Abstracting For Kids

Rumor has it that kids don’t grasp abstract thought until they’re older. At a young age, the ability to do so is supposed to be undeveloped.

Grown-ups who are supposed to be capable of abstraction also seem to have trouble recognizing it is happening too. Trot out abstract art, for instance; many adults haven’t a clue how to decipher the intent of an abstract artist. Some of the secret questions to answer when looking at art is to imagine,”Why would someone do this?” “What state would a person need to maintain to do this?” But these questions are missing for most adults because they have been trained in school to answer questions and not formulate them.

But there’s another reason people aren’t commonly able to perceive abstract means. They get dazzled by “valuable” content. They’re so fixed on the content of what happened when they were experimenting or thinking creatively that they lightly skip over any awareness of what they did to get what they wanted. One of the most common questions students wonder about after an Alexander Technique teacher gives them a hands-on guided modeling turn is, “How did you do that to me?”

Meet my two young students. They are sisters, eight and ten years old. Their parents and Hula teacher want them to learn better posture. As their teacher, I imagined that the grammatical structure of language that mostly every kid masters before age three or four has got to be abstract enough to certify them being able to do so. These two kids double qualify as great students because they also speak Japanese flawlessly.

Imagine these kids to be sort of like an Artificial Intelligence that don’t have enough context to abstract yet. As their teacher, I have to figure out what that experience is and provide it for them. Abstract (in our case of learning Alexander Technique) means the underlying process, principles or events that are supposed to be inside the process of how the wanted result happened. They can’t use what I teach them unless they understand how to apply it. 

So – what is the most important first-hand experience that these kids might be missing that I would commonly assume every adult already has?

I thought back to my stepson playing on a swing at four years old, discovering an amazing twist and whirl. Then when he got his dad’s attention, he was so disappointed that he couldn’t repeat his previous success for his dad to see him doing. Then I realized something: Kids only have trial and error to train themselves to learn something physical, and the likelihood of repeating a new success is tiny. No wonder learning a physical trick is so frustrating next to pushing buttons on a video game!

So that meant I first had to teach these kids how to train themselves.

For kids, (for all of us, really) any missing link of abstraction can be taught through storytelling. Kids need a context, and these contexts need to be built by example or illustration in ways they can identify with the characters in a story. In order to imagine a motive, you must be able to put yourself in a situation where that motive makes sense. If people are going to read minds and use what the brain science people call “mirror neurons,” they need some familiarity with situations that people experience. So how could I orchestrate a context for learning how to train?

I had one kid pretend they were a very smart animal and the other kid was the trainer. They used a clap for signaling successes – no talking. We had great fun training each other to do odd things. The kids also learned how to be clear, kind to themselves and use the important elements of training such as taking care with timing to reinforce the right behavior, preventing the animal from learning the wrong things and celebrating successes. Now when learning new skills, they understood that they were both the animal and the trainer. (Thanks to Karen Pryor.)

Then we went through, very fast, activities that were complex: juggling, learning dance steps for Hula class, singing, playing the piano and doing gymnastic moves at a super-fast rate. They learned key concepts of improving their coordination that Alexander Technique has to offer for their ability to move freely. Because of having played the Training Game, they could perceive how what they had learned about training themselves could be used in many different situations.

These two girls didn’t have any problem learning abstract concepts in only eight lessons.  AND – it was great fun for them!
















Easy Conditioning

Conditioning is establishing a program or routine to solve an anticipated routine situation. A question or problem is repeating that seems to require a solution. Using conditioning, the solution is automating a series of actions chained together in sequence. This is termed a “behavior chain.” As the situational routine itself, (the trigger) is recognized, the conditioned routine jumps into play by firing off a previously prepared routine for action. Performing reliably a previously established behavior in response to a “trigger” or stimulus, this describes as a person having been conditioned – or simply someone who has learned to do something.

Being conditioned describes a habitual, static state. The solution of conditioning is often a hope for predictability and certainty. Certainty is the ability to anticipate what is already known. the assumption is that what is known will work to answer this particular need. Conditioning is the answer in a quest for a final solution. Training a conditioned response to answer a need imagines is guessing that this need will remain constant. The objective is to create and practice a conditioned skill before it is needed. It is also used to provide a reliable response for varied practical reasons or uses.

Most people believe that conditioning is necessary because people guess habits are necessary to take care of repeating circumstances. This training happens for everyone, almost automatically, because it is part of how people make sense of how they expect the world to affect them. It’s the human condition to want to adapt. Conditioning is usually the first answer to a human need to adapt to prevailing circumstances. It’s so simple to do – all that is required is repetitive practice.

Thus, being conditioned is regarded to be an advantage. It’s knowing how to do something. A conditioned response is designed to repeat the same way when a stimulus, (the external “need”) is recognized. Recognizing an external situation is the trigger that is experienced as a “need” or indicator that the conditioned response is now supposed to follow it.

In behavioral conditioning and training, the term for rewarding a success is called reinforcement. Reinforcement may be  punitive if it shapes what is to be avoided. Reinforcements are actions used to communicate and simulate consequence beyond words by using actions, images or direct experience. Generally, it is most effective if the ratio of positive reward is at least five times greater that of negative reinforcement.

Who or what circumstance has done this conditioning is not stated, but it is implied. The motive of why there is a need for a particular conditioned routine is not usually examined. Needs seem to be “obvious.” The need for a conditioned response is not often considered, because adding another habitually conditioned routine is so expedient. It only requires a bit of practicing. However, because only repetition is required, developing an “accidental” conditioned response is dangerously likely. Setting into place unnecessary routines learned by accident (along with what is intended) is the limitation of conditioning.

There is another big hole that is most often missing from most people’s “bag of tricks” concerning the training of new skills. It is the zero state of ‘being at ease’. This would be a resting state in between activating one trigger and the next.

Problems come when this capacity for having a ‘resting state’ becomes polluted with too many directives that are “running the background” as a state of being. The person has adapted so often, that they no longer sense how far out of shape they may be pulling themselves. To the extent people continue to train conditioned behaviors, (adding more and more objectives to our repertoire,) bodies become pulled in opposing directions. An indicator that motor sensory distortion is happening are issues with balance, or when all triggers fire off at once, the person is a panic to “do something.” Or we find ourselves offering conditioned responses that have little to do with what might be appropriate for the situation at hand.

Learning Alexander Technique gives people the capacity to return to ‘ground zero’ at will. It is possible to practice ‘undoing’ all conditioning by remembering to pause and learning to lengthen one’s physical stature on purpose. A person can learn to decides to refuse to do anything. They learn to return the muscles that have been previously been busy responding to multiple important habitual directives to a state of lengthened rest. Being ‘at ease’ will allow a clearing out of all conditioned responses that might not be appropriate for carrying out the next intention, before action begins.

This pausing or stopping will work in favor of conditioned responses, as well as helping the discovery process. Having this intentionally set up starting point of being able to be “at ease” is a tremendous advantage.

It is because habits tend to become innate that such an advantage is so startlingly effective. By design, a conditioned response is supposed to disappear so that it runs in the background as a computer program would. Habits are designed to be able to be called into usage, just as a program exists in a computer’s RAM just in case it’s need to run is recognized.

Considering the design of a routine is also good use of forethought. Time frames, purposes, goals and motives are useful to determine. It would be an advantage to have trained a way to undo the routine, or revise it if parts of the routine if they later become problematic. Forethought during training could provide for a flexible, more easily refined or updated conditioning process in the setup phase.

Learning the Alexander Technique is one way to give yourself the ability to be ‘at ease.’ Then the act of training a new conditioned response can be successful, without training “accidental” and unnecessary habits at the same time.