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Simple Concepts That Are Hard To Get

By Tom and Sherry Bushnell


Did you know that there is a difference between length and distance?

Any parent who has experienced a 3 year old knows that a child's conception of time is directionally relevant to how fast we get somewhere in a car.

Our children with learning differences, severe to moderate, sometimes struggle with understanding simple concepts.  Here are a few ideas that might help turn the light on.

Teaching Our Children to "Come"

        One of the first things we teach in our home is "come"  This is technically called transfer.  The importance in transfer is to help our children decide the location and direction of moving or nonmoving objects.  For instance a lifesaving understanding of this is judging  the distance between you and an oncoming car.  Unfortunately it is also one of the most difficult.   Direction is easier. A child who is blind will have a much harder time learning transfer approximations, but the ears can be trained to be quite affective.  We can start by helping our children see that people or objects at a distance are farther away.  Start up close and then walk away.  Measure the distance in steps or a long ribbon.

        When teaching our children to "come", we will set our child up in a training session. Be sure your child's needs are met. Do not attempt a training session if your child feels tired, sick, or is hungry. Next, we MUST be consistent. This means set aside a time period. Do not try to do several things at once. Stay tuned in!!! We want to be beside them in an instant, reproving, training, and of course loving, praise for a job well done.

        Teaching a child who is developmentally 1 1/2 to 2 years to come to you is important. Set aside a time period to be sure your child understands you. Be sure they are not hungry, wet, not feeling well or tired. Remember, children want to please us, but they will eventually test us. This is human nature. For the initial training session, we tied a ribbon about 4 feet long around her waist.  With no other distractions around her, I held onto the ribbon, stepped 4 feet from her and said "come" in a normal voice. She of course did not respond. I

repeated the request, "come," this time pulling her to me, praising her in a happy voice and giving her a hug.

        It took about 10 repeats before she took her first step toward me on her own upon my request of "come." Then she got bored and sat down. I repeated my request "come," once. She just sat on her bottom, so I dragged her to me, telling what a good girl was and hugging her.

        After about 15 minutes of this, she got the general idea and would step or crawl to me when I said "come.", once. End of training session #1.

        The next day I again tied the ribbon on her waist. I stood about 4 feet from her and asked her to "come." once. After 3 requests and consequential pulls to me, she readily came when I said, "come." I was confident she understood what I wanted from her.

        Now came the hard part. When she was engrossed in her jingle bell hooked on the toy box, I repeated the command to "come." I gave her the benefit of the doubt and tugged on her ribbon. This time she did not want to come to me, she wished to stay and play with the toy. Using a thin rod, I tapped (lightly stung) her twice on her back side, said "come", once, and pulled her to me, praising her all the way. (Thinking ahead, I had put shorts on her, not long pants and a thick padded diaper.)

        When she was engrossed in her toy again, I repeated the request, "come." She let go of the toy waiting to see what I would do. I lightly stung her on the backside with the rod twice and pulled on her ribbon, encouraging her to "come". After 2 more sessions throughout the day, she willingly came, even when engrossed in something. End of training session #2.

        For several days I repeated this tactic, being VERY consistent, and being sure she came immediately and quickly. We used the request several times throughout the day for a week. After the week was over, she happily came when I requested. She has tested us occasionally, especially at first, but to this day has been very obedient in this area.


A Basic Concept of Time

    Time has very few tangible properties for a child to relate to.  It is really hard for a child to understand how long 5 minutes might be, especially if this is time out in a chair that seems to last an hour to them.  It is impossible to  manipulate time like we can with numbers, quantity, mass and space.  Somehow we have to use our observation skills to find a way to stimulate our student's understanding.  We can measure time with a time piece or we can use memories in our child's past for a good beginning.  We like to be as practical as possible.  We use a large timer with a bell, perhaps a clock with moveable hands, an hour glass with colored sand, and a calendar with weather for times and seasons.

Long time versus short time- a wristwatch or clock with large hands, a stopwatch, timer or hour glass is good to use.  Sunrise and sunset watching where the sun is in the sky can to used to estimate time.   Children like to work with short increments of time. Children must develop a whole series of other concepts before they can really comprehend time. (So don't be in a hurry). Measure with a stop watch how long it takes to wash hands, get dressed, eat a snack, walk to the sandbox.  In helping them understand the distance between a long time and a short time, we start with 3 or 4 minutes and 1/2 a minute or so.  Baking cookies is a great way to compare time. It takes 10 minutes to bake, but only 30 seconds to eat!

    For an older child, a stop watch is a really great tool.  They can really  get a good idea how long they are taking. If they are slow to complete a self help skill, such as a shower, set the timer.  Teach them to set their own timer for a task after they have timed the skill, done reasonably well and comfortably.    It will only take a few times for them to get the idea that the soaped up and the rinse job must come quicker if they are to get out without being uncomfortable. Measuring time and estimating chores and skills takes practice.

 Days of the Week, a Month, a Year.   Calendars with boxes for each day that are big enough to count off, can help us.  We like to put ours on the refrigerator and use stickers for each day to count off how long to a birthday or holiday.  Making session pictures about the day, sun rise, getting up, eating breakfast, school work or chores, lunch, nap, dinner, bath, bed, etc...  Many songs and rhymes concern the days of the week and teach the children sequence of days of the week.

Before, After and When  - The best event in our household is the birthday.  We use past events (like last birthday) to emphasize after and before.  Use photographs, handprints, and other time freezing tools to help our children  understand how they were smaller and now they are big!  Use height measurement on a location a child can observe often. Holidays are also milestones.  Future planning and decision making skills are really important skills for our older mentally disabled adults to master.  They must plan for tomorrow and even the week.  One of the best skills we can teach any of our children is to put things away where they got them from so they are locatable later.

Both at the Same Time

Simultaneously refers to two or more things occurring at once. This involves making sure our children understand the concept of together at once.  This is much easier than the number 2.  Walking together is an easy way to demonstrate together. Coordinating two separate activities can be harder for some of our children.  For instance, two people riding a bike parallel, is hard for them to concentrate on.  They might keep looking back and forth between the two.  Use match box cars along two tracks in the sand running closer together then make the parallel tracks further apart until they are able to watch both at the same time.



Taking Turns

Use homemade cartoon strips to tell a story about how taking turns is necessary for there to be order.  Talk about the result of not choosing to take turns.  Teaching children to stand in line without cutting in, or choosing to take the back of the line takes practice.  Use observation out loud in a crowd at Sunday school or other gathering or queue at the bank to demonstrate how we are taking the last place in a line.  Teach them to ask, "Is this the back of the line?" Show how the line shortens as their turn comes by taking a felt board story of children in line.  Putting others first is good manners, but sometimes a hard social skill to comprehend when they want something right away. 


Numbers and Quantities

Biggest to Smallest - Perhaps the simplest way to teach ordinal relationships is to start with the smallest piece of cookie to the largest across the table. It is helpful if a child understands and can request "more" first. If a child cannot grasp wanting more or that things can be ordered by rank in some way, they will not be able to understand the ordinal characteristic of numbers. These are terms of ranking that we can have our children practice.

bigger, biggest, smaller, smallest

taller, tallest, shorter, shortest

higher, highest, lower, lowest

longer, longest, shorter, shortest

wide, wider, widest, narrower, narrowest

thicker, thickest, thinner, thinnest

deeper, deepest, shallower, shallowest

top, bottom

first, last, second, next, before, after

These are taken from the book  Practical Activities for Teaching Concepts by Svein Nymoen, Lena Richter, and Sissel Hofgaard Swensen.  This book is a small book in our lending library.

Stringing beads, stories that include smaller and larger comparison are great.  Games that see who can toss a ball the farthest or blow a cotton ball across the table are good.  How high can you jump?  Lots of activities during the day lend themselves to natural comparisons.


All of it, some of it or none of it. - These are words that describe groups or the absence of something.  The best way to teach a child about all of it "all gone"  some are still left, or none are left is to teach clean up.  When we pick up toys, clean the dishes in the sink, clear the table, or organize the books, we are teaching these concepts.

Sorting is a good way to work toward efficient work habits. 


Adding, subtracting - We are talking concept here, not math problems.  We like to teach the theory of adding and subtracting by cooking.  The sum of flour, milk, eggs salt, baking powder, oil is pancakes.  If we do not add the flour, we end up with a slop mess.  If we do not add the baking powder, we end up with rubber cakes. This is so much fun! 


Weight comparison - This is theory, not math once again.  We can use a balance scale or just someone acting like one.  This shows that something is heavy, and heavier, or light and heavy, etc.


So We Cannot Count

Did you know that there are thousands of people who appear perfectly normal that cannot read or count? (Usually not both)  Dysgraphia is a real disability and not just for the mentally disabled.  One-to-one correspondence can assist our junior disabled to perform chores such as setting the table and putting together kits by filling spaces totally.  A place mat with a blackened area for each item should be filled to be complete.   Counting is very hard for a child who cannot comprehend the idea of amount.  Relating numbers 1,2 ,3 ,4,5,6.7....out loud is one thing, but understanding what 1 is or how many are 2 or 5 is another.  This takes time.   Having our children hand out cookies to everyone at the table teaches one-to-one. Using words like enough or whose left without? and such will help our children to think ahead to count.  Setting the table is another excellent way to naturally help our children practice counting heads. By the time they can set our table they can count to 12!  A more simple way to start is to hand out napkins and count as each person is given one.  Then we move to setting a plate or glass at each setting with a placemat.  Each family will have it's most natural flow for this progression.


Calculating time is one of the most complex areas of "simple concepts".  Surely each one of us has been late a time or two.  There is so much to help our children learn in life.  Being on time is an important example.  We like to teach our older children to count backwards from home.  For instance.  We have lined up several errands and we need to be at evening church at 7:00PM.  We start from home at 5:30.  It takes 1/2 hour to town,  we will be about 15 minutes in the grocery store, 10 minutes to the next stop at the bank.  The bank will take us 5 minutes.  It is 20 minutes to church from there.  We will arrive at church 10 minutes early.   This takes practice. A piece of paper is a must. We like to add a few extra minutes to a stop that has a possibility of taking longer than we estimated. 


Life is full of solving simple concepts that are sometimes hard to get.  We can use practice times in the home to help our children understand their relationship to themselves and others outside in the community.  Have you ever seen a child who cannot understand these basic principles?   A good understanding of basic simple concepts is quite possible for most children moderately mentally disabled, at least by the time they are in their teens.  This stands as a good foundation for further concepts to be added as life teaches.


Oh, by the way, the difference between length and distance.  Let's use the example of walking to a destination..  Distance can be explained as  "the shortest  way between two points." That is moving in a straight line as on a map.  The length of a trip, on the other hand, is affected by the actual route the children walk - for example , they my have to walk up and down hills or detour around holes, cross the street and so no. Distance is measure between two points. One can move the two points closer together and thereby reduce the distance between them.