The process of teaching a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) key skills can be challenging for several reasons. One reason is that the child might avoid anything that has been associated with teaching or demands in the past, such as the teaching area, teaching materials, or even the caregiver themselves. Before you’re able to teach your child effectively, it’s critical that you set up a learning environment that your child will enjoy.
So, what exactly do I mean by the “learning environment”? The “learning environment” includes the actual place where you plan to teach your child, the people who will be involved, and what items you include in your teaching. Taking time to set up a good learning environment can lead to better interactions with your child, can help keep your child motivated (which is SUPER important during learning!), and can help you create the key learning opportunities that you want for your child.
Think about this… or maybe you’ve had this experience before… how would you be able to teach your child new skills (that are potentially difficult for him) if he avoids you or the learning space and he won’t listen to your instructions? The answer? You can’t. It will prove way too difficult, and will lead to an unpleasant situation for you both. This is why it’s important to take the time to make sure your learning environment is fun before you even start to think about teaching.
Here are 4 key steps to creating a fun learning environment for your child:
Follow Your Child’s Lead
The first step is following your child’s lead. What I mean by this is doing what your child wants to do, not what you want to do! This will include playing with toys and activities that he likes, and letting him lead the play. You are there to participate with him, and hopefully to make the play more fun, but not to direct the play. Eventually, you’ll be a bit more directive when teaching your child. But first, you’ll want to establish that you are fun to be around, and that hanging out with you is a great experience. You also want to try to find ways to include yourself in the play with your child. Try to think about ways you could make the play more fun with you than it would be without you.
Make it Fun and Interactive
The second step to setting up an effective learning environment is to make arrangements that will help your child have fun interacting with you. Essentially, you want it to be as easy as possible for your child to focus on you and all the fun toys and activities that you will enjoy together. To accomplish this, it helps tremendously to minimize distractions when you can. You’ll want to turn off the TV and other electronics, and minimize the presence and noise from other people. Also, think about the physical arrangement of the space. You want yourself to be prominent in the environment, so try to position yourself between your child and the fun items and activities. Finally, keep in mind that variety helps keep things fun! So, make sure you include several different kinds of things your child enjoys in the learning environment, like snacks, toys, and activities.
Give Good Things
The third step in setting up an effective learning environment is making yourself the bearer of all good things your child receives. This might sound silly, but it makes a BIG difference! Try to arrange the environment so that your child has to go through you to get the fun things he wants. This will further associate you will the fun things, and make it more likely that your child wants to be with you and play. As a rule of thumb, when you’re playing with your child in this environment, try to give him something that he likes at least every 30 seconds, and even more if you can.
Provide a Language-Rich Environment
Finally, for the fourth step in setting up an effective learning environment: make the environment “language-rich” for your child. This means he should be hearing a LOT of language from you during this time. The reason this is helpful is because just being exposed to meaningful language regularly can help promote your child’s communication. So, what should you be saying? Follow the acronym, PRIDE to remember.
Praise appropriate behavior.
Reflect speech your child makes.
Imitate your child’s speech and play.
Describe your child’s play.
Now that you know what you should do when setting up an effective learning environment, I want to give you a few things to avoid. Questions, demands, and critical statements all have the potential to make the learning environment a more negative experience, which we want to avoid. Also, questions and demands take the lead away from your child, and imply that you want a response. For now, you want to avoid questions, demands, and instructions.
If you follow these steps, you’re on your way to creating an environment where your child wants to be with you and is ready to learn. For more information on how to start teaching your child key skills, such as basic communication skills, check out my blog post on that topic here.