Generalization of New Skills to Different Environments

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By Aya Ninomiya

When teaching a child, we typically begin teaching the skill in a therapeutic or school setting. Generalization occurs when a child transfers skills they have learned in one environment (e.g., classroom, speech-room, etc.) to a new environment (e.g., home) and vice versa. Think about when you first taught your child manners. Initially, they may use manners at home with you, but not elsewhere (e.g., school). Generalization occurs after a child has mastered a skill in one environment and is able to use it in another context.

“Why can’t they do that at school? They seem fine at home!” 

Parents have said this to me time and time again with dismay and confusion. Who can blame them? They’ve witnessed their child being successful at home so why are they struggling in school? It is important to remember that when a child is presenting with a learning disability or developmental delay, there can be a disconnect between what a child can do in one environment but not in another. 

“What is going wrong?”

Teachers and classroom assistants may ask this in response to trying different ways of prompting a child to execute a task they worked on in therapy and now needs to do in the classroom setting.

With the premise that both home and school are safe environments, it can be extremely frustrating to see inconsistencies in a child’s performance. A child may not generalize a skill to a different environment for a variety of reasons. However, proper emotional and social support often helps a child feel more comfortable attempting a skill learned in the therapeutic environment in a different setting (e.g., school).

School-aged children live in two different worlds — their home and school. And for the globally mobile child, their two worlds are often changing. This blog explains the importance of building a home-school connection.

In order to generalize a new skill, the child must either master the skill with their therapist or teacher before attempting in a different setting or develop a plan to help the child transition and use the skill to another environment. *Note expecting the child to make this transition alone is an unreasonable expectation for a student with special needs. 

Let’s compare to adulthood. We also experience difficulty generalizing new skills in new environments. Think about learning a new language in the safety of a classroom versus walking into a restaurant and ordering food in a foreign language. How about learning a new exercise with a professional trainer and then trying it alone at home. Our insecurities begin to bubble up. We know it takes time to adjust to new phases and different environments. For children, the generalizing or transferring of new skills to a new setting can be equally and, in most cases, even more challenging. 

Baby steps towards generalization

Let’s look back to your child’s days as an infant and/or toddler. What are some of the first things that we learn as infants (4 weeks to 12 months) and toddlers (12 to 24 months) that need to be generalized/transferred to other settings?

  • making eye contact with mom while being breastfed versus while sitting in a moving stroller — differences in body positioning, environment, sensory input
  • taking naps at home versus grandma and grandpa’s house — differences in noise, smells and visuals
  • playing with mom versus dad — differences in voices, the way she’s being held, the activity chosen

Many babies seem unphased by these little changes and settle quickly and smoothly. On the other hand, some babies need more time and soothing to make sense of and settle with different circumstances. 

As infants and toddlers become preschoolers (2 to 5 years), there are independent tasks and more mature relationships to transfer in preparation for a school setting:

  • going to the bathroom outside of the home — differences in setup, noise, smells, social and emotional needs
  • eating school food  — differences in flavors, smells, level of noise, attention keeping
  • spending the day outside of the home — differences in emotional stress, order of routine, wait time, scheduled breaks, frequency of unexpected events

When challenges are kept predictable, it allows the child to build confidence and sparks growth. This often helps children adjust to new experiences in life. For example, predictable homes with healthy routines help children feel secure in the world. 

But, some children do not immediately thrive in new environments. Imagine a child with a language disorder who does not understand the demands of the classroom. It can be overwhelming. One can imagine for a child who stutters, entering unfamiliar settings can be very upsetting and/or anxiety-provoking. Imagine the child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) whose school just transitioned to distance learning. His/her school routine has been ripped out from under them. The skills that child with ASD used routinely at school may not generalize/transfer to the home. 

Some children do not immediately settle into school routines. When presented with unexpected circumstances and situations, some children truly struggle with adapting to a new classroom or teacher. They can also experience difficulty with transferring a skill to a new environment. 

Evaluating the child’s generalization of skills before starting at a new school

It is common for children in kindergarten through grade 2 to receive additional support settling into their expanding social world. It’s up to the trusted adults to set a child up for success, so let’s see if your child might benefit from a school counselor or other appropriate school staff. 

  1. What sort of skills is the child able to generalize? What strategies do they use to be successful?
    • Sometimes it’s as little as a note on their sandwich that reminds them to hand in a permission slip. Or an alarm set on their phone after school to start their homework.
  1. What are the factors that are in the way of the child from achieving this specific target goal? 
    • It could be a missing gesture that a teacher used last year to do to remind them to raise their hand before speaking. Or being out of routine after a long break. 
  1. What level of support does your child require at school?
    • Depending on the child’s cognitive and emotional capacity, the level of support will vary. The range of levels of support should be consistent with recommendations set by different therapists, teachers, and classroom assistants. This way, we gain insight into the level of support a child may need to be successful while attempting a new skill in a different setting. 

5 strategies to help your child transfer skills into the classroom

Preparing a plan helps set everyone up for success — the child, family, teachers, and therapists. By creating a routine of ‘bringing skills home or school’, the child will start to bridge the two environments with more comfort, safety, and security.

Here are 5 strategies to get you started:

  1. The teacher and classroom assistant verbalize thinking skills to improve self-reliance for the child (“hm how did I practice with Erin” “I need to…”) — triggers the child to pause, recall and execute strategy
  2. Take a video of a ‘successful’ try at home and share this with the teacher. When appropriate, have the teacher review it with the child to get on the same page. Teachers often understand the recommended prompts better in a video than in writing.
  3. Make sure to email teachers and classroom assistants beforehand with the correct strategy so that they are using the correct prompts with your child.
  4. Roleplay different circumstances that might come up in the classroom to help a child create mental images of events that could arise unexpectedly.
  5. Follow up with your child and teacher about how the strategy is going. Being proactive helps to make the teacher feel supported too.

You can always reach out to your therapist to brainstorm alternatives if strategies aren’t sticking or working where it matters most — at home and school where they learn and play.

Always remember, your child is doing the best they can with the knowledge they have at the time!

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