Helping Your Child Learn How to Learn

helping your child learn how to learn

We invited occupational therapist Trish Cauthon to the show to help you equip your young children for their two primary occupations—playing and learning. The field of occupational therapy encompasses multiple key areas such as: motor skills, sensory processing, emotional social skills, self-regulation, and executive functioning. Learn how long you can expect a child to pay attention to a cognitively challenging task. Get multiple suggestions for making learning more memorable so that it sticks. And find out if your expectations for your child are reasonable or not.

Listen to this podcast episode

Podcast Transcript

Janna Koch (00:36): Welcome to Homeschool Your Way. My name is Janna Koch, and I'm your host. Today, I am joined with Trish Cauthon. She is a COTA. Would you like to know what COTA stands for? I did too. COTA stands for Certified Occupational Therapist Assistant.

Janna Koch (00:51): We're going to delve into what that means and how that translates into your homeschool in just a moment. But before we get started, Trish, on Homeschool Your Way, we like to offer our listeners a life hack or homeschool hack. So what do you have for us today?

Trish Cauthon (01:07): My hack would be if you're working with your kiddo and they're feeling overwhelmed with how much work they have to do or when they're going to be done and “When do I get to move on?” I like to do a little organizational strategy: if they have five tasks to do, give them five cotton balls and a little cup or something to put them in. And when they're done with all their cotton balls, get a break, or give them a way to visualize short tasks. And when they get to complete them, because some kids have little difficulty regulating that sense of time.

Janna Koch (01:44): I would say some adults have difficulty with that as well. That might be a hack that gets used around my house a little bit more often. 

Trish Cauthon (01:51): There you go. Yeah.

Janna Koch (01:52): So, tell us, Trish, you are COTA, which we did explain is a Certified Occupational Therapist Assistant. What does that actually mean?

Trish Cauthon (02:01): Well, occupational therapy in general is, it's very broad, but essentially we help with many areas of an individual child all the way up to well infant, all the way to elderly.

Trish Cauthon (02:16): In this case with kids, we tend to focus on just helping kids achieve their highest potential. Look at areas like motor skills, social motor skills, how their hands work together, how their bodies feel. So sensory processing, basically, a lot of everything, but emotional social skills, executive functioning.

Trish Cauthon (02:42): So, pretty much any kiddo who might be struggling with a task, any of those areas that I already mentioned, helping to either modify or accommodate somehow for them to be as independent, as successful as they can be.

Janna Koch (02:59): So your profession ranges from infancy to geriatric. Why children for you specifically? What drew you to that?

Trish Cauthon (03:08): Boy. It was a long time ago. I had young children when I graduated and started in my career, and I think, I was just drawn to kiddos at the time. So I learned about schools and I did a school rotation when I was going through my training and just enjoyed seeing kids thrive and just have a special spot in my heart for kids with special needs. And, yeah, they're very special to me.

Janna Koch (03:38): So how long have you been doing this?

Trish Cauthon (03:41): 27 years.

Janna Koch (03:42): 27 years. All right. So, I think, that would qualify you definitely as an expert in this area. You've been in and out of the school districts. I know that you've worked in private practice. You have worked for companies. And so, you keep getting drawn back to this school-aged child, which I appreciate as a mother and as a homeschool parent. So, we're going to get into this idea of why children need what you can provide? Which is this occupational therapy. And then help parents maybe identify some of the issues that they might be seeing, but are unsure of what's causing it, how to fix it, or where to go to get help. And then, really overall, just giving parents permission to listen to their intuition. And if they think their child is in need of some assistance outside of what they are used to, or let's just say the norm, that there are definitely resources out there for parents to help their child, in your words, thrive. So let's get started.

Janna Koch (04:55): Let's talk about the early elementary years when we are explaining typical child development. We call them occupations, but really children don't have jobs. Although, I tell my children all the time that school is their job. If we think of school as a job and occupation for a child at this age, what are some of the things that they should be doing? What does that entail? This occupation of early elementary years?

Trish Cauthon (05:24): Starting at preschool when a kiddo first is their first experience, really socializing with other kids, different environment, maybe different locations, different to toys, different, just whole different setting. They're at that exploratory stage. And they're going to basically approach things from what we call kinesthetic. They approach most everything by doing and not necessarily watching. So, lots of hands-on time, lots of learning how to move, learning how to navigate, motor planning, things like that. A big part is socializing, learning how to share, learning all those social skills and just learning routines and what's expected of them and regulating their sensory systems so that they can tolerate time with other kiddos or time learning or time being expected to do it, do something other than just being able to free play on the floor.

Trish Cauthon (06:24): Most of it is play, but there are also some expectations when they're young that they have to navigate and learn how to listen to adult direction. Even sometimes that can be hard, especially if it's not your family members, which in homeschool case, it typically would be just a different than just general free play.

Janna Koch (06:44): I think that's a great distinction because as a parent, I didn't ever attempt to homeschool my children at this young age, but we are seeing more and more families come into the homeschool world and they're starting out at the preschool or the Pre-K level. BookShark does offer a curriculum at that age. But what I find interesting is most parents are surprised that it's less than 30 minutes of actual instruction. And so with what you're saying, that makes complete sense because when a child is free playing, there's no boundaries on what they can do, right? Outside of being safe. But when they're being instructed to play, even at preschool, a certain way, that is actually growing their brain in a different sense than if they are just making up the playing as they go along.

Trish Cauthon (07:32): Yes. And a general rule of thumb is, as far as how long you can expect your child to attend to something new, actually learning something new, is like a minute for their age. So, if they're five years old, you can attend, you can pretty much expect them to attend, actually learn, and actually grow from what they're learning for about five minutes. And then they need breaks. So lots and lots of breaks and it goes up through the ages.

Janna Koch (08:07): Yeah. So it's important for parents to come into this endeavor, when they're starting off, to have that expectation that they are not going to sit down for 30 minutes straight with their preschooler and try to instruct them in the different subjects. That they're really going to have to give it to them in bite-sized pieces. I mean, I know this sounds very basic, but again, as a parent who didn't homeschool at this age, I think, you don't really remember being this young, so you just assume, "Oh, well, as long as we sit down and get through the curriculum, we should be fine." But really they can only handle that three to four to five minutes at a time of what you're giving them. And so, what the curriculum offers in 30 minutes could very well take you four hours.

Trish Cauthon (08:54): Exactly. It should probably.

Janna Koch (08:56): ... to get you through that, but it's not all one sit down, get it done.

Trish Cauthon (09:03): Yes. Exactly.

Janna Koch (09:03): It is in small increments. Okay, good. All right, well, let's move up then. So you're saying at the Pre-K level, we're looking at a little bit more structured play, developing some abilities to work with others, dress independently with some of the things that you had mentioned in passing.

Janna Koch (09:22): So, when we move to elementary, so now your child may or may not be able to read independently, but is definitely able to process some independent thinking and have their own ideas of how things should be. So when we're looking at the occupation at this development, mental stage, what can we expect?

Trish Cauthon (09:46): A lot of the same getting used to structure is a big thing. So writing out task strips and helping themselves and helping your child to learn how to regulate their own self so that they can get their work done. The expectations can be pretty huge. A lot of motor continues like the motor development, gaze shifting. You're looking at a lot of things that are happening in the environment. And then you're gazing down at your paper and you're doing a lot more things with your hands, a lot more constructive, like crafts and learning in those ways. But even we were talking and I know you and I, were talking about even just taking a craft from start to finish or something hands-on that you have to make to think about what tools you're going to use. You got to gather your tools. You have to know how to use the tools and you have to know how to sequence and where do I start? Where do I go next? And if you get frustrated, what am I going to do? If I get frustrated, if I can't do something. So there's just so many, even just taking a simple hands-on craft of so many components to it. That is all part of a kiddo's occupation when they're in school and learning. And then you also have the noises and distractions. And it's a lot for little kiddos, and it can be overwhelming.

Janna Koch (11:17): I think it's interesting. And I would find that maybe a lot of parents would agree with me that you wouldn't consider at the second, even third grade, that they are still developmentally trying to figure out how to follow instruction and do the task. And so if parents are finding themselves frustrated, if you start at Pre-K or kindergarten, you're in almost your fifth year of homeschooling and your seven or eight-year-old is still struggling to collect the materials that are needed for the craft, to sit down and do it. But what I hear you saying is that maybe it's more our expectation of the child, that they're actually right on task of where they should be.

Trish Cauthon (12:05): Yeah. And that's part of just development. Yeah. It's learning. Adults are used to having executive functioning skills pretty much in place because we've been working on those, our entire lives. And we've learned from mistakes. And the more mistakes you make, the better you are the next time. Kiddos don't have a lot of mistakes yet, or they at least don't know how to recognize what to do if they make a mistake and what not to do next time. And it takes a lot of energy for kids to incorporate all of that and have it be functioning quickly, which is such a broad word but because typical is huge. It's a huge right word.

Janna Koch (12:52): So as a parent, I'm expecting that my daughter should be able to grab those things within a quick amount of time and I'm expecting her not to get distracted. And I'm expecting her to come back to where we started and be ready to move on to the next task. And 30 minutes later, I'm wondering where she's at, and I'm getting frustrated because to me in my adult mind, it seemed like I gave her simple tasks to do. But really, in her mind, there were distractions. And let's be honest, a lot of adults have this as well. We walk into one room for something, get distracted by something else and then can't remember why we came into the room in the first place. So those are just a normal functioning in a child's development that maybe could put us as parents to ease that there is really not necessarily anything wrong with your child. They're actually where they need to be. It's just our misunderstanding. The expectation of where they are.

Trish Cauthon (13:57): That's a very good way to word it.

Janna Koch (14:00): What are some ways that we can expect, help us have better expectations for this age group? So if we're talking kindergarten, first grade, let's take grades out of it and let's just talk ages. If we're talking like 6, 7, 8, 9. You've already said that we should expect only a minute for each year. So, really, even at nine, we shouldn't be going past nine minutes of instruction because they're going to be lost. It's not that they can't focus or literally they cannot focus beyond that point. So again, managing expectations on our end. What are some of the things that you can guide us as parents to help us understand some realistic expectations at this age?

Trish Cauthon (14:51): So, I guess, as far as that attention piece, I think, it's important to build in a lot of variety. And the nine-minute for a nine-year-old, basically, you want to give them built in breaks. And it doesn't have to be a get-up-and-go-play-for-20-minute break, but a break to just get up and move. Do some jumping jacks, get a drink of water, and then try to reconvene. Or maybe just talk about something else for a few minutes. Just give them that break. Hands-on breaks, movement breaks, are extremely important and need to be pretty frequent, I think.



Trish Cauthon (15:37): And especially, in order to keep your kiddo’s sensory system just ready to learn. And I think, that's even a piece everywhere. Public school has a horrible time with that because there's just so much to fit in the day. So kiddos, maybe they're attending, but they're not absorbing. And so, if they're overwhelmed, they're just going to shut down.

Janna Koch (17:19): Let's talk about this idea that children are learning how to learn. And that sounds fundamental. But again, I don't think as a homeschool parent in all these years, I've ever really sat down and thought about that. I've seen it. I've seen what works for one of my children does not work necessarily for another. Even my twins are a great example of that, but my youngest it's like, I just expect that she should be able to function to the point where her sisters are at now, forgetting that she's four years behind. And I don't know if I'm the only parent that struggles with that, but I feel like I've already done this one. So of course, somehow osmosis should have just taught the younger one what to do. I hear parents say a lot of the time, “What am I doing wrong?” That I explain a concept, especially in math, which is a very concrete subject. And then we come back to it the next day, and they have no idea what I'm talking about. So explain to parents what is happening in that process for their student. So, they heard it once and they seem to have grasped it. And then they come back the next day and it's like a blank slate.

Janna Koch (18:31): So what does a child have to do in order for that to stick for them? And I don't specifically mean, because there's obviously lots of different ways that can happen for different individuals, but what's happening in that process for them that maybe as a parent, if we understood that, we could give more grace to ourselves, but also our child.

Trish Cauthon (18:49): I would say a lot of that might be helped by learning what kind of learner your child is, because we all learn differently. There's the kinesthetic learner who needs to actually do. They need it to be shown to them, and then they have to do it. If they have not, they can think they've learned it in their mind, but if they haven't done it enough times, they're not going to retain it. They're not going to be able to spit it back out and show what they've learned. There's the auditory learners. There's visual. There's just ways that they learn. If we can tap into that and make sure they get that type of instruction, that's an accommodation that those sometimes learn how to do on their own. But sometimes they have to be actually taught that—taught how to learn, how they learn, and what they're going to need.

Trish Cauthon (19:50): A big part we work a lot with is motor memory. So, say with anything that needs to be done enough times, you have to do things certain amount of times. It's almost like learning a new habit, but when they're learning a math issue or math equation or handwriting or any of those things, if they're just talking or just hearing about doing it, but not actually doing it, they might truly have not learned it. If they haven't done it enough times repetitively over and over, unfortunately. And a lot of that's …there's so much distraction too.

Janna Koch (20:33): So is it safe to say for a parent who doesn't know how their child learns and obviously you can't ask your child how they learn, because they're going to look at you like you have three heads, would it be just a safe bet to try it three or four different ways? To say it, to demonstrate it, to have them do it for themselves? Would those be the main ones then?

Trish Cauthon (20:57): Yeah, mainly. And then, I think, it's important too. That's a great approach. And then if your child's struggling with any piece, and you recognize that they're struggling, rather than telling them what they should do differently, ask them a lot of questions like, "Okay. That didn't seem to have worked too well. What do you think you could do different next time?" And then have them process that rather than you telling them what you think they should do differently next time. I think that's super important for helping your kiddo learn how to help themselves and how to recognize next time like, "Wow. If that happens again, I might try this." You're helping them to think for themselves a little bit more… more independence.

Janna Koch (21:49): Yeah. I think it's interesting as toddlers, our children, are very pigheaded. They want to do it themselves. They think they can figure it out. And then all of a sudden we like that about our kids, right? Because, "Oh look, they're growing, they're learning." And then, at a certain point in education, we're irritated by that, that they want to do it their own way because we are used to our way. And so, we think they should do it our way because it just works and then it's not complicated. But I think in parenting, in general, we forget to ask our kids questions. I think we just make assumptions. And part of it is we've been there, we've done that. We think we know what we're talking about. And we're not always right, unfortunately. But so many times I will say to my girls, or they'll say to me, "We understand that you're speaking English, but we don't understand what you're saying."

Janna Koch (22:45): And so I'm thankful that they have the freedom to say that to me and frustrated at the same time, because the only language I know is English at this point. But I have to then ask them, "Okay. Are you asking me for help? Are you looking for more instruction? Are you talking out loud just to process your own thinking?" And so, instead of making assumptions that, "Oh, I'm going to jump in and help them" or "I'm going to jump in and fix it." No. I need to ask them the question because it is a learning process for both of us. Most homeschool parents are not classically trained educators. Doesn't disqualify them in any way, but it does a disservice if they're unwilling to learn as they go.

Janna Koch (23:38): And so, I just think that we need to keep an open mind and listen to professionals who want to help us understand maybe something that we just… it's not in our wheelhouse. I don't know how my kids learned when I brought them out of public school and started homeschooling them. And I didn't think I needed to know. I thought, “Well, I'm giving the instruction. They should be able to do it.” But in certain areas like math, I just … hasn't worked out that way. And so, we need to be willing to approach things differently with our kids if we really want them to succeed in learning. All right. Let's talk about the importance of the hands-on experience and practices. I know here at BooksShark, we say that we are literature-based. And so, a lot of people have the misconception that all we do is read all day long, and that is not true. Although, reading is very important. Scientific studies have been done that prove that children who are read to have higher literacy skills. We recognize the importance of having hands-on experiences. So what did those experiences do for children?

Trish Cauthon (24:47): That goes back to the kinesthetic learner. I know I've said that a few times, but most kids are kinesthetic learners. They just, I mean, kids move, they're designed to move and move a lot. And if you just watch your kiddos for a little bit, when they're younger, they want to move. And you're like, "Can you just not sit still? Why are you moving so much?" So, I think it's super important to think about even maybe just modifying and adjusting day-to-day or hour-to-hour: Where are we learning? What's the environment? Even down to lighting and the temperature in the air. So, recognizing that sensory system a little bit, especially younger, because kiddos can't recognize that when they're younger.

Trish Cauthon (25:39): As they get older, they tend to know a little bit more how to regulate their own sensory systems, but incorporating a lot of movement. And you can still do that literacy piece while you're moving or take frequent movement breaks. If you're … say you're learning, incorporate songs, if they're having trouble remembering. Those types of little strategies really help. If you're learning to write letters or write words, do it with your body. Make your body into that letter, make the letters or the words in tactile surfaces rather than just with paper and pencil. So lots of multi-sensory learning really helps with attention.

Janna Koch (26:20): Give me an example, give me an example of tactile. So, if I wanted to try to do some spelling words and we did it with paper and pencil and we're still at ground zero, what are some things that I can do in my home to convert that to tactile?

Trish Cauthon (26:32): Yeah. So many ways, just anything that they can do with their fingers, like putting shaving cream, sand trays, you can make a gel, fill baggies with actual hair gel or something similar and then tape it close. Have them write them on that. That's super fun for a lot of kiddos. Using different writing tools. They have markers that smell really good; kids absolutely love those, practicing that way. Whiteboards just, gosh, magna doodles, many ways. If you're just talking about writing… that type of thing, like spelling and even math equations, you could do a lot of manipulatives.

Trish Cauthon (27:21): Absolutely, super important, especially with counting and building. If you're doing a math equation, use marshmallows and stick toothpicks together and how many go together and take two away. And you're actually doing that with your body. You're removing, if you're just talking simple subtraction and addition. You're actually physically moving, taking something away and physically putting it back. And I mean, that's probably in the curriculum anyway, doing a lot of hands-on learning, especially if they're struggling.

Janna Koch (27:54): And these are such simple things that, I think, even in my homeschool experience, I mean we're sitting in the home, of course I could go grab a bag of dry beans and pull them out because even after a while, if your map comes with a manipulative kit, kids get bored. I mean, there really is some boredom there when it's the same thing over and over. So, switch it out with buttons that are colorful or those different ideas. This is why we homeschool so that we can do it creatively. But I think, confession time as a homeschool parent, I get so regimented that I forget that I can do it differently. I can get out of my own way and pull out the marshmallows. And who cares if she's eating them? Because she's equating that to a positive experience in a subject that she doesn't feel is positive in any way.

Janna Koch (28:48): So, you think about, "Well, when I went to school, they didn't let us have marshmallows when we did our math." No, maybe they should have, because I might have been better at math, right? I think, again, we get into this, we get back into the grooves of our own brain that say it works this way because this is how I did. And it worked for me, but really the whole point of homeschooling your way is to do it to whatever works for your child. Not that same systematic, rote way of learning.

Janna Koch (29:21): Trish has lots more helpful information to share with us. So join me on the next episode as I resume this discussion and we delve into executive functioning, what it takes for children to retain that last math lesson and how you can help your children become more successful. I look forward to sharing the rest of this interview next time on Homeschool Your Way. Until then. Bye.

second half


BookShark PreKBookShark PreK