Just One Hurdle: A Strategy for Teaching New Skills

On your mark… get set… go!

In a track and field competition, runners race around the track, jumping hurdle after hurdle in an attempt to be the first to the finish line.  It’s an incredible sight.  When we’re teaching children with hearing loss a new listening, speech, or language skill, however, we’re running a different kind of race.  For optimum success, here’s my suggestion: choose just one hurdle.

When you introduce a new skill, whether it’s production of the /f/ sound, using the conjunction “but” in a sentence, or following a direction with two critical elements, you’re turning up the level of difficulty on that specific area.  To compensate and help the child focus in on what is most important, turn down the level of difficulty on all of the other variables in the scenario.  Let’s take the three goals above as examples:


  • If the child needs to work on producing /f/, choose familiar /f/ vocabulary that the child already knows but can’t pronouns.  Now is not the time to simultaneously teach how to produce /f/ and explain the word Fahrenheit.


  • If the child is learning the conjunction “but,” set up a scenario where he can use it in the context of sentences about things that are already familiar to him.


  • Critical element tasks, the third example, are where I see this “just one hurdle” principle playing out in the most crucial way.  If our goal is to have the child follow a direction with two critical elements (two details), we want to make sure the options for each of those details are as familiar and easy as possible, so the child can truly focus on the task at hand, which is growing the auditory memory to hear, store, and follow a two-part direction.  If my goal is that the child can hear a color + noun direction and choose the appropriately colored animal from a mixed set of animals of all different colors, then I want to make sure all of the animal choices and all of the color options are already known to the child.  “Get the purple cow” is a much better test of the child’s auditory memory than, “Get the chartreuse wombat.”  If the child fails at following the second direction, is it because he doesn’t have the auditory working memory for two items, or because he lacks the vocabulary to understand the command?


By using the “just one hurdle” principle, we get a much clearer  picture of whether or not the child has the skill we’re targeting.  By cutting away all of the other challenges, we make sure that the results are skewed because the child didn’t know the vocabulary, or was unfamiliar with the context, or had trouble remembering all of the parts.  When working on a new skill, make sure you’re targeting what you say you’re targeting by removing all hurdles except the one that is crucial to mastery of the skill.  As the child’s confidence grows, you can add in the other hurdles.


And as long as we’re on the subject of hurdles… this “just one hurdle” concept doesn’t just apply to the kids.  As therapists, we should be conscious of how we can use this strategy with parents as well.  An Auditory-Verbal Therapist is trained to provide “diagnostic therapy,” intervention that constantly changes and adapts based on the child’s performance and responses in real time.  This requires a complex juggling act involving a deep knowledge of speech, language, and listening development, information about this individual child and family, and hierarchies of typical development.  The wheels are always spinning in a good therapist’s head, and he or she is often thinking about many factors at once.  How can we convey this information when coaching parents without overwhelming them?  Again, we should think: just one hurdle.  When we guide a parent through an activity by modeling it and then handing it over for the parent to practice, it can be tempting to jump in with a laundry list of suggestions to tweak the parent’s performance.  Some parents are savvy and can handle this, but for most (and even for the savviest parents on a rough day), this leads to system overload.  It’s like the old saying, “If you grab too much, you end up with nothing.”  I propose that therapists should think critically about the one suggestion they could make that would have the greatest impact on the parent’s implementation of the activity.  What is your one take-home, stick-in-your-brain message?  Some parents may only be able to handle one new hurdle per session, others one per activity, and some are ready to run the full race.  Parents’ ability to leap the hurdles may change from week to week, and that’s okay, too.  Sometimes, making one good, attainable suggestion (one hurdle) for the parents has a far greater impact than giving a long list.  Though the latter may perfect their implementation of the activity, it may be too overwhelming and be forgotten altogether.  One well-timed suggestion, presented in a way that makes sense for the parent, can lead to big changes.  And remember, there’s always room for a new hurdle next week!

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