With back to school season in full swing, what better time to discuss Foundation Academics! This week we speak with Dr. Gil Tippy, clinical director of the Rebecca School in Manhattan about the foundational capacities required before ‘traditional’ academics can have meaning for our children.

Foundation Academics with Dr. Gil Tippy

by Affect Autism

What are Foundation Academics?

Dr. Tippy came up with the term Foundation Academics to help parents understand that the things that parents think of as traditional academics are dependent on early developmental capacities. Until you get these early academic skills down, traditional academics can only be taught in a memory-based way.

Children trying to make sense of the world are bright and can figure out memory-based learning. But, you cannot navigate your entire life with your memory. Education today attempts to fill our heads up with rocks of knowledge but we need to be flexible, creative and be able to think abstractly and problem-solve. You cannot just drops chunks of knowledge on students.

These Early Developmental Capacities

These early developmental capacities that Dr. Tippy refers to are the ones we’ve discussed many times. They are the functional emotional developmental capacities in the Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship-based model–or DIR/Floortime. Neurotypical children master these capacities by about 48 months old.

In this week’s podcast, we spoke about the many children on the autism spectrum who read at a very young age, and even teach themselves to read.

Dr. Tippy explained that decoding (‘useless’ reading) is very different from understanding concepts (using language functionally).

The purpose of language is to communicate with another human being

Dr. Gil Tippy

There are discrete packets of knowledge or skills in our society that we all have to learn, such as our encoding system of reading, which is different from “I want to represent symbolically what I feel inside” which is developmental.

How these early capacities prepare us for traditional academics

Kindergarten teachers tell you to line up in order by height and this helps you learn that the order in which you do something matters, and that proximity to something actually matters. This will lead to learning earth sciences and order of operation in mathematics. Lighting a candle is symbolic of another year passed where five candles represent the five years of your life.

If you can’t understand symbols you’ll have a hard time even understanding that different typefaces of ‘D’ all can represent the letter ‘D’. Memory can get you through memory-based tasks but division, fractions, and percentages will be a real problem if you’re not developmentally ready.

The truth is that a lot of the academic skills can be taught pretty quickly if you’re developmentally ready. Parents have a panic of getting through their kids through academics but with robust early foundational capacities, you can get through all of elementary school math in a few months!

Without foundation academics, secondary academics never stand up. The instant you drop developmentally, you lose everything that toppled with your memory. We want to trust in development, help our children build these capacities of foundation academics, and continue to make them robust before moving into ‘traditional’ academics so they can thrive at them.

A developmental challenge actually means that the window stays open. So let’s continue to support kids and let’s give them time and space. There will be plenty of time for what parents think of as traditional academics, which I think of as secondary academics, and let’s give them foundation academics and get them to be the free thinking spirits in the world that they are destined to be.

Dr. Gil Tippy

Trusting in the Developmental Process

Our children with developmental differences can take years mastering the earliest of these early developmental capacities, causing them to fall behind peers. But spending more time solidifying them will be better later on because they will be developmentally ready to acquire the more traditional academic skills.

Our job is to allow the space and time supporting a child through what is holding them back, such as their sensory processing challenges. Our children have everything inside that they need but might need support getting it out. We support and scaffold their challenges so they can bloom. This results in longer-term learning.

This is a respectful way of treating people versus forcing compliance, shoving a person in a direction you want him/her to go, and teaching him/her some memory-based skills. When our kids have challenges, you have to see what they missed and determine how we can we support them.

Does it work?

Dr. Tippy has seen children flourish time and time again from having profound challenges through to mastering the early functional emotional developmental capacities, or Foundation Academics.

And it’s not just for children. He also works with young and middle-aged adults and has seen tremendous developmental progress using DIR/Floortime. See Dr. Tippy’s video series posted here on this topic.

The kind of academics we want the 21st century kid to be getting is not how fast can you compute or regurgitate facts, which is useless, but how to think and wonder about why things are how they are, and to be able to imagine a world other than the one that is in front of us at this moment.

When kids get appropriate support that is respectful and developmental, they can scoot off and live their lives, Dr. Tippy says. “It happens all the time. I’ve seen it over and over and over and over again.”

Process over Product

Read occupational therapist and DIR Expert Trainer Maude Le Roux’s blog about this topic HERE.

Read this inspirational story of looking into the future for a child with autism HERE.

Is your knowledge more solid now about how important foundational capacities are before children get into ‘traditional’ academics? If you have any experiences or comments to share, please Comment below. Please share on Facebook and Twitter if you found this podcast interesting, informative and/or helpful! Thank you!

Until next time… here’s to affecting autism through playful interactions!

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