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Helping Young Children to Learn New Skills: The Importance of Providing the Right Amount of Help

Children are continuously working towards learning and mastering new skills each day. This can occur during play with peers or adults, by watching others' actions, and through their own trial-and-error learning.

When a child needs some extra help to learn a new skill, it can be useful to know how much help they need, and importantly how to work towards reducing this as they master this skill.

Therapists working with children have long referred to a hierarchy of prompts - a "prompt" being the type of help provided, similar to a hint. Parents of children who have engaged in Early Start Denver Model (ESDM) early intervention may be familiar with this model.

A Psychologist will help to explain and demonstrate this method, and importantly, will focus on showing you how it can be used specifically with your child and the skill that they are working on. The following information provides a brief overview.

Hierarchy of Prompts

A visual representation of the Hierarchy of Prompts is shown to the right.

The higher/larger the segment, the greater the amount of help provided to the child via that type of prompt.

The main rule is that you provide only as much help as the child needs to complete the task.

Using the example of teaching a child to roll the ball back to their play partner:

- Full Physical Prompt: Adult places their hands over the child's hands and pushes the ball back to the play partner.

- Partial Physical Prompt: Adult taps the child's hand as a prompt ('hint') to push the ball back.

- Model: Adults ensures that the child is watching them, then demonstrates pushing the ball.

- Direct Verbal Prompt: Adult tells the child specifically what to do, e.g. "push the ball back to Tom with your hands" (adapt to the level of speech that the child can understand)

- Gesture: Adult points to the ball

- Indirect Verbal Prompt: Adult asks a question which makes the child think about what they need to do. E.g. "What do you do now?" or "What's next?"

- Independent: Child pushes the ball back to the play partner without needing any help/prompts.

As part of therapy, your child's Psychologist can help you to understand these steps and importantly how to apply them to your child and the particular skill that they are learning. This can include the Psychologist identifying which level of prompt (i.e. step in the hierarchy) they currently require, drafting a tailored hierarchy for your child, showing you how to practice providing these prompts at home, and how to progress towards independence.

Use of this model can be helpful for very young children learning play skills such as rolling a ball to-and-fro with a partner, through to older children learning daily living skills such as dressing themselves.

If you have any queries, please don't hesitate to contact us.

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