When introduced to a new task or activity, all children and adults go through four stages of learning. This is described by Dr. Nielsen as the Dynamic Learning Circle.
It is important to be able to recognize each stage of the dynamic learning circle, as well as understand how to promote changes in the environment to facilitate continued learning. When a child or adult becomes "stuck" in a specific stage "disharmonic" learning occurs. Self-injurious, self-stimulatory, and aggressive behaviors can be a sign of disharmonic learning, and identifying and correcting the cause is imperative in fostering skill attainment. Remember, a break can occur at any stage of the Dynamic Learning Circle causing the individual to get stuck.
You may want to view these videos as Patty Obrzut discusses the Dynamic Learning Circle in detail.
In Stage 1 a child or adult becomes aware of and interested in one of the following:
- his/her own motor and sensory activity
- the objects or activities in the environment
- people in the environment including their social or communication activities
In Stage 1 awareness and interest are key. When a child or adult first moves his/her body, these movements may be accidental. Awareness occurs once accidental movements become purposeful. If a child or adult is not aware of something or interested in something, how can he/she learn?
Here is one example of disharmonic learning that can occur in stage 1: For a child with a visual impairment and spastic cerebral palsy - placing an object on his/her wheelchair tray would be an example of disharmonic learning. The child may be unaware of the object because he/she cannot see it. The solution is to move the object so that it lightly touches the child's body. Do not perform hand over hand and bring the child's hand to the object as this promotes passive participation. To promote active participation hold the object still so that it lightly touches the child's body and wait for the child to move. The child can independently feel the object on the skin and may be more likely to be aware and interested in the object. This child may take minutes, days, weeks or years to understand that his/her movement is causing something to happen and must be allowed the time needed.
In Stage 2 the child or adult becomes curious and active which leads to any of the following:
- repetition of his/her own activity
- establishing memories of his/her own activity
- experimentation, exploration, and comparison with objects
- imitation of the activity of others
- responding to verbal and non-verbal communication of others
- initiating activity
- sharing his/her experiences with others
In Stage 2 the key is that the child or adult is independently active - experimenting, exploring, and interacting with the environment. A learner should be allowed to interact in the manner that best provides the learner with input. This could be for example, pushing, banging, grasping, throwing, or mouthing. The individual could use his/her hands, feet, mouth, head, arm, leg, chest, or any other part of the body. The child or adult should be allowed to actively experiment in different positions including prone (on stomach), supine (on back), side lying, sitting, and upright in standing. (Use of Active Learning equipment helps to facilitate active learning in these positions.)
Here is one example of disharmonic learning in Stage 2: A child who is cognitively impaired is given a toy to play with while seated in his wheelchair. After holding the toy a few seconds, the child throws the toy on the ground. An adult picks up the toy and gives it back. The child then throws the toy three more times. The adult picks up the toy each time and returns it, but on the fourth time, the adult decides that the child must be "done" with the toy and takes it away. Disharmonic learning has occurred because in this example, the child was in the exploratory stage of throwing and is unable to independently get the toy back to repeat his actions. He wants to repeat throwing over and over and over again - but has not been given the opportunity to do so. His learning has been interrupted and he therefore cannot complete stage 2.
The solution to this disharmonic learning is to make a position board. This board allows a child or adult to throw objects, but because they are secured with elastic - the objects spring back to the board, allowing a child or adult to repeat his/her activity. Another solution - place containers around the child so that the object is thrown into the containers. Have multiple objects, so that the child/adult can throw more objects - experimenting and comparing what it is like to throw into containers of different size, shape and material.
Stage 3 the child or adult completes learning with an activity.
- The activity is repeated to such a level that is becomes part of the child or adult's every day actions and patterns.
- The activity or action becomes familiar enough that it presents no more challenges to the child or adult.
Stage 3 signifies that the child or adult has learned all that he/she can given the resources provided at the time. The individual may interact with the activity for a short period of time or begin to look bored. The child or adult may participate in a stereotypical way. Adults who interact with this learner may say things like "he/she used to like the activity, but doesn't anymore and I don't know why."
Here is one example of disharmonic learning in Stage 3: A child is given a switch toy, you press a button and the toy plays music. The child can independently press the switch, and smiles while the toy plays a song. But the child is given the same toy and switch day after day. The child is observed to start chewing on the cord for the switch, pushes the toy off the table, or rarely or never activates the switch. The child may also play with only this one toy for hours at a time, never wanting to play with anything else. This child has learned all he/she can from a simple cause and effect switch toy. The child needs new toys or more complex switches to interact with, or better yet more complex toys to interact with. The child already understands the concept of cause and effect.
Stage 4 indicates a child or adult is ready for new challenges, which will lead to new awareness and interest only if:
- the child or adult is given opportunities to experience new sensory and motor activities.
- the child or adult is given opportunities to experience the new actions of others.
- the challenges offered to the child or adult are within his or her developmental level
- other people have taken an interest in the child's or adult's past activities
Stage 4 signifies the need for NEW experiences, NEW challenges, NEW activities, and NEW interactions. Providing a basis to start all over again in stage one and repeat the dynamic learning circle. It is important that the new challenges and activities are only slightly different than the previous ones. When new experiences are too difficult or too easy to attain, the child or adult may shut down and refuse to participate, exhibiting frustration through self-injurious or aggressive behaviors, or demonstrating stereotypical activity.
Here is one example of disharmonic learning in Stage 4. A child has mastered the skill of picking up ping pong balls from a tray with both hands and dropping the balls back onto the tray. An adult introduces the child to shapes in the forms of circles, squares and triangles and asks the child to pick up the shapes and place them in the correct shape sorter hole. The child cannot grasp the shapes independently and cannot drop objects into a container independently. The task is too difficult for the child. Solution - simplify the task into its basic steps and allow the child to interact with the objects at that developmental level. Provide the child with the shapes and ping pong balls on the tray. Provide the child with different shaped containers (bowls, plates, cups, boxes). The containers should be so big as to allow the shapes to be easily placed in the container. Allow the child to play with the objects in an Active Learning format using the Five Phases of Educational Treatment. By experimenting, exploring and comparing, dropping the shapes on the tray and possibly into the containers - the child will learn through repetition that objects can go into something which eventually may turn into a child's understanding that certain shapes can go in certain containers.