Don’t teach what you’ll have to unteach (or unlearn!)

I was chatting with my mother-in-law yesterday, and we were talking about my son when he was a baby. My son was (is) delayed in almost all areas, so standing and pulling to a stand were no different. During one of her visits, she taught him to pull himself to a stand and bounce. It was on our sofa, and he would stand on the seating part and hold on to the back of the couch. And bounce. And bounce and bounce and bounce. But he was a baby. And it was so cute. So we encouraged it.

And I was naively unaware that this was the earliest glimpse of stimming activity–he was seeking input.

Four years later, he’s still a bouncer and I posted about it recently. Four years later, he will still bounce on the sofa if allowed. And, since restaurant booths typically resemble sofas, he likes to bounce on them too. (Actually, now that I am updating this and he is now 11, he still bounces. We’ve upgraded to trampolines but he still will use the bed or couch if given the chance.)

I recently heard another special ed advocate say, “Don’t teach these kids what you’ll have to unteach!


It’s a concept that I had been grappling with in my brain, but she was able to label it for me. It was very much an “A-ha!” moment. Prior to that, I think it was the concept known as “I really wish he wouldn’t do that anymore” or “I really wish he didn’t still do that all the time.”

It takes my son so long to learn some skills, and I cannot assume that he will make the logical progressions. I cannot teach him skills that I will have to un-teach later.

When he was a baby, he did not show the normal curiosity that other kids show. We did not even have to really baby proof our house until our second son was born. He just was not even motivated or curious enough to get into things. One day, he did try to get into the cabinet under the sink (has safety latches) and was unable to. But he enjoyed the slamming noise it makes, even though he can only open it an inch or so. I was just so thrilled that finally he was showing some normal kid curiosity, that I allowed it, even encouraged it. And, you guessed it, four years later, he still likes to slam those cabinet doors. And now with a 4-year-old’s strength behind the slamming, it’s nothing short of annoying. (update: we have broken him of this habit!)

unlearn unteach

when your IEP team doesn’t see it this way

At his recent IEP meeting, we were discussing his non-verbal nature. I mentioned that occasionally he likes to scream. They are happy screams, mind you, but still ear-piercing screams. One of the team members present said, “Oh that’s ok, we’ll take what we can get. We’ll encourage it. Any verbal expression at this point is welcome.”

“No, I corrected her. No, it’s not. We cannot assume that my son will make  a progression from screaming happy screams to talking. And at almost five, this is really socially unacceptable behavior. A baby doing happy screams in a store is cute. A fourteen-year-old is not, and I must stop this behavior now.””

The old saying goes “You have to learn to walk before you can run” and I think it holds true. For most kids.

will he learn logical progressions?

But with our kids, we have to really evaluate progressions and what makes sense. While walking is a logical progression to running, I don’t think that screaming is a logical progression to talking. We cannot assume that our kids are going to be able to grasp broad concepts and apply them over multiple situations.

Sometimes each skill has to be it’s own separate entity. For the record, I’m not mad at my mother-in-law for teaching this. (I know she reads this blog.)

It’s just a very good example, one of many. Among some of the other things I am now un-teaching:

  • emptying our silverware drawer
  • the screaming
  • blowing raspberries and other fun spitting activities that were designed to increase his speech
  • signing for “more” after every bite of food

Yes, I want him to be able to express a desire for “more” in some capacity, but I’m not asking my 2-year-old to ask for more after every single bite, so why am I asking my other child to do this?

when therapists teach undesirable skills, unknowingly

His OT came and taped a big piece of paper to a section of our wall. Asked him to scribble on it and he did and we clapped and praised him. They both did. Later that day, I was in the shower and they found a pen and a crayon somewhere. And they both scribbled all over the wall–in the exact same spot where the big sheet of paper had been taped.

That same day, I brought up his Crayola easel from the basement and now we use that. While my younger child may someday be able to grasp that we don’t scribble on walls, my special needs child may not make that distinction–that there was a piece of paper taped to the wall. Now we only draw/scribble in two places–sitting at the table or at the easel. No more taping to walls or doing it as a floor activity. It’s very hard to get crayon off of hardwood floors, trust me.

Just something to think about and talk it over with your child’s teachers and therapists.

As I am updating this blog post, I am including some information from my friend and fellow special ed advocate Ron:
This is a major pet peeve of mine. It is hardest to get through to specialist who are trying to teach a specific skill, but use methods or materials that will have to be unlearned to relearn correctly in another setting.

The example I always use, is when teaching children with autism to identify their feelings they use charts with cartoon or smiley face type icons to help the child identify the emotion, but the cartoon or smiley faced icons are not what faces really look like when they make those emotions. There is a large amount of research on what faces look like when experiencing emotions. The child then has the task of learning to identify emotions in others, which is usually a weak point for children with autism, after learning what emotions look like in faces incorrectly. This makes a hard task much harder.

This is something that as a parent, or as an advocate, that falls into your purview. The teacher or therapist by their nature have short term goals, when that will interfere with a long a term goal, you must speak up and force them to teach outside of their comfort zone so your child can make greater gains long term. I am including a link to Paul Ekman Group to get an idea of the research done on facial recognition of emotions.

This post was originally published in the summer of 2011, updating to check links and information.

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