In the fall of 2003 I broke my neck on a trampoline. (That sounds dramatic, I know, but isn’t uncommon in gymnastics). To heal, I began to study with a woman who specialized in working with kids with autism.
While her work focused on helping parents help their special needs children, I found it also helped me with my injury. Pretty soon, I too began working with autistic kids and traveling around the world to teach parents how to help their children flourish. In the process, I became a student of how different variables create a supportive learning environment for these children and families.
Even more than the rest of us, kids with autism respond to their environment – to the emotions of the people around them and the situations they are in. They don’t respond to pressure.
Learning is a vulnerable process that requires that we try new and uncomfortable things. But just like any other skill, you can get better at learning with practice. Today I want to share how to create an ideal learning environment. While most of us don’t require ideal conditions for learning, these tools are applicable everywhere.
Attention – paying attention to what is happening while it is going on
I found that kids’ attention was the deciding factor in their ability to learn. What we attend to, we make bigger, and this single notion is the bedrock for learning.
We live in a world where everyone, and everything, is vying for our time and attention. Advertisements, social media, push notifications all interrupt our focus for their own agendas.
Practice channeling your attention – whether for a few minutes or a few hours. Direct your attention to the things you are most interested in improving. The more concentrated attention you can bring, the faster you’ll be able to learn.
Slow – “Slow is Smooth and Smooth is Fast”
Moshe Feldenkrais, founder of the somatic discipline the Feldenkrais Method, said, “Fast, we can only do what we already know.” Learning demands that we stretch outside our comfort zones, and that is much harder under pressure, urgency, or force. Learning benefits from spaciousness and safety.
While it is counter-intuitive in today’s fast-moving world, slowing down is the best way to get faster. A similar idea comes from the Navy SEALS: “Slow is Smooth and Smooth is Fast.” Moving slowly means moving with intention and attention; it reduces the risk of making the kinds of mistakes that then would take more time to undo and correct.
Consider how you’d approach a skittish horse or a nervous child. The best way isn’t with force or aggression, it’s instead to approach gently and from the side. To move your hand slowly towards the horse’s muzzle or ask the child, in a quiet tone, how their day has gone.
In slowing down you are better able to absorb and make sense of novel information. You’ll create better conditions for learning and deeper integration.
Variation – playing with the variety of options available
When I was in university, I studied the impacts of variable practice. Here’s how it works:
You and I are on a basketball court, taking turns shooting hoops. You shoot from the free throw line while I shoot from all over the court. In effect, you are learning to shoot free throws – and only free throws – while I’m learning to shoot baskets.
Assuming we are starting from a similar baseline, your free throws will outperform mine during this practice period. You are shooting from a single location while I am shooting from all over, so you get more practice at the specific task.
But when we test at the end of the trial period – even as little as 30 minutes later – I have better performance. My performance is still better several days later, and from a variety of conditions around the court. Practicing with variation results in more learning.
This concept extends beyond the basketball court. When you are feeling stuck, try variations around the edges of what you can currently do to learn more thoroughly. Approaching the problem from a different angle offers the opportunity for more connections and perspectives.
Enthusiasm – enjoy the process
During the years I worked with autistic kids, I often attended training programs for parents of special needs children.
One day at a workshop, I walked into the dinning hall to see my friend Stan in the center of a circle of attentive parents. As I walked up, Stan paused what he was talking about and asked: “Robin, why did you come up?” I responded that I was curious what was going on.
Stan explained that he was being enthusiastic deliberately, so that the parents in the room would be excited to learn from him. He went on to share that this was what each of us needed to do to create the conditions for success and learning for the children in our lives.
It worked: when I was engaged, excited, and energetic, the kids I worked with were more engaged with me and our shared activities.
Even when you aren’t trying to teach or inspire someone else, you can be deliberately enthusiastic about what you’re learning. Excitement reinforces positive feelings about the process, which, as I’ve discussed in this essay about celebration, is a great way to incentivize behavior change.
Flexible Goals – be flexible in how you define “success,” especially during the learning process
Goals are great. They give you direction and motivation. But your goals need to be reevaluated regularly because every step you take provides more information about whether that goal is realistic or even worth your effort.
Most often, you are learning something new with a clear objective in mind. I worked with kids with autism to help them function more effectively. You practice shooting basketball with the goal of making baskets. We practice for the outcomes that practice gets us.
But if the metric of success is too narrow, it sets us up for a win/lose binary. Instead, working towards a goal is ultimately about practicing the skill of learning.
Growth is a vulnerable process. Take the pressure off and you’re better able to absorb new information!
I’ve long since recovered from my trampoline injury, and the years of working with autistic kids are also behind me. But when I’m feeling stuck or not learning as fast as I want, I incorporate more enthusiasm, flexible goals or variation into my daily practice. I invite you to do the same.