Charge: Home-Based Cognitive and Language Remediation
Published in: Adoption Today, February/March
2006 - Volume 8, Number 4, p.52,53,62,63.
Boris Gindis, Ph.D.,
We keep telling his teachers that
it's as if he has no "hooks" to
onto in his brain and he needs to learn how to
keep telling us that it's just a language barrier,
from one language to the other. I feel it is much more
that. How can I help my son?
From an adoptive parent's letter.
Children at risk
Children adopted internationally are
often educationally "at risk" and present more learning
disorders and academic difficulties than their peers in the general
population. A major cause of learning problems in international
adoptees is profound educational deprivation in their pre-school
Normally, young children learn both directly - through
observing, experimenting, experiencing, and imitating - and indirectly
- through adults, who mediate knowledge for children by selecting
and modifying stimuli from the outside world and correcting children's
responses. A child may observe steam coming out of a boiling teapot
and, touching this teapot and experiencing pain, learn that steam
is associated with something hot and painful. The same knowledge
could be mediated by the mother pointing to steam, saying "Hot,"
and imitating pain from her "burned" finger. Through of
direct and mediated learning during infancy and early childhood,
major cognitive skills and processes are formed, put into action,
and continue developing, serving as foundation for further learning.
Deprived of essential learning experiences in orphanages, children
are indeed disadvantaged and may have cognitive and language problems
when moving to more advanced levels of learning after adoption.
Reinforcement of this cognitive foundation is the essence of remedial
programs for international adoptees.
Signs of deficiencies in cognitive foundation
may already show in international adoptees in elementary school.
These children display:
- Poor organization of knowledge base, resulting
in constant forgetting of learned material and inability to transfer
knowledge and skills from one situation to another.
- Lack of age-appropriate cognitive skills and learning
- Cognitive language deficiency, often concurrent
with age-appropriate social "every-day" language.
- Immature self-regulation of behavior, resulting
in poor concentration and limited attention span. >
- Diminished intrinsic motivation for learning or
achieving in learning activities
The psychological issues behind these observable patterns
of behavior often predefine academic failure reinforcing low self-esteem,
lack of interest in studying, and constant frustration associated
with cognitive efforts.
What can be done to put these children on a fast track
to catch up with their peers? The answer in many cases is an early,
well-planned, focused, and systematic cognitive and language remediation
at school, in the community, and at home. The most effective approach
is when all three domains are involved in remediation simultaneously,
creating a scaffold for the child. Such an approach should include:
- Accurate initial evaluation of educational needs.
- Proper school placement (according to actual readiness
rather than chronological age) with supportive and remedial services
(such as language therapy).
- Specialized remediation and tutoring (such as the
Lindamood-Bell system or Wilson Reading program).
- Home-based cognitive and language remediation.
I will address only home-based remediation of pre-school
and early school-age internationally adopted children. The SmartStart
program was created by educational psychologist Dr.
Carol Lidz, with the participation of international adoption
specialist, psychologist Dr.
Boris Gindis. The program bears in mind the specificity of international
adoptees and introduces basic cognitive concepts and skills which
may not have been formed in the child's earlier development. The
program provides systematic stimulation of academic language development
in children ages 3 to 8. At the same time, SmartStart promotes attachment
by providing parents and children with shared enjoyable activities.
At the heart of SmartStart lies the idea that at
home young children live, play, and interact with their adoptive
parents: home-based remediation is not a substitute for pre-school
or school activities and parents are not "second-shift"
teachers. Thus, the idea is to make traditional family activities
and interactions cognitively remedial and effective for a child.
Parents can achieve this in many ways, bringing to the child's attention
what should be noticed about experiences, objects, or ideas and
providing connections between new ideas and experiences and what
the child already knows and will learn in the future. Especially
important is challenging the child's thinking by posing questions,
using richer vocabulary, communicating ideas that are a bit (not
too much) of a stretch for the child, making the child reach just
beyond what she or he already knows or can do. Verifying the child's
increasing competence and accomplishments, reinforcing evidence
that the child can and does learn and keeping in mind that the child's
ability to profit from the experience is more important than perfection
of the end product - all these make a difference and further stimulate
The SmartStart program consists of traditional family
activities and games which parents are invited to make more meaningful
and remedial without taking the fun out. These activities are not
randomly picked; they are selected to reflect what is currently
known about best practices in promoting cognitive and social development
of young children. SmartStart methodology stresses the utmost importance
of adult mediation, missed in the early stages of the child's learning.
Let's look at 7 paths of cognitive remediation featured.
Unit 1: Introduction.
The specificity of
cognitive remediation of an internationally adopted child.
Unit 2: Noticing our world.
and developing patterns and sequences using and naming noticeable
details. Basic patterning and sequencing skills, formed by ages
3 - 4 in a typically developing child, may not be present in a 7
or 8-year-old former orphanage resident. But certain more complex
math and reading skills rely on these basic cognitive notions. Thus,
without re-building the base, no successful remediation is possible
in mastering, for example, math reasoning.
Example of activity:
With crayons and paper, encourage your child to fill the whole
page with different patterns (i.e., a row of circles then a row
of crosses). Repeat these rows in a different pattern. Create patterns
within a row. Model the making of a "pattern page" for
Unit 3: Let's make a plan.
habit of planning steps to reach the goal, determining if there
is a necessary sequence of steps or something is missing in the
plan, and later evaluating how the plan worked. Planning is the
essence of goal-directed behavior at school; without skills in planning
child's activities are mostly impulsive, reactive, and unsuccessful
in the classroom.
Example of activity: Suggest that your
child invites a friend over to play. Help your child think through
the toys and how to get them ready, and what might be a good snack
to have with the friend. Afterwards, talk with her about how it
went: what the friend seemed to enjoy the most, what could have
gone better, what to think about next time.
Unit 4: That's fantastic!
thinking and thinking of alternatives. Imagination is an important
foundation for the development of abstract thinking.
of activity: Encourage your child to play thematic games with
toys and household objects: "In the airport", "In
a supermarket", "At school", etc., imagining being
a pilot, doctor, or teacher and transforming toys into the necessary
props. Take the role of someone who is interested, watching, and
describing, but not directing. Encourage him to interact with the
toys and just add enough to help the flow of action or conversation.
If he wants you to take a more active part, encourage him to be
"the director" and follow his lead.
Unit 5: The nimble symbol.
and creating symbols. We live in a symbol-using culture. Children
need to learn to use symbols in order to adapt successfully to our
high-tech world. Reading and writing are processes of symbol manipulation.
Among all high-order cognitive skills, symbol creation and use are
the most deficient in former orphanage residents, mostly due to
their comprehensive cultural deprivation.
Example of activity:
Suggest a "measuring game." The aim is to find all the
different ways something can be measured. Give an example, such
as "See this table? I can measure it with my hands. Let's see
how many hands long it is! Now, I think I'll measure it with this
pencil. Let's see how many pencils it is!" Then ask your child
to pick something to use for measuring, and, once done, to think
of another way to measure the same thing.
Unit 6: What's the big idea?
that there are general rules and principles. Thinking in terms of
rules and principles helps apply learning to new situations and
independent learning. If children get the main idea and know the
general rule, they don't have to be told what to do and how to do
it each time a new situation arises or a slight change occurs.
of activity: Make up your own games with rules, for example,
a ball game: decide how long to hold the ball, who can throw to
whom, or a different way to move the ball (for example, with your
hands, with your feet, with your nose, with your knee...).
Unit 7: Who is in charge?
Learning to regulate
movements, attention, and feelings. Children need to learn to wait
for their turn, share, postpone... Immature self-regulation of behavior
and emotions is an unfortunate "trade-mark" of post-institutionalized
children. Teaching regulation and practice of rule-governing behavior
is a must in school preparation.
Example of activity:
Tell your child, "This is a special kind of ball game. We're
going to sit on the floor and roll this ball. We'll try to hit one
of those toys with the ball. But, FIRST, you have to say which toy
you are going to touch. THEN you roll the ball and try to hit it.
Watch me do it first."
Unit 8: Making connections: understanding the past,
facilitating the future.
Emphasizing linkages between past
and present. On a more advanced level this unit encourages cause
and effect thinking.
Example of activity: Let your child
know that the ancestors of most people in this country used to live
somewhere else. Make it interesting and fun to think about where
all the different people came from, especially your own family.
The unique and prominent feature of each unit is a
vocabulary section: which words to introduce and how to explain
an activity to the child in order to make it more remedially meaningful.
For international adoptees, learning their new language is a major
adjustment activity. They learn English and the American lifestyle
as a by-product of everyday interactions with their adoptive parents.
The SmartStart program gives adoptive parents a large set of activities
and provides the language that mediates these activities.
As educators and adoptive parents, we have learned that love and
good nutrition are not enough to accelerate cognitive development
and promote thinking, learning, and literacy in children who had
been victims of deprivation, neglect, and institutionalization.