Even the most flexible of us have no option but to bring our own singular experience and perceptions to the table as we conduct our affairs on a day to day basis. All too often as adults we have an expectation that our way is the best way, or even the only way when it comes to the process of how we approach the world. This type of rigidity in our thinking can bring disastrous results to any form of social/educational interactions that involve children whose perceptual abilities are atypical. Success for this portion of the population must be found using the “Unique Construction” design in which mentors learn to adapt to the strengths and learning styles of children as opposed to expecting the children to squeeze themselves into a rigid one size fits all model for learning. Camp Northwood has been developing this model of interaction with children for nearly 40 years and found real success in applying this educational philosophy to our socially therapeutic environment.
For the most part, we live in a world where our interactions are with people that share a similar functional level enabling the successful navigation of our day to day affairs. This portion of the population has the cognitive and perceptual flexibility to adjust to a variety of social and educational experiences. However, what we don’t often see, or acknowledge, is a huge population of people within our community that struggle to understand their community, let alone the wider world. These are the members of our communities that display hugely varied levels of perceptual development; individuals that walk a unique path and require equally unique considerations when in social/educational settings. Fortunately, the strategies necessary to produce successful results with this portion of our community can also produce a greater degree of success when working with the more neuro-typical population. In order to help facilitate a greater degree of universal social/educational achievement, we need to accept a few basic developmental principals that lead us to acknowledge what I like to call the “Unique Construction” of individuals.
Just like a jigsaw puzzle, each person possesses a number of attributes that lead to our uniqueness. Some of the more important of these unique aspects are, but not limited to:
- The Environment in which we are raised;
- Experiences and Opportunities that add depth to our perspective of the world;
- Language Development that determines our ability to communicate both verbally and non-verbally;
- Perceptual Strengths that regulate how we process information and determine optimal Learning Style.
- Cognitive Development that greatly influences learning and social potential.
When training our Camp Northwood counselor staff to identify the potential of the children under their care, I have found the best analogy for understanding this concept of “unique construction” is to consider the thought that each of us is a jigsaw puzzle. Every child, and adult, is a separate and distinctive individual endowed with a variety of strengths, challenges and experiences that determine their unique construction. Our task as camp counselors is to understand this uniqueness by identifying these distinctive qualities in our campers as well as ourselves. The following questions can help begin the search for these individual puzzle pieces:
- What are the receptive/expressive language characteristics of the child?
- Is the child a concrete or abstract thinker?
- Can the child interpret non-verbal language cues?
- How does the child handle transitions and change within their micro and macro environments?
- Does the child have any motor functioning limitations?
- What are the normal activity and attention levels of the child?
- Is the child more of a visual, auditory or kinesthetic learner?
- How comfortable is the child in social settings?
- What type of experiences from outside of the camp environment may impact a child’s rate of social and activity based success?
As you can see, these questions offer a diverse look at a variety of abilities and just scratch the surface of questions that can lead to a better understanding of the child’s unique construction.
Our puzzle pieces impact each and every social interaction and educational opportunity. When staff embrace the concept that each child possesses a unique perspective and set of developmental skills, it becomes apparent that the approach we take to create success for each child must be individualized for that child to optimize their success. One size does not fit all and in forcing all children into a standardized construct of learning, we are setting many up for mediocrity at best or more likely for our more vulnerable students, failure. Can we expect a child with weak non-verbal processing and social anxiety to survive on a ball fields or in a dining hall with no structure or support? Is the child with significant visual processing deficits going to experience success when required to read instructions to a project aloud in a group of their peers? Is the extremely gifted abstract thinker going to reach their full potential if required to sit through repetitive activities focused on rote movements supporting concrete concepts?
Once trained to look for the puzzle pieces, mentoring children becomes a continual intellectual challenge. Each newly discovered piece of the puzzle creates additional opportunities for staff to modify the construct of each child’s social/educational experiences in order to maximize learning styles and strengths while minimizing areas of weakness. This process also helps children to learn their unique construction and styles of learning so that they can advocate for themselves as they mature, helping teachers to better understand what they need to experience success.
There is nothing unique about “Unique Construction” theory. As educators, we experience the diverse construction of students on a daily basis. It is how we use that information that makes us, as educators, unique!