ONCE A CHILD with multiple development challenges begins to express her feelings and ideas, she may do so with a vengeance. Hold on tight, because she may be so excited about her new abilities that she will practice them nonstop. As you listen to her, however, you may hear random, unconnected thoughts instead of logical ideas moving sequentially from one to the next.
Now your task is to respect the child's excitement while challenging her to become more logical and better adept at abstract thinking. One of the best ways to do this is to ask questions in everyday situations and during pretend play.
When we talk to children, we often quiz them with rote memory questions. "What did you do after lunch?" "What color are your blocks?" "Who did you play with?" Children with developmental challenges often favor rote ways of thinking, and questions like these only compound the problem. Higher-level thinking tends to be cued by our emotions. Most conversation among adults isn't "What did you do after lunch?" but rather "What's new?" or "Anything exciting happen today?" These questions address the emotions of the person being asked and help her to think about her most meaningful memories of the day.
To help children develop truly abstract thinking skills, we need to ask questions that relate to their feelings. Instead of asking "What did you do this morning?" ask, "What was fun this morning?" or "What made you mad this morning?" In pretend play, go after emotion also. Have your character ask the child's character how he feels.
The following are some important higher-level abstract thinking skills and ways you can help children with special needs develop them.
An important abstract-thinking skill is grouping ideas into categories -- things that are similar and different, things that are related and unrelated, and so on. This kind of thinking helps us to find patterns and meaning in the world and to make sense of our environment. And our emotions play a part in this too.
You can help children develop this skill by appealing to their feelings in daily conversations and when they engage in pretend play. If a child is changing a doll's clothes, for example, you can ask which are her favorite clothes. This encourages her to group the clothes into favorites and non-favorites. If the children are pretending to be good guys and bad guys, ask them what makes their guys good or bad. To answer, they'll have to think through their ideas of goodness and badness and explain those qualities.
Don't worry about the specifics of children's answers. What's important is that they're able to use their emotions logically to compare and contrast a large variety of ideas and see how they fit together.
Understanding Broad Themes
Another important component of high-level abstract thinking is the ability to see the forest as well as the trees - to recognize both the underlying themes and the details. These two aspects work together to fully describe a situation. Any argument or discussion requires forest-trees thinking. "I don't want to play" is a broad theme, for example, and the reasons why are the details. Broad themes and details show up in children's pretend dramas. Who rides which horse and which army wins the battle are the details of a story. The underlying emotions -- competition, aggression, loss, and so on - are the broad themes.
As you talk with the children about what they're doing, try to shift the discussion back and forth between these levels. The more you encourage children to reflect on both details and broad themes, the more flexible their thinking will become. And remember that many of the children's broad themes will derive from their emotions and emotional judgments.
A great deal of our thought process has to do with cause and effect. To be fully fluent thinkers, children need to learn the logic of cause and effect. You can help by giving them lots of practice.
And opportunities for practice are built into almost every situation. Whenever you ask a child why he wants to do something, why he likes or dislikes something, or why he did something a certain way, he has to use cause-and-effect thinking.
Concepts of relationship - bigger/ smaller, more than/less than, sooner/ later, closer/farther, faster/slower, and so on - are so automatic that we don't think about them. But children have to learn these concepts through practice.
Again, pretend play and everyday situations provide many opportunities for you to help children master these concepts. When a child is playing with dolls, you can talk about which doll's hair is darker or longer. If a child is racing toy cars, you can ask which one is faster.
One of the keys to helping children with developmental delays learn higher-level abstract thinking skills is to ask challenging questions in everyday situations. Play dynamically, negotiate the child's demands, and, above all, expand the dialogue as much as possible.