A 2010 study by Dr. Lynn Koegel and colleagues provided evidence that giving children choices related to their academic tasks improved several aspects of their performance. When given choices, the children initiated writing and math tasks more quickly, completed the tasks faster, decreased their disruptive behaviors, and demonstrated greater interest in the tasks.
At the Hussman Institute for Autism, this doesn’t come as a surprise. One of our guiding principles is to “follow the child’s lead.” By weaving a child’s preferences into learning activities, the child (or anyone) learns better. Paula Kluth, inclusion advocate and dear friend of the Hussman Institute, recommends the same idea in her book, “Just Give Him the Whale!”: 20 Ways to Use Fascinations, Areas of Expertise, and Strengths to Support Students with Autism.
Four children on the autism spectrum between ages 4 and 7 participated in this study. During baseline trials, an adult presented the child with a math or writing task and also determined the materials (e.g. pencil or marker) and location (e.g. floor or desk). If the child completed the task, the adult rewarded him with something he enjoyed (e.g. playing outside, cheerios). During the intervention period, the adult still presented the academic task, but gave the child options about materials and location. Additionally, the reward was related to the task. For example, if a child wrote “I like to play outside,” the reward was playing outside. If the child completed a math problem using pieces of a game, then she got to play the game.
Parents reported that their children’s behavior had been getting worse leading up to the study. Following that trend, all four children’s “latency,” or the amount of time between the adult presenting the task and the child beginning work, increased across the baseline trials. However, during intervention the children started their tasks almost immediately. The same pattern held (worsening across baseline trials, then a vast improvement during intervention) for rate of completion, disruptive behavior, and demonstrated interest as rated by an observer, for all four children. Data analysis found that the effect of intervention was statistically large for all children on every variable.
At least two weeks after the intervention, an adult who was unfamiliar with the study engaged with the children and presented them with a math or writing task. The results for all four variables, for all four children, held close to the results during the intervention period. None returned to baseline.
These results provide strong support for giving children choices as they learn. Not only did the children improve their academic performance, they also acted more interested in what they were learning. The authors point out that positive early learning experiences pave the way for future learning by creating a positive emotional association with academics and cementing the fundamental academic skills that more advanced academic tasks will require.
Additionally, the children all reduced their disruptive behavior during the intervention simply as a result of being given choices within their academic tasks. There was no need for a separate disruptive-behavior-reducing procedure, which leaves more time for children and teachers to spend on curricular content.
Giving a child choices is easy to implement, free, and could have many benefits. This research is promising for families and educators seeking ways to engage young children in academic tasks—whether they are on the autism spectrum or not.
Koegel L, Singh A & Koegel R. (2010). Improving motivation for academics in children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 40:1057-1066.
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