In our last post we talked why it is so important for kids to practice new skills or behaviors in order to learn them and some basics about the how and when of practice. Today we’ll share some creative ideas on how to practice that go beyond directing your child to “practice this now” (which we know is the least likely way to get them to do something!)
You have probably heard that kids are always watching what you do, and it’s true! Children learn how to behave through what they see around them. Modeling important skills is an excellent way to help them ‘practice’ through seeing the behavior.
- Modeling could look like you (or sibling or friend) physically demonstrating how to do something, like how to set the table, or tie your shoes, or staying by the shopping cart in the store.
- You can also model skills by narrating what you are doing or thinking out loud, like how you keep trying when something is hard, or how you handle angry, disappointed, or sad feeling in a helpful way that won’t get you into trouble.
- You are also modeling in the day-to-day way you go about your life. The way you talk to yourself, how you treat strangers and friends, how you handle your feelings, as well as your everyday behaviors are all things that your child can watch and learn.
If you want to teach your child a specific behavior or skill, you will want to include hands-on practice; kids learn best by doing.
Think of role playing as “I do, then you do”. Role plays are also a great way for kids to practice in a low stress environment before they are in a more distracting situation, or when they are calm if the skill is something that may happen with big emotions.
- In the classroom, kids love to see their teachers put on a play for them. The teachers can pretend to be kids and model how to do a new behavior like sharing, handling disappointment, or asking a friend to play. Then the kids get to pretend and act out the new behavior with an adult and lots of support and prompting.
- Another thing kids love is to be in charge and show grown-ups what they know. When teaching children a new behavior, first show them the right way to do it, and then see if they can catch you when you don’t do it the right way… and then have them show you how to do it the right way. (We don’t want kids practicing the wrong way, so only have them do the correct way, and don’t make the wrong way look like too much fun!)
Making sure there is time for play
Engaging in play is so important to the developing brain. Children explore their world, learn about cause and effect, and find out how to manage their emotions when playing with others. When you play with your child, it can be hard not to turn it into an adult-directed activity. Instead, try to follow your child’s lead. What are they interested in, what ideas and imaginative situations do they come up with? You can expand on your child’s play by:
- Asking questions about what they’re doing or what they could do “I wonder what would happen if you did this…?”
- Demonstrating or talking out loud about a new concept or skill that expands on their interests or what they’re doing “I’m going to set this at an angle and see if that changes anything…”
- Pointing out new ways to see and think about their environment “What if you use this instead? Wow, it works even better!”
You can also help your child practice by providing opportunities for play with materials that will directly engage your child in practice.
- If they need practice holding their pencil or writing their name, give them play materials or games that require fine motor skills such as threading beads, picking up small items, pinching, or painting with cotton balls held by clothespins.
- If they are having a hard time calling out in class, not staying in their seat, or keeping their hands to themselves, play games that include stopping suddenly on cue, turn taking and waiting their turn, like board games, red light, green light, telephone, Simon says, or tag.
Making it a challenge
If you want your child to practice a specific behavior, turning it into a game, or a challenge is way more effective (and fun) than just asking them to do it.
- Use a timer. Kids love to race the clock; can they beat their previous time? Or beat you, or a sibling? Who can do it fastest?
- Challenge them. “I wonder if you can…” or “I bet you can’t…”
- Make it a game. When it’s time to clean up, get creative! Clean up everything by color, by the sound of the first letter in the object’s name, or by texture, weight or size. Or practice those regulatory skills and walk to the car with a variation of red light, green light. “When I say green light, you have to walk as fast as you can towards the car before I say red light and then you have to freeze!”
Reading about it
We all know that reading to your child sets them up for academic success. And it can also be a way to practice social skills like learning to recognize and understand others’ feelings and intentions, problem solving, and handling social situations in helpful ways. If there is a particular skill or behavior you’re helping your child to learn, you can probably find a book about it. Librarians are excellent sources of wisdom and books. While reading with your child, you can ask questions to engage them in thinking about the skills they are learning and how skills might work in different situations. You could also do this while watching a kids’ show or movie (if they will let you pause it to talk about it). Try asking questions like:
“How does this character feel? How can you tell?”
“Did they do that on purpose or by accident?”
“How did that character handle that situation? Do you think that was a helpful way to handle that?”
“How did it affect the other characters? Is there another way to handle that in a helpful way?”
No matter how you help your child practice, giving them the opportunities to try out new skills in fun or low-demand environments is so supportive in developing their abilities and confidence in being able to do something when they need to. And stay tuned. We will continue with more ideas and activities to help kids practice more specific skills and behaviors in the weeks to come.
Text: © Kids In Transition to School 2022
Image: © Liza Tishankov | Dreamstime.com