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


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  • Adult Learning Principle #4: Practicing Intervention Strategies in Real-Time(current)

Think about it. How did you learn to drive? Sure, you read the driving manual, went to a driver’s ed class, and you probably talked about driving a lot. Before getting behind the wheel, Driver's view of a dashboardyou’d observed people driving for years. Was reading, talking about the new skill, and observing someone doing it enough to prepare you for using what you learned? No way! You really learned to drive by getting behind the wheel and practicing it…with the real-time support of the (possibly terrified) adult in the passenger seat!

Keep this in mind: Adults learn and remember best when what they are learning is practiced in real-time and in the context in which the new knowledge or skill will be used.

You learned to drive by driving. Parents in early intervention (EI) are much more likely to learn and remember how to interact with their children in developmentally enhancing ways by doing it – by trying out strategies and problem-solving in real-time, during the activities that they do everyday. The adult who taught you to drive would’ve been minimally helpful sitting on the sidelines continuing to talk about what you should be doing. Same goes for an EI service provider. We’re going to be much more successful achieving the mission of early intervention, which is to enhance the family’s capacity to meet their child’s needs, when we get in there, ride beside the parent, and work together with the child.

How Can We Use This Principle?

Join In – Rather than just talking about family activities, ask if you can join them. Explain this principle and get the family’s permission to practice strategies in real-time. If the parent mentions an activity that doesn’t usually happen during the visit, plan to come when it happens next time.

Step Back – Be careful that your “joining in” doesn’t look like “taking over.” Step back, observe things usually work, then coach the parent to think about how to embed an intervention strategy in the activity. You will build the parent’s capacity much more successfully if she has a chance to think about what she’s doing first.

Model if you must – If the parent really needs to see you use the strategy first, that’s fine. Be sure to ask for permission to model and tell the parent what you are doing and what to watch for. Then step back and let her practice. Remember that a key to her learning is HER practicing, not just her watching you practice.

Make room for mistakes – Just like when I ran over a painter’s bucket and broke the fan under my dad’s station wagon when I was learning to drive (yes, that actually happened), give the parent permission to goof up. Making mistakes while practicing is normal and necessary. This also helps prepare the parent for having to adjust how she uses the strategy when you aren’t there. Believe me, I never ran over another bucket again.

Consider Two Examples:

Example #1: Jayne, Liam’s mother, describes how hard it is for her to get him dressed. Liam screams, twists and turns, and has even begun to run away when she mentions getting dressed. Some days, they both end up exhausted and in tears, and other days, they just don’t go anywhere because Jayne doesn’t want to fight the battle. Tristan, the occupational therapist, asks Jayne if she’s tried having Liam wear tagless clothing. When Jayne replies that all of Liam’s clothing is tagless, Tristan asks if she’s tried letting Liam dress himself. Jayne says that he’d probably just stay in his training pants all day. Tristan continues to make suggestions, but Jayne has either already tried them or doesn’t think they’ll work. When Tristan leaves, Jayne feels frustrated that she didn’t receive the help she’d hoped for.

Example #2: At the next visit, Tristan notices that Liam is just wearing his training pants so she asks Jayne how dressing went that morning. Jayne said it was a battle as usual and Liam won. Tristan asks if she can see what happens when Jayne tries to dress Liam. She tells Jayne that she hopes that they can work together to come up with some strategies that might make dressing a little easier. Jayne agrees but is nervous about what will happen. She asks Liam if he’s ready to get dressed and he runs away. She snatches him up and takes him, already struggling, to his bedroom. Jayne places Liam on his toddler bed and turns to get his clothes. He wiggles off the bed and runs away again. Tristan coaches Jayne to consider why Liam might be running away and what they could do differently to make this a more pleasant experience for him. By working together, they come up with ideas such as having the clothes ready on the bed before getting Liam and letting Liam stand on the floor to get dressed rather than having to lie down. Tristan also coaches Jayne in how make dressing playful. Tristan knows that Liam loves stories, so she suggests that Jayne try telling Liam a story while she dresses him. Tristan models how to let Liam chose his own clothing and help with putting it on. Jayne tries it too, letting Liam chose which pants to wear then telling him a funny story about how his feet are going on an adventure. Dressing takes longer than Jayne wants, but she’s able to get Liam dressed with no tears. Afterwards, Tristan and Jayne reflect on what happened, and Jayne identifies three strategies she will try during the week. When Tristan leaves, Jayne is still nervous about dressing Liam without help, but plans to try the strategies tonight when dressing Liam for bed.

It can be so easy for service providers to get in to the “Have you tried…?” habit, avoiding the real-time aspect of this adult learning principle. Using this principle really challenges us to release that habit and, instead, actively problem-solve with the parent in the moment. It’s a very different approach, and one that parents report to be so much more effective.

Seize the moment on your next visit to “get behind the wheel” with the parent and see what happens!

Which example resonates more with you?

Think about your last three visits and your own practices. Did you help the parent practice strategies in real time, in real contexts? If not, why not?

Do you have a great example of successfully joining a real-time activity to help the parent and child learn? Share it below!

For more info on adult learning principles, check out these other two posts:

Adult Learning Principle #1: Making Intervention Immediately Relevant

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

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

Adult Learning Principle #5: Feedback is How We Grow

6 comments on “Adult Learning Principle #4: Practicing Intervention Strategies in Real-Time

  • Cori Hill says:

    Boy this brought some memories of my driver ed days. I seemed to have A LOT of trouble backing up. Yep, I crashed into an 18 wheeler in the school’s driver ed car. Good thing those driver ed cars are old sheriff cars made like tanks!

    The thing was, my driver’s ed teacher NEVER asked me what I knew about backing up or whether I’d ever even tried it. He assumed that my driver’s ed course prepped me enough to be qualified to be behind the wheel at all.

    When I look at Example #2 it is just so easy to say, “Yes, that’s the one.” Putting this in place when you are actually with a family requires ‘thinking on your feet’ but if you see the process as a shared problem-solving collaboration with the mother it makes it less-intimidating to try to implement.

    • Yikes, Cori, that sounds like quite a driver’s ed adventure! My fond memory of the driver’s ed car was the power steering and brakes going out as I was attempting to back up. My partner and I almost rolled backwards down a hill. So fun!

      I agree that it’s often easy to spot the best practice example when we read it. What’s harder is to reflect on which example better mirrors our practice, than taking that reflection and using it to improve the support we provide. Adult learners are self-directed – meaning that we, like parents, need to take the initiative to apply new knowledge to our lives. It’s not always easy, like you said, and starting by reframing the process and your role with families is a great place to start.

  • michelle says:

    I did not learn to drive until I was in my 20’s. I bought a old VW Bug with no heat and standard to boot, not a clue how to operate the car. I had a friend who took me to a parking lot to practice and after a few times, I went and got my license, how I pass I have no idea. It took the longest time for me to figure how to back up and parallel park. To this day, I will not parallel park I have not overcome this frustrating part of driving.

    • That’s a funny story, Michelle! I learned to drive on a family truckster – a big white station wagon like the one from the old Vacation movies. I did learn to parallel park – and I figure if I could parallel park that thing, I can parallel park anything! 🙂

  • Michelle says:

    #2-though I reflect and hear me asking, Have you tried…With using Zoom, you are put more in the moment that the child is in and having to go with the flow versus using planned tasks/ideas- for the most part positive sessions.

    I have not had any active B-3 sessions.

    • I think most EI practitioners jump to “Have you tried…” – me included. A trick can be to change the question to “So what kinds of things have you already tried to help your child learn to…” That way, you learn what they’ve tried first before jumping in with suggestions. Being in the moment with the parent and being face to face through zoom can actually make facilitating some of these reflective conversations easier.


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