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Fostering Dynamic Thinking

January 19, 2009

One of the books I loved growing up was Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. The author of this children’s novel had some thought-provoking things to say about education and learning. The young protagonist, Betsy, goes to stay with relatives. One of the first things her uncle does is give her the chance to drive the horse-drawn carriage. He doesn’t explain exactly what she’s to do, though he does give her little prompts. She has to figure out how to use the reins to guide the horse. This is a bit frightening, because she’s never done anything like this before. Everything she’s ever done has been so carefully explained by adults that she didn’t have to think. This is the beginning of a fascinating journey for her.

We need to nurture competence and self-efficacy in our kids by allowing them to think things through, solve problems, and adapt to changes. For kids on the autism spectrum, this process might be slippery, which makes it all the more important.

This post was originally some rough notes from the first of several online trainings on Dynamic Intelligence, “Training a Captain, Not a Deck Hand,” I watched on the RDI Operating System. They’d been recommended by our consultant, and they’re quite good.

This post has been in my drafts folder for ages. Today, I added a quote from a favorite blogger and apparently I hit “Publish” by accident. I realized my mistake when an on-line friend commented “Your first two paragraphs really pegged it for me.” They nailed it for me, too, but I want to make it clear I’m not the author.

The paragraphs were from Kyra. She’s one of my favorite bloggers, and I have often quoted her on my site, because she thinks and feels many of the same things I do but she articulates it so much better:

The need to feel competent is part of our program, our human program. We have a built-in drive to feel a sense of mastery, success. I think that’s the heart of what is challenging about having kids with special needs, especially in the area of social connection since it’s assumed all that comes naturally, give it time, they’ll grow out of it, just get out of their way!

When our kids don’t simply figure it out, when they aren’t able to *get it* through stories and charts and coaching, through osmosis and sheer determination, through games and treats and prayer and love and time, when we see them wince, rail, attack, feign indifference, withdraw–we feel pain. It’s a complicated pain and it’s a simple pain. We want for our children, for them, but we also want for ourselves, to feel successful, to feel competent, to be effectual at this thing called parenting, teaching, guiding our children in the world.

Our kids, who often amaze us with their creative, brilliant minds, often struggle with things people expect to be “easy” for them. They yearn to be capable, in terms of both social connections and being able to figure out everyday tasks and accomplish things. They know they are capable — even extraordinarily so — in many ways. Yet things often don’t click, and it crushes their spirits.

When I was a kid, I was sometimes yelled at when I couldn’t figure things out. For example, what should I do when the bread gets stuck in the toaster? What was I supposed to do next in a new or confusing situation? I was derided for being “helpless” or having “no common sense.” I was in my thirties before I ever really felt competent. Now I’m trying to get things right with my own kids, particularly the one who shares my “mild” Asperger’s. It’s a struggle.

Dr. Gutstein, the author of the RDI program, often talks about dynamic versus static abilities. I blogged about that here. When you follow a set of directions or a script, memorize material, or do a familiar activity, you’re using static skills. Dynamic abilities are required when there is no script, when you try following the directions and they don’t work, or when things suddenly change. You have to make quick decisions depending on a changing environment. You’re not just a soldier following orders. You’re a commanding officer, developing a strategy and changing it each step of the way as conditions change on the field.

Dynamic thinking skills are what enable us to take charge. They are typically difficult for kids with autism, Asperger’s, and non-verbal learning disability. I’ll give a very simple example of how this plays out in our everyday life. When I clean house, I don’t have a set plan to follow — I move around deciding what needs to be done and how. Sometimes one of my kids — when asked to clean — has looked me, asking “What should I clean up next? What now?” She’d get frustrated when I’d get irritable and say “Look around. See what needs to be done!” It was too overwhelming.

What do you do if you start baking a dish and realize you’re missing a few ingredients? If you are giving a planned talk to a group of people and, when you look out into the pool of faces, you see that everyone is bored out of their minds? If a project isn’t working out as planned? If your working out algebra problem #2 and you realize you can’t use the same procedure you used in #1? If you’re in the middle of a planned activity and your littlest confederate is exhausted and gearing up for a meltdown? All these things require dynamic thinking. You have assess the situation, change or chuck out the plan at a moment’s notice, then re-assess to see if the results are good, or at least sufficient unto the day.

Unless our kids are to be limited to the most menial jobs, they will need to develop dynamic thinking skills. We do this through guided participation, which I wrote about here. The point is not the end result — making the casserole or getting the dishes washed. The primary goal is facilitating the growth and development of the apprentice’s dynamic intelligence. It is, according the the webinar, “helping him learn to solve real world problems, conduct ongoing relationships, and negotiate the continually changing stream of life.”

For a child with autism or Asperger’s, this may not happen naturally or intuitively. We have to be purposeful about allowing a child to have opportunities for executive thinking and self responsibility. We need to develop, in Charlotte Mason’s words, the habit of attention — noticing these opportunities when they arise. We need to train ourselves to let the child solve a problem or make a decision, even when it would be easier to do it ourselves. Instead of jumping in and resolving it ourselves when she flounders or says “I don’t know,” we need to give her plenty of time to think.

Parents often fall into the trap of jumping in and taking over when a child has trouble. It’s tough to watch a kids perseverate in trying to fit too many blocks into one basket. Our instinct is to take over — “that’s not gonna work — here, I’ll fix it.” Or worse, we get frustrated, “What?!? Will you think about what you’re doing?” This makes the child anxious, which short-circuits any opportunity for learning.

Some Key Points About Dynamic Thinking Per the RDI Program:

  • The child needs to understand that he is a key part in decisions being made in each step in the process, and that each decision impacts what happens next.
  • You are always monitoring how something is going and repairing it if it isn’t working. Give your child enough time and space to notice what’s going wrong and generate solutions.
  • If necessary, you switch from plan a to plan b (or change plan a).
  • You’re always looking at what you’re doing to see if it’s good as it’s going to get.
  • When the child is not sure what happens next, “productive uncertainty” occurs. This is a fertile place for learning. He should not feel threatened by this uncertainty; anxiety interferes with learning. It needs to be challenging without provoking anxiety. This can be a delicate balance. We can facilitate this by making little changes in a routine. Then we gradually increase the amount of change. There is more information on productive uncertainty here.
  • At the moment of productive uncertainty, slow down, giving the child time to process what’s going on. Instead of explaining, let him look at your facial expression, then pause. Give him time to think.
  • Opportunities for developing dynamic thinking skills blossom when things go wrong! Look for “micro moments” when things go off course. When he asks “what do I do,” you might help him generate solutions but don’t tell him exactly how to solve the problem.
  • When things go off course, monitor your own reactions. Take a deep breath, and ask yourself “can this be a thinking opportunity?” WAIT and give your child time to evaluate the situation and make a decision.
  • Tune in to your child’s signs that she’s thinking. For example she might move around a lot, look away, or make a “thinking face.”
  • Use indirect rather than direct prompts. The webinar facilitator gave this example — suppose your child is carrying a large box. She reaches the door, and the box is too wide to fit through the door. If you say “put the box down,” he doesn’t do any thinking. He just follows a command. Instead, use an indirect prompt — “Gosh your hands are really full.” Then give him time to think.
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