I know, I know – you were excited for a summer’s worth of literacy post and here I go squeezing in something that doesn’t seem literacy related. Yesterday we talked about all of those essential prerequisite attending skills (i.e. things you need to know how to do before you can do something else) and imitation is right up there is most-important-don’t-forget. I see this a lot with kids that I have taught, consulted for, or done in-home therapy with. A lot of kids are missing this essential foundational skill so it’s do wonder they struggle when it comes to more advanced concepts that are built right on top.

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Why is imitation so important?

Imitation is so important because it’s at the foundation of how we learn new skills. We copy what someone else does. You & I do it all the time. Yesterday, when I went to the store there was a new self-check out kiosk that I didn’t know how to use. Did I have a meltdown? Did I require most to least prompts? Nope. I watched what someone else did and imitated. Every academic task (and functional and communicative) involves some level of imitation.

How to Teach Imitation:

Preassessment

Select 20-30 easy movements. Things such touching nose, clapping hands, picking up a ball, thumbs up etc. Start with 3 of the easiest movements. Sit facing the student. Say the student’s name and then say “do this.” If the student does anything close to the movement you did provide reinforcement immediately and record on data sheet. During preassessment, select 3 movements. Preset each movement 3 times randomly. If the learner responds correctly to any of the 3 movements each time (i.e. claps hands every time you clap hands) remove that behavior and choose a new one.

Training

During training work on the 3 movements. Start with the easiest one – the one that the learner tried on during pre-assessment or was closest to during pre-assessment. Continue providing the cue “do this” before the movement and provide reinforcement for any attempts that are similar. Provide physical guidance for the movements and slowly fade those prompts. Refer to our prompt fading posts. The goal is to get these 3 movements independent with no physical guidance before moving these actions to post assessment.

Post assessment

Intermix previously mastered movements with movements that are currently in training. If last week your child mastered clapping hands, standing up, and touching nose and this week is still working on picking up ball, touching shoulders, and shaking head – work on all these intermixed.

Probes for Imitative Behaviors

This is the important part! After each training session or intermixed throughout training, try a novel (never seen before) movement without the “do this” prompt to see if your student will imitate. Do everything else the same. Do the movement and see if your child responds accordingly. The goal is to do what the model does and if he can imitate novel actions – you got it!

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What kind of imitation skills can I work on?

With students who are struggling with imitation skills, start with basic gross motor movements. When the skill starts to develop, you can even work on imitation in a fluency program (see video below). You can also work on vocal imitation (see this blog post) with single or multi syllable sounds, words, multi word phrases, number phrases (perfect for learning phone number, advanced math, etc.), or imitation with objects (such as blocks or functional items like setting the table).

Gross Motor Imitation Fluency:

Time for generalization! Apply this skill to all parts of your classroom. Work on imitation in academic work, group activities, and every day tasks. You’ll probably find that this is something you naturally do. Imitation is so embedded into all of our teaching and prompting. Sometimes being aware of it helps us use build this skill even more. Provide immediate praise when correct imitation occurs throughout your day!