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Early intervention

Mediated learning in early intervention

Albert Janssens, special teacher, lecturer and author of several books on learning and development, has several decades of experience with children, who are retarded, emotionally disturbed or show difficult behaviour. Promoting the mediational theories of Feuerstein and Pnina Klein amongst others, he has commented them in an easy-to-understand, very personal language for parents and professionals.
Mediated learning stimulates the exploration skills of the toddler by actively intervening (mediating). Caregivers enhance his capacity of perceiving his surroundings and learning from experiences by improving the quality of the interactions with the child.

In my view, mediated learning has not received much attention in the recent literature on Down syndrome, which has often favoured the dissemination of “programs” and “methods”, These may have their merits but they only benefit children’s development as instruments in the hands of a skilled and understanding educator.

Why do some professionals in the field of Down syndrome in Europe seem rather reticent when Feuerstein is mentioned? Could this be due to the fact that he stresses the modifiability of cognitive skills, where as many professionals still believe, that people with Down syndrome are generally not capable of higher cognitive performances? Or because they rather favour passive acceptance of a disability as opposed to an active modification approach? The instruments – paper and pencil exercises – developed by Feuerstein to improve learning skills seem rather “abstract” at first sight. I have, however, personally made the experience, that at least some youngsters with Down syndrome are better at them than some children with other developmental problems such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, perceptual or spatial problems. Moreover, it seems to increase their motivation, they loved doing them and their problem solving skills are positively influenced.

In Germany, prejudices and lack of knowledge about the techniques of cognitive modifiability promoted by Feuerstein seem to account for the refusal to use mediational intervention. It is sometimes considered a behaviouristic attempt at modifying the child’s behaviour through programmed training (stimulus-response exercises). Often responsibility for learning is placed entirely with the child and the role of the teacher as a facilitator is either underestimated or neglected.

Mediated Learning Experience (MLE) aims at improving basic learning skills – quite the opposite of stimulus-response learning – through scaffolding and self-scaffolding processes, this means, that learners are guided, and later guide themselves, through difficult learning tasks.
More efficient problem solving, self-regulation, increased self-confidence and autonomy are also the principal benefits of MISC (Mediational Intervention for Sensitizing Caregivers), mediated learning experiences in infancy and early childhood as suggested by Pnina Klein. It is equally useful to children with learning difficulties or high intelligence or even for adults. MISC especially focuses on the intentionality and reciprocity of interactions. The mother reads the child’s state, catches and holds its attention and invites specific responses. This adult-child interaction goes beyond (transcends) the needs of the present situation. It includes relevant information of similar, past and future situations. The child understands that it is fun and meaningful to learn. Through praise and encouragement it will feel more competent. By directing its perception and holding its attention the child is helped to regulate its behaviour (inhibit, plan or initiate its actions and reactions). Inner speech is encouraged as is the need to express oneself in an understandable way.

All these skills can be enhanced in infancy and will eventually lead to more autonomy and a better quality of life. Research shows that children taught using mediational teaching will be better able to develop their own thoughts and ideas, will be more excited about learning and better achievers over time. Mediational intervention focuses on developmental growth, stimulating an open, flexible mind and not on merely teaching specific subjects.

According to Janssens, the young child is an explorer, who by and by conquers the world and is entitled to security, guidance and support. The starting point for mediational teaching should be the unambiguous and explicit belief in the modifiability – i. e. the capacity for development in each child and be based on the quality of the interactions with the child.

“Each individual has the right to be surrounded by people who belief in him.”

Taking into account the individual capabilities and characteristics of the child, supporting his dreams and life projects, this all seems so obvious, and nevertheless, how much does our own educational style, our segregated teaching practice differ form these principals?

Vygotsky, Bruner, Piaget, developmental psychologists a. o., have laid the foundations for scaffolding and facilitating teaching styles through which the child accesses the next learning stage step by step, when its environment provides him with rich opportunities. Janssens agrees Greenspan with that the sense of safety and security is paramount to development and with Cuvelier he stresses the excellence of our interactions and relations with the people surrounding us.
Janssens’s books are only available in the Dutch, but they merit a translation as they provide parents and professionals with clear and easy-to-follow instructions on how to enhance the daily learning experiences of the child. Each chapter contains several tasks, through which the reader can experience how learning strategies and skills can be improved and how to “get a grip” on one’s own self-regulation.
The proposed educational style is neither a mere program nor does it consist of pure learning techniques. It is based on the most important element of any education or intervention: the quality of the exchange between the teacher and his pupil, which must be “mediational” and aim at “modifying” the child’s learning skills. Janssens expressly avoids mainly stressing cognitive skills in early childhood, and as advocated by Pnina Klien, he promotes multiple sensory experiences, who involve the entire persons.

In Janssens’s experience, caregivers all too often base their intervention on so called “brakes”, the deficits, faults and weaknesses, that hamper the child’s development. all too often, they place a ceiling on developmental growth and allocate it to a plateau, which will determine the nature of the subjects taught.
Of course, it is essential to analyse these problems, in order to give the child adequate support, but they are not the decisive elements of development. The child is basically a communicative being: it learns and lives through the exchange with its surroundings. We, the caregivers, are responsible for the quality of its exchange. If we want, the child to hear, then we must make sure it listens. If we want it to perceive and learn, we must capture its interest and maintain its attention.
Don’t we all remember the boring teacher who could not rouse us from our lethargy or the enthusiastic instructor, who taught us so many things we will never forget. This, of course, also applies to our own teaching style.
We should therefore observe the following principles:

If we want the child with Down syndrome to see, we must draw its attention and make it look. If we want it to listen, we must be sure that it hears properly (and that it can process the information). We must rouse its interest and motivation.
If we want to teach the child something, it must make sense and be of importance to its own life. In will then be motivated, understand and memorise.
This significance must be extended beyond the current situation. The child must recognize that the relevance of newly acquired knowledge in other situations.
It is of the utmost importance that the child should feel comfortable. Fear and lack of self-confidence make learning impossible. The child must also realise what it has achieved (Wow, I can do this!). Praise and reward alone, however necessary, will not suffice.
Breaking the task down into manageable steps, will help the child to recognise and internalise the situation. First, we have to know where the child “stands”, so the caregiver can guide it through each stage of the task and enable it to access the proximal learning step.
We must therefore carefully select, what we will teach as it will enhance The quality of the daily exchange and mediation by the educator. When selecting the subjects for mediation, we must be aware of our own cultural identity and the values we want to transmit.
And last but not least, it is paramount that the educator should believe that the next step will come! Believing in the developmental potential of every human being, will create opportunities for the child.

Janssens also encourages the parents to trust their own capacities as educational specialists. They know their child best as they follow and support it day by day on the road to adulthood, autonomy and self-fulfilment. Parents should also know, that they themselves can – and ought to – change their own behaviour, in order to respond to the special needs of their child.
Believing that new methods or materials will spare us the awkward necessity to modify our own attitudes, will lead to a deadlock. It will not yield realistic and rich learning experiences for the child.

What are the characteristics of valuable interactions and learning experiences?
During the workshop in the afternoon, Albert Janssens elaborated the main strategies of mediation, which are also proposed by Feuerstein (Instrumental Enrichment) and Pnina Klein (MISC).

Focussing – recruitment: is about capturing and maintaining the child’s attention, responding to its signals and inviting its reactions. Because of a slower maturation, joint attention and reciprocal responses are a problem with young children with Down syndrome, no matter whether they are hypo- or hyperactive.

Meaning – relevance: relating to past experiences or future cases in order that the child should recognise cause and effect. Through our own enthusiasm and appreciation it will realise it is fun to learn. Language is also essential. Calling things by their name and using verbal information will be of the utmost importance to enhance thinking and memory, to process information and make the child understand the social world. Without meaning or language the acquisition of knowledge is very limited.

Transcendence: the ability to surpass the present situation or needs may call for higher cognitive skills: information must be compared, categorised, relations must be found, new strategies must be developed. Daily routines such as bathing can thus include multisensory and verbal input, orientation in time and space etc.

Providing success and increasing feelings of competence: Failure will hamper the child’s future actions and activities and induce feelings of helplessness, which in turn will block thinking and memory. Failure may even badly affect its health. Guiding the child to succeed, pointing out what particular behaviour led to success, comparison with prior, less successful experiences, praise or nonverbal encouragement will motivate the child. It will soon feel secure enough take on new challenges and find tasks motivating in their own right.

Structuring – direction: Children can learn while performing daily routines e.g. dressing or laying the table, that it is worthwhile to plan and sequence our actions, to be precise and judge, whether the result is Ok. The caregiver must point out critical features of the task and enhance the need for precision in perception (as opposed to the sometimes fleeting perception in children with Down syndrome) and accuracy of performance. This strategy will be of the utmost support when the child will have to deal with academic subjects or solve complex problems.

Regulation of Behavior – Selfregulation: if experiences and events are structured and familiar as they occur according to a repeated sequence, the child will be more able to remember when to act or to control itself, to inhibit its response or to adapt its behaviour to the current demands. Through the promotion of socially acceptable behaviours, encouragement to ask for help or assistance or shifting the child’s attention and indicating alternative paths, the often noticed blockage of response in children with Down syndrome may be avoided.

From theory to practice
During the keynote speeches, Janssens himself, who was sitting in front of me, showed how mediational intervention works in a trivial situation. Little Laura was sitting next to him. She seemed not much impressed by the speakers, so she looked for something more interesting to do. She started to play with Janssens’s key ring, which she slipped over his little finger. After she had tried this for awhile, Janssens offered her his other fingers and even the big thumb to practice on. After she had mastered this, he crooked his fingers a little in turn – quite a puzzling challenge for little Laura. But she succeeded. Soon she will notice that you can slip an elastic band over few precious colours pencils, or hang up your coat on the hook and why not, that you need some kind of loop to tie your shoe laces. All this may take some time but it started with a simple finger game.

This is how Janssens put the principle of mediational intervention to practice:

The child feels at ease and wants to play – I take up its current interest and let it experiment and explore as it pleases – Then this experience is expanded through careful and sensitive guidance – The child feels happy as it understands and succeeds in a more challenging task –This feeling of success will encourage it to embark on new learning expeditions in similar situations.

To finish, Janssens exhorted his audience to remain curious and always to wonder about the world (How amazing!), to admire things (Isn’t this great!), to keep questioning life. We will then be sure to stay alert and to develop our own potential till old age. Our attitude will demonstrate to our child with Down syndrome, that timid little explorer, that learning is exiting.