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9th RDI-E-Learning: Guided Participation

June 13, 2008

The term “Guided Participation” was coined by Barbara Rogoff, who studied how parents in many cultures guide their children in cognitive and social development. Social Learning is necessary for the brain to develop in a dynamic manner. According to Rogoff, “Children’s cognitive development is an apprenticeship. It occurs through guided participation in a social activity with companions who support and stretch children’s understanding of and skill in using the tools of their culture.” In this context, cognitive development includes thinking, problem solving, and negotiating with the world, not accumulating skills and knowledge.

Rogoff noted than many “third world” countries tend to do guided participation with children better than we do. Also, the guided participation relationship can be interrupted too early by formal schooling.

I was reminded of Frank Smith (The Book of Learning and Forgetting) and also John Taylor Gatto and John Holt. REAL learning (the capacity for dynamic problem solving, not just the accumulation of knowledge and facts), usually doesn’t take place in the classroom. It happens among the child’s significant others — members of the family and community — who walk beside the child and guide him.

The Guided Participation Relationship Requires:

1. A functioning dialogue between the child and caregivers. The child must be a willing apprentice and there must be a functioning emotional dialogue so the parent knows when to challenge the child and how much is too much. The guide needs reliable feedback from the child. Does my child need more support for the challenge? Is she not ready? Should I back down?

2. Trust for and identification with the parent. There must be a history of successful co-participation
with the parent. The child must trust the parent, so if he gets uncertain or confused he can use the adult as a reference point.

3. Resilience – The child must develop the ability to tolerate failure and keep trying.

Often we parents rush to involve our kiddos on the autism spectrum in too many therapies, not wanting to miss something crucial. (Been there, done that) Often this makes things worse. There are too many people in the mix and too much chaos, so a strong guided participation relationship between parent and child is less likely to develop. I think maybe in our society, we are persuaded to over-rely on “experts” and professional therapists and educators. (Yes, so says the former therapist. And the woman whose child has seen no less than 10 professionals. Let’s see … there have been three speech therapists, two OTs, one PT, two mental health therapists, a psychiatrist, a homeopath … and a partridge in a pear tree.) Of course, these professionals have their place, and they can be extremely helpful, even absolutely necessary. Especially for us, since our daughter has a dual diagnosis. Still, I think the point is worth pondering.

These things evolve in “typical” kids in the first few years of life.

1. SOCIAL REFERENCING — The child looks to the parent to see if something is safe. If she walks closer to the edge of a cliff, she looks at the parent’s face to see if the parent’s face is calm (it’s still safe) or anxious (back off). The child learns that she doesn’t have to solve every problem alone. You need to do this with a trusted adult before you internalize it and reference yourself. Self referencing happens too fast in autism. On one hand, an Aspergian child’s inclination to follow her own inner voice can be a tremendous strength. But too much self referencing tends to cause a lot of problems in relationships and judgment.


3. REFERENCING — Use caregivers to support your own impressions safe? Not safe? New?

Gutstein noted that in “typical,” strong, healthy families, parents are really in sync with all their kids’ communication maybe 30% of the time. Just like happy couples REALLY resolve their problems about 30% of the time, and their relationships are successful and happy. This is real life. And we learn as much from the failures in communication as from the successes.

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