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Teamwork for Children with Learning Differences

The cornerstone of good teamwork is cooperation. This is a skill which requires practice to master, and some need more practice than others. The best way children can practice teamwork is through play activities, where they have the chance to learn all kinds of prosocial behaviors and social cues such as smiling, conversing, or praising. [1]

But it’s not only about learning; play is natural for every child. If they’re asked to become responsible too soon and not allowed to play enough, they’ll try to find play in places they shouldn’t – during class, for example – which can negatively affect their ability to be part of a group. [2]

Since we find that play is the best way to practice teamwork, this article will be centered around building the best possible play atmosphere for kids whose learning difficulties are directly related to attention.

Scheduled activities

While promoting natural, spontaneous play is beneficial for most children, kids with learning differences tend to work better if they have a clear schedule in front of them. This serves to essentially “wire their brains” – it’s like putting up a flashing neon billboard inside their minds, which helps them focus more easily. So instead of simply gathering them together and telling them to play, you should create activities for them and act as a guide.

It’s also beneficial to allow them to be the co-creators of the schedule. For example, you can color each activity differently and ask them which colors you should use. You can tell each child to write down the schedule and tell them to color it the way they want. This will help them focus on the task at hand and memorize future activities more clearly. [5]

Interest raises motivation

Some children have trouble maintaining their attention on the task at hand, and one of the main reasons is that they lack the motivation to finish it. [1] Quite simply, they don’t find it interesting enough, so they choose to move to a different, more interesting task, often leaving their teammates (in, say, a group practice during class) to deal with it alone; that, in turn, leads to other children starting to avoid teamwork with them.

To help them with this during play, you can organize them into groups based on their interests. For example, you might ask each child what they want to be when they grow up. All those who choose the same profession can be put in a group together. Next, you can give them some questions to answer or tasks to complete based on this profession – that way, they’re more likely to remain motivated to persevere rather than switching to something else, all while practicing teamwork.

Verbalizing social cues

Another challenge some kids might face is difficulty recognizing others’ feelings and thoughts. This can lead to misunderstandings, with other children viewing them as insensitive, not understanding their issues. To help solve this the best way possible, create games requiring acting or imitation.[1] Charades would be a good example for this. It gives kids the chance to practice recognizing cues their teammates are giving them. Some themes you can create here are “emotions”, “chores”, “school activities”, etc. They can also imitate their own classmates – that way, they become familiar with how others act and what they mean by it. This also necessitates your instructions for a game be as clear and specific as possible – understanding you correctly means kids will be more likely to proceed with undivided attention.

Another way to help them is to encourage the other children to verbalize their feelings more. This is actually a good practice for every child.  Kids with learning differences want to play just as much as any child does, but if they keep feeling as though they’re doing something wrong without really understanding what that is, they’ll eventually choose to play on their own instead. That’s why other kids telling them things like “It makes me sad and angry when you take my ball because you want to play something else” can be beneficial – they’ll learn that everyone makes mistakes, but that some mistakes can be fixed; they can learn to talk to other children, understand their feelings, and practice choosing group activities together.   

The importance of friendship

As a general rule of life, having a friend or a sibling who’s there to support us helps us overcome our problems with more strength and self-confidence. So if you make sure the child who needs some extra help has a peer alongside them who understands the way they think and act, it will make their teamwork much easier; their friend can give them important cues, teach them what is expected of them, and develop their prosocial skills. [1]

Being a peer team coach can be a challenging task – sometimes it can take a lot of time and practice for their peers to be able to understand and help these children. And be careful not to put two children with learning differences in the same group, or you’re risking them just playing with each other and not the others, which, in the long run, doesn’t do much good for them.

That being said, children with learning differences should ideally start learning about teamwork in smaller groups, or even in pairs. Anything more than three people can frighten them and make them feel insecure, leading them to act out. [3]

Rewarding prosocial behavior

Any behavior that shows signs of cooperation should be rewarded; this way, children are more likely to continue doing what is expected of them in a group environment. [1] The Reward can be as simple as praise – “good job!”. This makes a huge difference in their lives, as they become aware they’re doing something right, which gives them the motivation to continue doing so. [5] Praise can come from you as well as their peers. You can ask each group to say one good thing about each of their playmates – what they like about them, if they think they’re especially good at something… This also strengthens the bonds of their newly-formed group and allows them to interact more easily.

Green spaces

Another thing to consider is the setting in which teamwork takes place. For children with learning differences, green spaces can be much more beneficial than any others. So if you can, choose a park for teamwork practices, or a backyard – any place that offers enough nature. If outside teamwork is impossible for some reason, then try to find a room with a green view. [4]

Green spaces are highly beneficial when it comes to our ability to focus. Our attention span isn’t infinite – once we reach our limit, it drops off. However, we can restore it by going to sleep or by practicing gently absorbing activities that draw on what is called involuntary attention. This type of attention is effortless and allows the brain to relax and, in a way, reboot. For example, listening to light music while working could be an example of a gently absorbing activity, as long as you are aware of the music, but not actually focused on it. Another thing that works as an outlet for involuntary attention is, again,  nature, which helps the brain focus on the task at hand.

You can also help by tailoring the environment to meet children’s needs in terms of visual and auditory stimuli.  You can turn on a song or make the room more colorful – all of these serve to increase involuntary, and, consequently, voluntary attention. [3]

Natural play

Last, but not least, children need to feel as free as possible during play. This sounds counterintuitive, given the aforementioned rules of successful play. However, a limit should be set for the amount of interference. Yes, you should step in if you notice a problem, and yes, it’s better to present them with a clear schedule, but any further interference should be brief and clear. If you notice some of the kids are isolating themselves or not respecting teamwork, you can take them aside for just a moment, explain what should be done differently, and allow them to continue playing, instead of punishing them by, say, having them wait until the next game. This way, they’ll see the immediate continuation of play as a reward for understanding you, and it will help them act better in the same situation next time. [2]

In conclusion, it’s not easy to plan and organize teamwork practice for children with learning differences. It requires a lot of patience and not a small amount of creativity. Some rules need to be followed, while you try not to suffocate the kids too much. But if you use what we’ve mentioned above, they’ll be able to play more smoothly, and, eventually, they’ll internalize what you’ve been teaching them, and become able to participate in teamwork with less stress and more understanding.

One important thing to remember is – it all happens one step at a time. 

If you want your child (with learning differences or without them) to get a great teamwork practice while learning about something that interests them and developing other 21st century skills, check out our online program based on the Project Based Learning approach, Nobel Explorers.

by Jelena Jegdić

References:

  1. Cordier, R., Bundy, A., Hocking, C., & Einfeld, S. (2009) A model for play-based intervention for children with ADHD. Australian Occupational Therapy Journal (2009) 56, 332–340
  2. Panksepp, J. (2007) Can PLAY Diminish ADHD and Facilitate the Construction of the Social Brain? Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry16(2), 57–66.
  3. Sherman, J., Rasmussen, C., & Baydala, L. (2008) The impact of teacher factors on achievement and behavioural outcomes of children with Attention Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): a review of the literature. Educational Research, 50:4, 347-360
  4. Taylor, A., & Kuo, F. (2011) Could Exposure to Everyday Green Spaces Help Treat ADHD? Evidence from Children’s Play Settings. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 2011, 3 (3), 281–303
  5. Personal interview with a school counselor for kids with learning differences

If you need any kind of advice related to project-based learning, teamwork and learning differences of your children, you’ve come to the right place!

Schedule a FREE CONSULTATION with one of our Coaches:

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Four More Team-Building Activities For Teens to Develop Teamwork And Trust

We had such a great response from our first article on team-building activities for teens that we’re back with more ideas!

Team-building activities are fun and easy ways to help teenagers (and adults too!) learn and practice how to communicate their thoughts and ideas, develop relationships, and build teamwork and trust. These activities can be invaluable because being able to work effectively on a team is an imperative for the 21st-century workplace. Here’s a list of four team-building activities to help teenagers develop their social skills, teach them the importance of teamwork, and provide an opportunity to share their points of view.

1. Photo Scavenger Hunt

In this activity, small groups (around 4 members) have a time limit (e.g. 1 hour) to take photographs of various objects or situations. In order to play, each group needs to have at least one camera or a smartphone and a checklist of the items they need to photograph. This activity can be organized as a competition between groups where each item is worth a certain amount of points, with bonus points given for creativity and originality. It’s important to make the checklist as fun as possible and include both easy and challenging tasks. These could include various landmarks in the neighborhood, animals, a group reflection in the water, unusual food, something frozen, a picture where you look like you’re flying, etc. If you want to encourage creativity, you could use nonspecific tasks – take a picture of “something green” – “something you love” – “something that begins with the letter Z” or “something funny”  to give groups more freedom to express themselves. Many people have shared their own lists online, so you could use those as inspiration to create your own tasks.

This activity works best when members of each group stay together. If you want to practice teamwork, cooperation, and decision-making, you might decide to allow team members to split the tasks among themselves or reduce the time limit to make things more challenging. However, the activity could then become stressful and less fun. The “stay-together rule” is the preferred way to go, because as the group works on the activity together rather than having participants wander around alone, cohesion develops and social skills are enhanced. When the time is up, every group presents their pictures and the winner is chosen (the group with the highest score).

2. Fear In a Hat

This activity can be helpful for adolescents because they get a chance to hear different opinions about a specific personal problem or a fear they may have. Acquired information can be very valuable because teens often feel ashamed or scared to seek help from their peers. In addition, by participating in this activity, group members realize that everyone has similar fears and this promotes unity and trust.

Before starting this activity, the group moderator should make sure to set an appropriate caring and serious tone. Introduce the topic of fear, explaining that everyone experiences some worries or fears about all sorts of things, and that a good way to fight those fears is to acknowledge them openly.

After this, each person writes down their personal fears privately on a sheet of paper, which they then put in a hat. In order to make it easier for the teens to formulate their fears, you can use unfinished sentences like – “I am most afraid that…” or “The worst thing that could happen to me would be…”

When all the fears have been placed in the hat, each person in turn takes one out. (This is not done simultaneously because group members might focus only on the fear they pulled out of the hat.) After reading the contents, the first reader describes his own understanding of the writer’s fear. If the reader does not elaborate enough, the group moderator should ask one or two questions without expressing an opinion on the topic, unless the reader misunderstands what has been written.

Depending on the group size, the moderator can initiate a discussion with the rest of the group right after the first reader explains their understanding of the fear (whether they agree with the reader or not, what is their opinion, and have they experienced something similar), or after everyone has had a chance to be a reader. The moderator should facilitate intra-group communication, keeping in mind that the purposes of this activity are fear reduction and showing empathy and understanding.

3. Jigsaw-Puzzle Pieces

Setting up this activity is simple. A large jigsaw puzzle is divided and the same number of pieces given to each group. Make sure to divide the puzzle in a way that every group can fully assemble their own part of the whole. The moderator should introduce this activity in the following way – “The aim of this exercise is for each team to assemble the jigsaw puzzle as quickly as possible using the pieces provided. You will receive no additional instructions.”  This way, groups will think that they’re competing against each other before realizing that the only way to complete the entire puzzle is by working together.

This is a great activity for kids and younger adolescents where they learn that a competitive spirit can put cooperation and teamwork at risk. After the puzzle is completed, the moderator can lead a discussion around the fact that most jobs in the modern world require cooperation and teamwork, or more broadly, that humans in a society must work together to survive and advance. Another thing that should be discussed is the strategy each group employed during the assembling of their own section – were there any leaders, did everyone work separately, did they split tasks (e.g. sort the blue pieces, find the edge pieces), and how did all these things affect their efficiency and satisfaction with the activity.

4.  Spot the Difference

To begin this activity you need to divide the group into two teams. Then, have each team form a line so that each person is facing someone on the opposite team. Give the teams some time (e.g. 15 seconds) to memorize as much as possible about the other team’s appearance. After that, have one team turn their backs or exit the room so that the opposing team has enough time to change appearance. Each person should change a fixed number of things about their appearance. Any change is allowed, the only rule being that the changes must be visible. When the second team returns (or turns around), they need to find as many differences as they can. Once this is done, teams swap roles.

There are at least two ways to determine the winning team. One way is to determine a time limit – the winner is the team which found more differences during the limited time period. Another way is to remove the time limit and see which team notices all the differences faster. If a team cannot notice some changes, you can add time (for example 20 seconds) onto their total time for each change they could not find.

This activity is great for improving focus and memory, but it requires teamwork and communication, too. The team of observers can form a strategy (this should be explicitly suggested to groups after playing a round or two) where every person tries to remember as much information about the person right in front of them and one or two persons next to that person. Team members in the “observed” team should work together to make the changes in appearance hard to notice for the other team.

Teamwork is one of the key values here at Nobel Coaching. Check out our new engaging program Nobel Explorers where middle and high-school students work in small teams to learn something new, overcome a challenge, or accomplish a goal.

If you need any kind of advice related to project-based learning and teamwork of your children, you’ve come to the right place!

Schedule a FREE CONSULTATION with one of our Coaches:

KEEP READING:

by Marko Nikolić