Recognizing and Building Abstract Thinking in the Child with Visual Impairment

Authors: Marnee Loftin

Keywords: Abstract thinking, concrete thinking, problem solving, cognitive abilities, cognition, generalization, concept development, creative play, dramatic play, teaching.

Abstract: This article explores how to identify problems with and help move towards abstract thinking in children with visual impairments. It was originally published on Marnee Loftin’s blog on

Editor’s note: Marnee Loftin is a retired psychologist who worked for the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired for 28 years. She maintains a small consultant practice that provides psychological and educational evaluation of children with Visual Impairment as well as doing workshops. To continue to benefit from Loftins wealth of knowledge, visit: Marnee Loftin’s book, Making Evaluation Meaningful, originally published in 2006, is being updated and should be completed by early summer of 2018. Meaningful evaluation depends on the on the knowledge and ability of staff to administer and interpret results. Evaluation and assessment results are essential to provide a foundation for the educational planning process. This publication provides guidance to evaluation personnel, teachers of students with visual impairments, and families in making the best possible decisions regarding student evaluation.

Maria is a second grader who currently uses braille for most of her learning, but supplements the materials with audiotapes. She was quite successful in first grade and was often complimented on her amazing memory.  Maria could often quote stories verbatim and quickly answered each of the questions posed by the teacher. It is now the end of second grade and Maria’s teacher is quite concerned about her difficulty with comprehension of stories.  Maria is able to provide a great deal of specific details about the stories. While she can list the name of different people in the story as well as the specific action taken, she is not able to state why a particular action occurred or the overall meaning of the story. For example, when reading a story about elephants and the problems they experience in captivity, Maria is apt to only understand that elephants often perform in circuses. There is concern that Maria might have a specific learning disability.

Maria is exhibiting some difficulties in school that are often noted in children with visual impairment.  As the world (and academic tasks) becomes more complex, they begin to experience more difficulties in performing at their potential. These problems may be related to a specific learning disability or cognitive abilities. However, it may also be a problem in moving from concrete to abstract ways of thinking.

What do the terms “concrete thinking” and “abstract thinking” really mean?

Psychologists have long recognized that children essentially learn “how to think” about objects and events as they develop and mature. The young child tends to think of their world in concrete ways. They learn facts and information about objects and experiences they have actually encountered in their world. The emphasis in concrete thinking is often on recitation of facts. Typically, the child gathers a great deal of information, but it all focuses upon learning about the single item or experience. For example, a young child will easily recognize that their stuffed animal is called a “dog” and will slowly add more information to this single concept. Concrete thinking represents a level of thought that is most often focused upon gathering pieces of information and reciting it back to others. Maria’s ability to demonstrate skills such as a recall of facts about a story is an example of a child who is engaged in concrete thinking.

In abstract thinking, children learn to engage in problem solving or truly “thinking” about their world. It allows a child to develop ways to classify objects and experiences. It also allows a child to begin to deal with concepts that are not immediately present in their world. This type of thinking is the reason that children can answer questions that require them to draw their own conclusions from specific material that has been learned previously. For example, abstract thinking allows a child to broaden the concept of “dog” to a broader concept of animals. It also allows them to add new information to a previously-learned concept, e.g. animals can be household pets or wild animals. Children develop the ability to master new concepts that they have not directly experienced, e.g. understanding the meaning of freedom. Maria’s difficulty in answering questions about the theme of the particular passage about elephants represents a difficulty in abstract thinking.

How do children move to abstract thinking? Is it automatic or does it need to be taught?

The young child moves from concrete thinking to abstract thinking as they begin to experience their world. As they acquire more concepts, they are able to mentally sort through these concepts and identify similarities and differences. They become more able to predict how new situations might develop. Abilities to predict the outcome of events become more sophisticated. Many of these things happen simply as a result of experiences and interacting with their environment. However, there are some issues that affect this movement into abstract thinking that do not seem to be related to experiences.

What are these other issues that affect moving into abstract thinking?

There is also a great deal of research that suggests that some of these skills will not simply develop as the result of experiences. Cognitive abilities will set some broader limits to the development of abstract thinking. Children with cognitive limitations will experience more difficulty in developing skills in abstract thinking. Some children with cognitive limitations will never develop consistent skills in abstract reasoning; they will always require additional support. Children with superior cognitive abilities will develop these abstract thinking skills at an earlier age and to a more advanced degree.

Additionally, improvement in abstract thinking is also related to physical changes associated with the brain. Much of the current research in brain biology stresses the importance of the later development of the frontal area of the brain, a critical factor in abstract thinking. Research indicates that most of the abilities that we associate with abstract thinking are a function of the frontal lobe in the brain. This area of the brain does not fully develop until the early 20’s, explaining some of the difficulties with decision-making noted with teenagers.

Can we control the extent to which a child develops the ability to exhibit abstract thinking?

Some limits are present on our ability to impact the development of abstract thinking. These are most often imposed by three factors. The first is the environmental experiences of the child. The child who has little opportunity to interact with their environment, as well as little stimulation in thinking about different situations, implications, and concepts, is likely to be delayed in development. Again, both the internal cognitive abilities of a child and his physical maturity will determine some outer limits for abstract thinking. Even as adults, we demonstrate significant differences in our abilities to engage in abstract thinking. For example, many college students will struggle with understanding the meaning of a particular poem. Concepts of physics may be difficult for others who prefer types of learning that are based upon repetitive pieces of information.

Are there special issues associated with visual impairment?

Children with visual impairments (VI) often have additional difficulties in developing these skills in abstract thinking. Little research has occurred to determine the possible reasons for this. However, it is frequently noted as a problem once children with VI begin to move out of the early primary grades. As with Maria, the child who has been quite proficient at answering questions about stories in the first grade begins to have difficulty in the second and third grade. The expectations for proficiency have changed. Children are asked to engage in behaviors such as problem solving, as well as making inferences for different characters. This is often a difficult transition and period of learning for children with VI.

How do I know that educational performance is being impacted?

Both parents and teachers often recognize these difficulties for the child with VI. It is often noted when children are in the second grade. Prior to that time, most tasks involve asking a child to answer a series of questions about an activity or story. Typically, these questions involve gaining simple information about who performed an activity and what happened as a result. Often the child with VI has a superior memory and is quite successful in answering these questions about specific information provided. However, by the second grade, questions begin to encompass more abstract qualities, as well as the basic exchange of information. The concern is often expressed that a child can answer any number of questions about “who” or “what” might have occurred in a story. However, the child often has difficulty in responding to the question of “why” this might have happened.

Why does this seem to be an issue for children with VI?

Again, there is little research that examines this issue. However, several issues seem to be relevant to the discussion. The first is related to the vision itself. Often children develop the ability to generalize simply from observing and experiencing the world. The child with vision is able to play with both dogs and cats, observe the similarities as well as the differences, and develop the more abstract concept of “animals” and “household pets.” The child with VI will need to be taught these differences. This typically requires a different type of learning that requires more time and intervention on the part of the adult.

Often the difficulties are made even more apparent through differences in the instructional process. Adults are often eager to provide a great deal of information about a concept in order to help a child with VI understand a particular word or concept. For example, a parent might provide a great deal of information about the word “fort” indicating that it was surrounded by walls, had cannons, was staffed by soldiers, etc. However, they do not provide information about the general concept of a fort being used for defense or protection. The information uniting these descriptors is often not provided. The child may not have a general idea of the purpose of the fort or ways in which it is related to things that they might experience in their lives, e.g. ways that it relates to a current military base or police station. It is true that the child with VI needs a great deal of specific information to broaden their awareness of a concept. However, it is equally important that the broader concepts be introduced as well as related to previously-encountered learning.

Additionally, creative play is a crucial factor in beginning the process of abstract thinking. Some of the first examples of abstract thinking occur when a child is engaged in creative play. A child realizes that the plastic teapot may be recognized as a coffee pot and that tipping the pot allows a stream of imaginary coffee to be poured. For the first time, objects that are not present in their life are represented and “thought about.” This is typically considered to be the original step toward moving into abstract thinking. Typically, creative play is a challenge for children with significant visual impairment. It does not seem to occur spontaneously for most children and must be actively taught.

Now I know that there is a problem…how can I help my child?  Or even better…how do I avoid the problem?

There are many different types of skills that need to be mastered. However, the following items identify some of the critical factors that help move from concrete to abstract thinking. All children require the ability to complete the following tasks:

  • Engage in problem solving
  • Identify similarities within disparate objects
  • Plan and sequence a series of tasks to a reasonable conclusion
  • Identify and evaluate possible solutions to problems

The immediate reaction is often to simply help a child determine “why” something might have occurred through an additional series of questions. However, we often misunderstand that the ability to answer these types of questions is based upon some previously-mastered skills. Unless the child has developed these other skills, teaching the answer to a “why” question will be difficult. Children may quickly develop a rote answer to “why” questions that does not reflect true understanding of the concept.

Development of skills in answering these “why” questions will require a base of other earlier skills in thinking. Many skills form the basis of abstract thinking. Developing each of these skills will help a child become successful in movement from concrete to abstract thinking. It is always ideal when the child with VI learns these skills at approximately the same age as their sighted peers. However, even for the older child, it will be important to attempt to develop the identified skills if currently missing.

What activities will help develop these skills?

Movement into the process of abstract thinking remains a developmental process. Although some suggest that it cannot simply be taught, there are a multitude of activities that will encourage a child in development of this skill. These activities form a basis for development of these skills, as well as an impetus to move along the continuum toward the development of abstract thinking. A few of these suggestions are listed below.

  1. Encourage dramatic play with use of real, as well as representational, items.  Begin by focusing upon familiar stories and previous experiences. Continue by acting out how future events might unfold.
  2. Develop new stories to be acted out using these items. Encourage the format of beginning, middle and end of a story.
  3. Give words to your own thoughts. When you prepare a meal or an activity, verbalize in brief comments the steps that you are taking.
  4. When solving a particular problem, provide words to describe the steps that you are taking to solve the problem. Keep the language short, but clearly related to your solution.
  5. Try to get your child to think of new ways to use a familiar object. For example, ask about different ways that you can use a bedspread or pillows. Ask a child to consider different ways that you might use a single egg that is in the refrigerator.
  6. Use everyday situations and ask a child to “think about” reasons that it occurred and possible solutions. For example, if you are out of milk, ask child to develop ways that you can deal with the problem. Ask about ways that you might avoid the problem. Keep the problems simple and relevant to everyday situations.
  7. Help your child think of analogies in relationship to everyday life or favorite books. Ask the child to identify stories that remind him/her of the current story. For example, what book has he read that also reminds him/her of the story about pigs. Identify the similarities between the two books or ask the child to clarify his/her thinking.
  8. Develop problem-solving skills that can be used in multiple situations. With the older child, encourage comparing one situation to another that has been experienced. Provide structure, such as asking who was involved, what occurred, what might have been other responses, how other responses might have impacted the situation. Keep questioning to a minimum, but help the child see how different responses might have occurred. Evaluate the efficiency of these responses in relationship to the situation, i.e. “Did it help solve a problem?”
  9. When teaching abstract concepts, employ the thinking-aloud strategies used at an earlier age. Talk through your explanation, stopping at discrete steps. Try to compare abstract concepts to real-life situations. For example, when discussing different branches of government, relate these branches to aspects of a family. Be sure to summarize the specific ways in which they are alike, as well as different.
  10. Realize that it is much easier for a child to focus upon ways in which situations, objects, or concepts are different.  Encourage them to look for similarities, even in items or events that are quite different on the surface. Use real objects at the beginning, so that similarities will be obvious. For example, ask the child to determine ways in which a flower and a carrot are the same.
  11. Talk about ways in real life that experiences are the same as one another. Start with experiences that have many similarities and move to experiences that are seemingly quite different. For example, talk about the similarities between a trip to the store and a trip to the dentist.
  12. Encourage creative thinking in determining similarities between these situations, objects, or concepts. Perhaps develop one list that could be considered “Silly Similarities”, as well as one that is more reality-bound.
  13. Avoid the tendency to ask a number of “why” questions. If you do ask these questions, help the child by “thinking aloud” as you determine possible answers. Help the child understand that there are often multiple answers to this question. This not only encourages abstract reasoning, but also helps build creativity. For example, instead of beginning by asking the child “Why do we have to clean up water that has spilled on the floor?”, provide multiple reasons, such as “We need to clean up the water that spilled on the floor because someone might slip”. Begin with this type of concrete example of response to “why” questions, rather than abstract ones, such as “Why do the stars twinkle?”
  14. Help the child to evaluate the “success” of a particular experience. This helps identify the emotions that the child is feeling, as well as giving a sense of independence from the feelings of others. Prior to this activity, help the child develop a limited number of characteristics (i.e. no more than 4) of a successful (or pleasurable) activity.
  15. Plan a party together. Divide responsibilities into four parts, e.g. planning, inviting, hosting, and cleanup. Ask the child to determine 3 different activities within each of these responsibilities. After the party is completed, ask the child to review the responsibilities. Which tasks were not necessary? Which tasks should have been included?

Development of abstract thinking skills is a critical factor in ensuring academic success, as well as in dealing with the complexities of life. Support from parents as well as teachers is essential if a child with VI is to reach his/her potential to live as independently as possible. Intervention is most effective when problems are recognized, interventions are planned, and both teachers and parents are consistent in implementation of strategies.

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