Early Intervention Strategies for Success

Sharing What Works in Supporting Infants & Toddlers and the Families in Early Intervention

Early Intervention Strategies for Success, Tips, Insight and Support for EI Practitioners


If we think about the best way to make the biggest difference in a child’s development, it makes sense that we will be most effective by working through theGirl with Black Frame Glasses child’s most familiar people. Those familiar people, parents and caregivers, are the key to success. Positively impacting the child’s development is the reason for early intervention, and supporting parents’ learning and their interactions with their child are our methods. In order to be effective with our methods, understanding and applying adult learning principles is important because, to put it simply, adults learn differently from children. We are great at teaching babies, but how well do you understand how adults learn?

Adult Learning Principle #2: Linking New Learning to Prior Knowledge

As adults, we all learn best when we’re able to relate what we are learning to what we already know. This helps us expand our understanding, use tools we’ve already had success with, and cements those neural pathways. Like children, many adults like learning new things, but because we have more prior experience than children, we automatically try to link new information with our experiences and prior knowledge. We process information and are able to use it much easier when these links are made – much more efficiently than when we are just given new information without any connection to our prior knowledge.

How Can We Use This Principle??

Ask Questions & Observe to Explore the Parent’s Prior Knowledge – Rather than telling families what to do with their children (“stretch him at diaper changes” or “offer him choices at snacktime”), we can first ask “What have you already tried?” or “What do you know about…? or “Can I see how you…?” Not only does this begin the conversation with helping the parent reflect on what he/she already knows and does, it gives us information on which  to build intervention. It also helps build the parent’s confidence in his/her knowledge and abilities, which should be a goal of every EI interaction.

Build on What the Parent Knows – We don’t need to waste time suggesting strategies that the parent has tried and found to be ineffective. We can, however, spend time on a strategy that didn’t work to tweak it so that it will be effective.  We can work together to develop strategies that are more likely to be meaningful. By asking these questions, we also learn about how the parent thinks, what’s important to him/her, and where he/she would like to focus.

Plant New Knowledge in Long-term Memory – By using this principle, we are increasing the parent’s capacity to think about how to help the child. Rather than giving isolated strategies for a certain routine, that may or may not be useful to the parent, we are helping the parent sort through his/her parenting skills and build on them so that those skills are available in a variety of routines and situations. New learning then becomes embedded in the parent’s long term memory and is much more likely to be accessed again later when a similar opportunity to support the child’s development presents itself.

Consider Two Examples…

Think about these two examples of the same  family and interventionist:

Lindsay is a young mother whose son, Colby, was born prematurely. He’s finally home but is having trouble feeding. He’s also quite fussy and seems to be easily overwhelmed by stimulation in his environment. Stefan, an occupational therapist, is meeting Lindsay and Colby for his first visit.

Example #1: From reading Colby’s file, Stefan assumes that Lindsay will need a lot of support. When he arrives, he asks how they’re doing and Lindsay replies that Colby is doing well, except for being fussy sometimes and taking “forever” to feed. Stefan tells Lindsay about different techniques she could try to keep Colby calm, like limiting stimulation and swaddling. She tells him that she’s tried swaddling and Colby really doesn’t like it. When Colby cries because he’s hungry, Stefan asks if he can try to feed Colby. Lindsay watches as Stefan feeds him and sees that Colby eats better for Stefan, with less leaking of formula out of the corner of his mouth. She feels like she must be doing something wrong but doesn’t say anything. About halfway through, Stefan asks Lindsay if she wants to finish the feeding but she feels self-conscious and declines. After Colby is fed, Lindsay and Stefan talk about strategies that Stefan used and why they worked and Lindsay says that she will try them. After Stefan leaves, she tries them at the next feeding but doesn’t really understand what he did or how to do it. She feels defeated, wondering why other people can feed her son better than she can.

Example #2: From reading Colby’s file, Stefan assumes that Lindsay will need a lot of support. However, when he meets her, he finds her to be very capable. When he arrives, Stefan asks Lindsay to tell him about Colby, about what’s going well and what is challenging. Lindsey is concerned about Colby’s fussiness but she’s figured out that he calms when rocked with his arms tucked into his chest. Stefan asks Lindsay to tell her about feeding Colby, and she says that it takes about 45 min to feed him. Stefan asks if he can watch Lindsay feed Colby and see what she is doing and what she’s tried. She tells Stefan that she can’t talk during the feeding because this upsets Colby, so they sit in the quiet and Stefan watches. After about a two minutes, Lindsay stops and asks for help as Colby coughs and seems to be losing formula out of the corner of his mouth. Before giving a suggestion, Stefan asks Lindsay what she thinks the problem is. He also asks what she learned from the NICU staff about feeding Colby. Lindsay describes a technique for supporting Colby’s head and cheeks but says that she can’t “get the hang of it.” Stefan asks if he can see her try to use the technique, and together they problem-solve about how Lindsay can hold Colby and where to place her hands to support his head and neck. Trying the strategy with Stefan’s help reminds her of what the NICU nurse said about using her thumb and fingers to support Colby’s cheeks. She tries this strategy and finds that Colby eats more efficiently. She is proud of herself and of Colby and feels good about using this strategy after Stefan leaves.

So what do you think?

Which example shows Stefan using adult learning principle #2?  How did helping Lindsay access her prior knowledge help her? How did it help Stefan support her?

Which example more closely matches your practices? How can you apply this principle on your next intervention visit?

On your next visit, focus on finding out what the parent knows and then purposefully help the parent make the connection with what he or she is learning. Come back after your visit and let me know how it goes!

Don’t miss the rest of the posts in this series:

Adult Learning Principle #1: Making Intervention Immediately Relevant

Adult Learning Principle #3: Active Practice and Participation are Key!

Adult Learning Principle #4: Practicing Intervention Strategies in Real-Time

Adult Learning Principle #5: Feedback is How We Grow

2 comments on “Adult Learning Principle #2: Linking New Learning to Prior Knowledge

  • Michelle Lehman says:

    1. Example 2-With Stefan asking the mom about what she was taught in NICU, allowed the mom to recall the new skill, using her prior knowledge with a little encouragement. He supported her by asking What was tried, show me how, what is the problem to build that relationship between parent/provider and parent/child vs just provider/child with mom watch. HE worked at building that confidence in parent and the starting the “coach relationship”. They are working on that practicing skills into a routine.
    2. Combo of both with more towards example 2. Learn by asking more questions vs always jumping to the hands on part. Model and practice more. Working on the partnership and making it flow as nicely as it sounds while reading the examples.

    • Ha, great point, Michelle. The real world of EI doesn’t always flow as smoothly as in the scenarios you read about but with persistence, I hope you’ll see some of the same benefits of connecting to prior knowledge with the families you support.


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