In spark*, spark*EL and Self-Regulation in Everyday Life, we start everything by making sure each child is aware s/he has the ability to do what we’re asking. We want them to show themselves (and us) that they can do it.

If there’s one thing that we’ve learned over the years: NEVER ASSUME. Never assume a child knows what you’re talking about and never assume he/she can do something until you’ve tried it out. I remember talking to a young child about using ‘gentle’ hands. He sat there and watched me demonstrate it with my hands and then with his. Then I asked him to show his hand how to do it – he looked surprised that he could do it on his own. He looked like he was saying, “Wow, you mean my hands can actually do that when I want them to?”

There was an interesting study (1) reported recently that looked at motor learning in children with autism. Children were taught to throw beanbags toward a target. Some children were taught to focus on the target (external focus) and some were taught to focus on how their arm and hand moved (internal focus). The children who were taught using internal focus remembered the skills longer and generalized them to other situations.
This study suggested that, if we just focused on prompting children to use ‘gentle hands’ or pointing at objects of interest without working on how it feels, our children will likely be less able to remember to use these skills.

By first focusing on awareness of ability (“I can do it”), our children can learn the motor patterns more easily and can take pride in their abilities.

(1) Tse, A. (2017). Effects of attentional focus on motor learning in children with autism spectrum disorder. Autism. Dec 1:1362361317738393.