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Four Essential Strategies for Learning

developed by Jan van Dijk

1. THE PLACE TO START: Develop Security and Attachment

Explanation: Security and Attachment through touch are essential for the cognitive tasks of object formation and symbol formation – which is the basis for formal communication, and communication is absolutely essential to learning.

Application: For therapists, prioritizing security and attachment means that you don’t “handle” a child with DB or “stimulate” him, you develop a relationship first. Instead of “knowing” what the child needs, or providing a treatment plan, you “experience with” the child and let things emerge between the two of you.

Strategy: Resonance Activities

Example: The child is banging on a drum with her hands, and the teacher joins in by banging on the drum with her hands. The child stops; the teacher stops. The child begins; the teacher begins. This leads to later imitation of action, which provides a foundation for learning concepts.

Resonance means we learn the child’s values and interests, and gain passage into personal relationship instead of imposing our own therapeutic agendas.

2. Establishing Near and Distant senses in relation to the world

Explanation: In van Dijk’s model, it is important to distinguish between “near” and “distant” senses when working with DB students who have difficulty communicating and learning.

Near” = touch, smell, taste
Movement, vibration, smell/taste: are “near” and accessible

“Distant”= hearing and vision
Language is “distant” for DB students

Just looking at the definitions of “near” and “distant” senses, it is clear that the DB student, due to deficits in both hearing and vision, may be at risk for problems with distant senses and the skills they inform

Application: When/if the student you work with seems “stuck” on the near senses (involved in a lot of body play, not seeking interaction), join her there, resonate, build up relationship, then try again to move out to the more distant skills of communicating with more generalizable forms (signaling, symbols)

Strategy: Using Co-Active movement strategies that foster Turn-Taking.

Co-active movement means that the teacher `joins-in' with the activity of the child, e.g. if the child wants to jump, the teacher jumps with him. Daily living activities, especially, give ample opportunity for doing things together (washing the face, brushing teeth, pulling on the socks, etc.). By adequate reaction to the child's co-operation, however minor this can be, an atmosphere of security and confidence will grow.

See: Supporting High Quality Interactions with Students who are Deafblind

Taking turns is fundamental to communication through language. I say something, you listen, then you say something. Then it’s my turn again. This is a very difficult skill for DB students who have trouble with communication.

"Children who are deafblind often require considerable time as they establish relationships with others and become comfortable in new environments….The ability of children with severe multiple disabilities to develop secure attachment and turn-taking social interactions may be threatened by multiple factors including: (a) time spent in intensive care units separated from their parents, (b) severe health problems which may have limited physical contact with caregivers, (c) low levels of arousal and an alert state that is not long enough for attachment to occur, (d) extremely elevated levels of arousal that lead to over-stimulation, (e) communicative cues that are atypical and difficult to read, and (f) limited ability to read caregiver cues (e.g., if vision is limited, the young child may not be able to imitate the social cues of his caregiver such as a smile and he may not know when he should take his turn in a social interaction)."

van Dijk, J., & Nelson, C. (2001). Child-guided strategies for assessing children who are deafblind or have multiple disabilities. Sint-Michielsgestel, the Netherlands: IvD/MTW, AapNootMuis.

To teach turn-taking, you can start by teaching SIGNALING.

Example: Use simple games in which there are clear roles for each person involved (a rocking game on your lap: child’s role is to rock and enjoy, therapist role is to initiate the movement. Once the child begins to process the rhythm of the movement and you’re confident that the movement is pleasurable, stop. Wait for the child to respond is some way to let you know wants the movement to start again. Accept any purposeful movement as a SIGNAL to continue. You can shape that original signal later. This kind of signaling tells you that the child a) understands your role in the interaction b) is willing to take responsibility for communicating what she wants.

3. Learning to Structure the World

Through an introduction of objects that come to represent activities (usually motor activities)

If you already do a motor routine with the student, try incorporating an object that could later become a symbol. When you do a ball workshop, have the child hold a koosh ball. The koosh ball later comes to mean “ball workout.”

Through “characterizing” activity by associating a natural gesture, a smell, a taste, a texture, word, symbol, etc. with it

"a) Characterizing strategies assist the learner to build a repertoire of communicative referents. By choosing a meaningful characteristic of a frequently encountered activity or entity, the teacher assists the learner to associate communicative meaning with events and things in the learner's world. Characterizing the learner's world is a way to talk about his/her world, structure his/her world, remember his/her world, and to anticipate what his/her world is about. People, animals and objects, events, time, and emotions can be characterized by the learner.

b) Encouraging the learner to realize and use a characteristic referent can be accomplished through (1) a natural gesture, (2) an associative object (objects of reference), (3) a smell, (4) a taste, (5) a texture, (6) a sound, (7) a picture (drawing), (8) a 3 dimensional model, and/or (9) a written, spoken, and or fingerspelled word. For example, characterizing the teacher by a pendent is possible if she consistently wears the same one, or characterizing orientation and mobility by the wrist watch the instructor consistently wears."

From Overview of the van Dijk Curricular Approach links to another website

Through learning to sequence things and remember the sequence

Use the motor activities, or the functional routines you have, to build awareness of the sequence of tasks. “Sabotage” that sequence once in a while (remove the toothpaste from the oral hygiene materials, take the ramp out of the obstacle course) - see how the student problem-solves to let you know something is amiss)

4. Developing “Natural Communication”


For van Dijk, anticipation is one of the most essential components in developing language. “Anticipatory communication strategies are founded upon routine. For example, when a familiar activity is changed, purposely or coincidentally, the learner has the opportunity to express his/her awareness that something is different.”

It’s our job to be alert to the student’s anticipatory state so we can take the opportunity to expand the learner's understanding of a particular situation. Learning to incorporate pleasant and, curiosity-provoking conditions into an activity to elicit anticipatory behavior (e.g., finding something unexpected when going for a walk) will help your DB student maximize the experience of being in therapy.

Symbolic systems – pictures, words, sign, etc.

Decisions about what kind of symbolic systems to use and how to implement their use are made by the educational team. As a therapist, your primary responsibility with a DB Student is to know what the symbol system is, and to incorporate it into all of your interactions with the DB student.

Return to Jan Van Dijk in Theoretical Bases