Early Intervention Strategies for Success

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  • Creating Cognitive Dissonance as a Learning Strategy(current)
Sign: Theory Into Practice

We all have times when we leave visits feeling like it went great because we were able to successfully engage the caregiver. Other times, we leave visits feeling defeated and wondering what we could have done differently or if the caregiver may not be completely on board with early intervention yet. Honestly, there are a multitude of reasons we make this assumption and it may be far from the truth. Maybe we need to listen better, build a stronger rapport, or simply do a better job providing information by being more intentional and reflective with the caregiver about his or her beliefs and interactions with the child. Caregivers are equipped with their own knowledge and expectations of the world (and early intervention) and we have to respect that as we provide support. With that said, we also want to help caregivers learn so that they can use intervention strategies successfully with their children. This can be a careful dance.

Creating Cognitive Dissonance

This is where we bring in our secret weapon as we help caregivers reflect on (and possibly change) how they promote their child’s development. One strategy we can use to facilitate this reflection is called creating cognitive dissonance.

Learn more about cognitive dissonance. The article states:

“According to cognitive dissonance theory, there is a tendency for individuals to seek consistency among their cognitions (i.e., beliefs, opinions). When there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviors (dissonance), something must change to eliminate the dissonance. In the case of a discrepancy between attitudes and behavior, it is most likely that the attitude will change to accommodate the behavior.”

In other words, cognitive dissonance creates a conflict in your brain where you engage in a behavior that does not reflect your actual beliefs. When people are in a state of cognitive dissonance, there is an urge to resolve the conflict. This happens quite frequently when people are faced with making decisions.

How You Can Create Cognitive Dissonance to Help Caregivers Learn

Let’s visit Natasha to see how she implements this strategy in practice. 

Natasha provides services to Christine (mother) and Sebastian (father) and their two-year-old, Isaiah. Isaiah has very few words. He tends to get frustrated frequently which really upsets his parents. Isaiah’s parents have both have expressed the stress it places on them as a family. Natasha has observed Isaiah becoming emotionally overwhelmed when he wants to communicate a message to his parents, but they do not understand him. 

Natasha has approached Christine and Sebastian about using sign language. When she brought it up initially, they were adamant against sign language because they want him talking. Natasha wanted to discuss using sign language again, but decided to be more intentional and reflective with Christine and Sebastian. Here is how the conversation went:

Natasha: How are Isaiah’s tantrums today?

Christine: It has been really bad. I know he is trying to tell me something, but it takes me so long to figure out what he wants. By the time I do, he has already spiraled out of control. 

Sebastian: Today, he wanted more cereal and we thought he wanted a drink. 

Natasha: What do you think is causing these outbursts?

Christine: It is definitely when we do not understand. When I can figure it out right away, he is fine. 

Sebastian: It is like he is frustrated when he cannot talk.

Natasha: Tell me if I understand you correctly. He is getting frustrated when you do not understand him.

Christine and Sebastian (simultaneously): Yes!

Natasha: I wonder what we can do to help eliminate some of that frustration while he is building his vocabulary.

Sebastian: I am not sure anymore.

Natasha: I know previously, we talked about using some signs and you were not sure if it would help. Sign language can be a bridge to using words. It is used as a strategy to help reduce frustration so you can understand what Isaiah wants and model the appropriate words. I want to be clear, though, that sign language is always used with words. Once Isaiah is confident using his words, he will stop using the signs because he will replace them with words. It sounds like you really want to reduce his frustration (parent belief?). What would you think about trying a couple signs and seeing how it goes (behavior)?

Christine (pausing in thought): …..I do want to help Isaiah learn to talk. 

Sebastian: I guess we were worried he would never talk and only sign. 

Christine: I see what you are saying. I think we can try sign language if it will help him.

Natasha: It is something to try. If it does not help, we can try something else.

I am sure many of you have encountered a situation like this. Natasha created cognitive dissonance in her discussion with Christine and Sebastian by having them reflect on their beliefs versus behavior. When we create cognitive dissonance, caregivers must reflect on their beliefs and decide whether or not they will change their behavior. 

What are some other situations where creating cognitive dissonance may be helpful?

Add your ideas in the comments below!

9 comments on “Creating Cognitive Dissonance as a Learning Strategy

  • Yvonnie says:

    I think I use this type of situation with picky eating and problem feeding, although I didn’t know it was called cognitive dissonance. Sometimes, when working with a family to help them introduce a wide range of tastes and textures to their toddler, They may say “I don’t like XYZ foods, so she/he probably has her/his own preferences and they are less enthusiastic about being flexible with the foods they offer their child and when they offer them, for example, lunch foods for breakfast or high flavor foods instead of bland cereals. While the child may have preferences, there is still time to adapt their child’s preferences.

    • Lisa Terry says:

      Yes, Yvonnie. This is a fantastic example that occurs. Parents want their children to eat a good variety of food items (belief). When they reflect on the limited choices they offer at meals (behavior), they may decide to change their behavior by introducing a new food item to match their belief. I am sure there are so many more examples that arise. Thank you.

  • Sarah Kim says:

    I work with a family who has a two-year-old. Mom wishes to wean the child from the bottle but gives in if he cries for too long. This to me is cognitive dissonance, because mom is enabling the child to do the very behavior, she does not want him to do. I understand that there is a social-emotional relationship tied to breaking this habit as it provides comfort and sensory regulation through sucking/mouthing for the child. Therefore, it is conflicting for mom when she sees her son crying and in need. I understand that is a natural instinct for most parents to soothe their child when they are upset, which is why we have been problem solving alternatives that provide the same sensory input, but may be more age appropriate (in society). It is still a work in progress, but it is “baby steps” in the right direction!

    • Great observation, Sarah. I wonder if the bottle feeding routine could also provide comfort for the mother (and closeness if she feeds the child on her lap), which might also contribute to the dissonance you see? Or, making the transition could be challenging right now in the midst of the stress families are feeling with the pandemic. Hearing her two year old cry might be especially hard right now. Lots of variables to consider. It sounds like you are providing great support. Yes, baby steps are still progress!

    • Lisa Terry says:

      “Baby steps” are the many great joys of early interventionists. There are definitely so many dynamics that can surround a child being upset for an extended time. It sounds like this mother is responding to her maternal instinct to comfort her child. When understanding brain development and the importance of being responsive, she is doing a great job. She is battling the desire to wean her child off the bottle and her desire to comfort her distressed child. You are doing an excellent job reflecting with the mother to find alternatives to both. Discussing the family’s priority is something I have always found beneficial. I have found once it becomes a priority, there is more parental strength to overcome the battle when they are truly ready. The “baby steps” you are providing will help get to that moment. Hang in there.

  • Belkis Negron says:

    This is very helpful, as we move through the reflective process. It took me 3 sessions for a parent to realize that her baby’s continuous crying was not normal during her daily bath . She was convinced that her baby’s behavior was a normal fear of water. After some reflection, she realized that she herself was afraid of water, and was open to make some changes in her approach and behavior. She was willing to try some changes previously discussed. She was open to allow the baby’s father take turns with bathing her. The father tuned it into a playful and positive experience and changes began to happen.

    • Oh wow, what a great example of helping a parent get to a deeper level of thinking about herself and her baby! Thanks for sharing this, Belkis!

    • Lisa Terry says:

      This is a fantastic example of cognitive dissonance working overtime. If you are in this situation, do not feel defeated. Sometimes, it takes time. It can be 3 sessions like Belkis’ situation or more. This situation sounded like such a deeper reflection with the baby’s mom realizing her own fear of water. You are doing a great job. Thank you for sharing, Belkis!

  • Sarah Davis says:

    I really enjoyed this article and feel it could be helpful with any situation in which there are stigmas or resistance to certain aspects of strategies/tools/approaches to the variety of challenges we encounter in early intervention. Parents have SO much information (and even more opinions) surrounding them via the internet and social media – while much of it is helpful, a lot of it may or may not be accurate or applicable to their child/situation. Creating cognitive dissonance could enable me to help parents see that feelings/emotions/viewpoints might not be coming from the appropriate place or they may not be formed while looking from the viewpoint of their child and his/her needs. It’s a difficult reality to accept sometimes.


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