Education, Discrete Trial Learning, Curriculum

Education, Discrete Trial Learning, Curriculum


For parents, caregivers, health care providers, and teachers, concerns and questions often arise regarding the care and well-being of individuals with Cornelia de Lange syndroom. 

At school my daughter has to be able to do a goal 3 times in order to say that she was successful on that goal. Example: she has to put an object in a jug three times. She will do it once and then turn her head or close her eyes. I think she is bored or probably her attention span is gone. Any suggestions?

Answer of our experts

It sounds as if your daughter's program is using what is called "discrete trial learning" as part of her curriculum. This type of teaching has done wonders for some children and has been ineffectual for others. In the hands of a skilled person, who implements the program but also is creative, watchful for signs of distress, adapts as appropriate, and makes it fun, the program has been helpful. In the hands of a person who is not skilled in doing this and just follows the strict program rules, there frequently have been unpleasant outcomes. One of the main problems with discrete trial learning, especially in the hands of a non-skilled team, is that the learning does not generalize beyond the session to other activities, places, or persons. Conversely, in the hands of a skilled person, generalization is slow but is more likely to occur.

Discrete trial learning is not for everyone. Sometimes it is used when a team does not know what else to do because it is a very structured training program. It originally was designed for children with autism and autistic-like behavior. As with any teaching approach, it has to be determined if it is appropriate for the individual child. There have been successes and rampant misuses of this method. Finally, although behaviorists consider this a learning/teaching program, it really is a training program. It requires only that the child respond to the directive  not question it.

Regarding your daughter it is unclear whether this approach is appropriate for her or if an adaptation of the approach would be appropriate. I would suggest that:

  1. turning her head away and closing her eyes is meaningful communication in regard to how she finds it.

2. you monitor to make sure her behavior during the lessons does not deteriorate to self-injury which I have seen with some of the children.

3. you observe HOW the training is actually implemented. Is it gentle teaching or is it aggressive and demanding  which we know does not work well with students who have CdLS.

MM/TK 7-13-10

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