked me through an area that was very, very foreign to me in the beginning. This would include our school tech person, my own kids and grandkids (who know so much more than I do!), some marvelous "geeks" who tactfully took me from my starting point and gently nudged me forward, and even a couple strangers over in India or Pakistan who work for Dell or Microsoft or whomever.

Lesson for all of us: How do we help kids learn? Do we make them feel successful and competent every step of the way? Can we celebrate with them when they are successful and overlook all the mistakes along the way? Learning seems to work so much better in a positive environment. What can we do to make sure our kids always have this feeling of competence?

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