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. 
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. 
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.
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. 
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.  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. 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. 
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. 
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.  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.  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.
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. 
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. 
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. 
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
- 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
- Panksepp, J. (2007) Can PLAY Diminish ADHD and Facilitate the Construction of the Social Brain? Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 16(2), 57–66.
- 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
- 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
- Personal interview with a school counselor for kids with learning differences
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