Time to Talk: The Importance of Applying Reason & Scaling Problems

Barriers to Learning: Part 1

LEGO exercises can be a path to reason. Certainly calming.

This week I’m thinking about my students and how they’ll function in the world. Will they have the social skills to keep a job? (Social skills are a stronger predictor of job success than the ability to do the job.) Will they have the skills to be available for learning while in school? Although I often feel overwhelmed and powerless about the state of the world, I am very thankful to have skills and materials that can address barriers to learning for my students. At least, in my little corner of the world, I can start them on the right path. One parent described my job as teaching her child how to think.

For many of my students, their behavior at school and home is their biggest barrier to learning and to having successful futures. Although this is partly the realm of a psychologist, or a trained ABA practitioner, as a speech-language pathologist (SLP), I am the expert for social communication. I am the teacher who helps them discover what is expected in a situation and what is unexpected and that there are consequences to the choices we make and the ways we communicate.

I almost always start by teaching kids the concepts of “how big is my problem” and “how big is my reaction.” Using a 1-5 scale for each (1 being small and 5 being huge), they learn, then practice rating how big a problem is. The reaction to the problem should match the intensity of the problem; or even better, be below the number of the problem. When someone annoys you, the mature reaction is to hardly react, so the annoying person will leave you alone. We all know what happens if you angrily tell them they are annoying. Things escalate and people say things they later regret. The 5-point scale gives us a framework to think about our problems and our reactions.

What I enjoy when I teach these techniques is watching the lightbulb go off inside the students’ heads. They never thought that a problem could be anything but a 5! That’s usually how they rate my first examples. But, slowly they learn to use their reasoning power and are very pleased to rate problems correctly. This is not an exact science, so we process all the exceptions, as well as what is most typical.

Here is a teacher resource about the ratings for use in the classroom: Behavioral Interventions and Strategies Series: How Big is the Problem? How Big is My Reaction?; and an application to the workplace: How Big is My Problem? A Lesson from Elementary School.

After introducing a scale, many kids spontaneously start to tell me about a problem by including the number. (“I had a number 3 problem just now.”) They delight in their new reasoning ability. They now have an alternative to purely reacting to everything that happens in their life. We may start to talk about how emotions turn off our reasoning and that we must consciously calm down so we can think again. My young kids are able to identify that playing with LEGOs help them calm down (therefore, they need a place provided where they can play with LEGOs when emotions run high) and older kids can learn to take 5 deep breaths to get calm enough to think.

To reinforce their learning, and to help them understand how others are impacted by their choices, I use the game “Should I or Shouldn’t I? What Would Others Think?” by Dominique Baudry. There are 2 versions: elementary and middle school/high school. Players pick and read a card with a scenario. We all get voting cards that correspond to a rating scale for how others feel in the scenario. We each put the rating card face down and on the count of 3, we turn them over. Then we discuss why we voted the number we chose. Our discussions are wonderful and insightful.

Should I or Shouldn’t I? What Would Others Think? games are available in an Elementary School Edition and Middle/High School Edition.

Lastly, for kids with transition problems, I play music and they dance as crazily as they want; then I turn it off and have them sit quietly while I check that their muscles are relaxed by lifting and dropping arms, check if mouths are slightly open, etc. Then the music goes back on and we repeat the sequence. In this way, they learn to take charge of the state their bodies are in when they transition from outside play, etc.

Next month, I will talk about social maps and making comics to reinforce social skills.

Photo credit: (cc) Eric Peacock]


Kathy Puckett

Kathy is a private practice speech-language pathologist living in Shelburne, MA and the author of our monthly speech and language column, Time to Talk. Living in Western Massachusetts since 1970, she raised two children here and has two grandsons, ages 15 and 8 years old. She has worked as an SLP with people of all ages for the last 14 years. She runs social thinking skill groups and often works with teens. As a professional artist, she has a unique and creative approach to her practice. She loves technology, neurology, gardening, orchids, and photography. She uses an iPad for therapies. She grows 500 orchids and moderates her own forum for orchid growers (Crazy Orchid Lady). Kathy is dedicated to the families of her private practice, and offers practical, creative ideas to parents. She blogs about communication at kathypuckett.com.

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