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14th October 2015

Research Study in Iceland - Summary

Safamyrarskoli, Iceland

Jiri Berger first met Geoffrey Waldon in the early 1980s when he was an Honorary Research Fellow at the Hester Adrian Research Centre at the University of Manchester. A native of Bohemia, he instigated a study in Iceland, the following is an extract from his report, The Waldon Approach to Educating Developmentally Backward Children (1985).16

Introduction

When some eight years ago, I first listened to Dr Waldon outline some of his theoretical ideas during a public talk, I was immediately struck by their freshness as well as their conceptual coherence and elegance. Moreover, they appeared to offer valid and novel answers to many of the questions and practical problems with which the field of special education and mental handicap has been struggling for many years and with only limited success.

Later, through many hours of discussions and observations of Dr Waldon's practical work with developmentally backward children my first favourable impressions were further reinforced. I became firmly convinced that here lay a rich and extremely valuable resource for the whole field of special education.

Nevertheless doubts arose in my mind about the wider applicability of the Waldon Approach. In particular, its uncompromising emphasis on the theoretical underpinnings of education, the deliberate omission of prescriptive step-by-step guidelines for everyday teaching practice, and the methods which in many ways seem to contradict conventional wisdom and practices, could pose considerable obstacles to its acceptance and application by the wider professional community.

I was fortunate to receive a one-year research grant from the Icelandic Science Foundation, which enabled me to begin a short term feasibility study aimed at answering at least some of these questions.

Discussion

The present study demonstrated quite conclusively that it is feasible to introduce the Waldon Approach into a school for educationally retarded pupils and within a reasonable period of time enable teachers to apply it in their everyday work. The results indicate, moreover, that this can have beneficial effects both on the pupils and on the teachers themselves. In the following discussion, these effects will be considered in the light of the quantitative results as well as more subjective experiences and insights derived during the course of the study. It should be emphasised, however, that the enthusiastic and open-minded co-operation of the school and the teachers was a necessary pre-requisite for any such benefits to be realised.

Effects on the pupils from an established pre-intervention baseline

These can be classified in terms of effects on the pupils' understanding (here referring primarily to various forms of cognitive and fine motor competence), and on their general behaviour during teaching sessions. Although these two aspects are not unrelated, they will first be considered separately and the links between them later. The pupils were tested twice three months apart to establish a pre-intervention baseline, and the intervention itself lasted only three months.

The changes in pupils' understanding, measured by means of standardised developmental scales, were quite remarkable. The group's mean increase in developmental age between the second pre-intervention baseline and the end of the intervention period was six months. Given that the intervention lasted only three months this increase represents a rate of progress twice that expected for an average non-retarded child. Even when allowing for the great individual differences in the pupils' improvements (i.e. range from .2 to 25 months developmental age), the median increase of 4 months still indicates a highly significant increase over the whole group.

The fact that no increases in developmental levels were found between the two baseline assessments, which were separated also by about three chronological months, indicates that the above improvements were primarily due to the use of the Waldon Approach during the intervention period. In addition to the double baseline control procedure, the amount of individual teaching and the teachers remained constant throughout the whole duration of the study. Consequently the test performance gains seem to reflect genuine intervention effects.

It should be noted that the gains are seen as somewhat of a bonus since they were not really expected in view of the relatively short duration of the intervention period. Moreover any gains in General Understanding facilitated through such an intervention would not necessarily be expected to reflect immediately in the pupils' criteria performance on standardised items. The fact that this in fact seemed to happen strengthens the case for the use of the Waldon Approach.

The general behavioural effects of the intervention were assessed by means of direct observational ratings of the pupils' behaviour during lessons and subjective ratings by the teachers.

Between the pre-intervention ratings of a regular individual lesson and a rating of a Waldon a-social lesson near the end of the intervention stage, a significant overall decrease in problem behaviours was found; with most significant changes being recorded for visual avoidance, stereotyped behaviours, mannerisms and self stimulation. There was a mean group improve- ment in six out of the seven behaviour problems categories used in the recordings. Overall, this represents a mean drop of over 30% per pupil, the frequency of problem behaviours being reduced from almost half of the recorded intervals (49%), to less than one fifth (18.6%).

Also a corresponding and highly significant mean increase of 36% in the pupils' 'on-task effortful concentration' was found between the recordings of the regular and the a-social lessons. This increased on average from 50% of the recorded intervals to almost 90%.

These findings which are not particularly robust due to methodological limitations (all the ratings were performed by the author and the data were based on only one regular and one asocial lesson per pupil) were corroborated by the results of the teachers' subjective ratings.

The most significant improvements in terms of the number of pupils showing a positive change were found in the teachers' ratings of pupils' compliance, visual attention to tasks, interest in teaching activities and a decrease in behavioural problems. This corresponds closely to the author's observational findings. There were however great individual variations in the teachers' ratings of individual pupils, and on two of the 12 scales less than half of the pupils showed an improvement. For example only five pupils were rated as improved in their independence of teacher's help (five scored no change), or in the amount of constructive activity (three no change). Thus, an analysis of the scales in terms of the magnitude of rated improvements only, was also carried out in order to assess the strength of the intervention effects on those pupils who did show at least some degree of positive change in behaviour.

The greatest mean improvement was found for the pupils' constructive activity, the second greatest was for the decrease in behavioural problems and the third for their co-operation during lessons.

These findings indicate that while the Waldon Approach appears to have been highly effective in improving the pupils' behaviour during lessons, these effects were not equally strong for all the pupils or for all the different aspects of their behaviour.

The significant increases in attention, effort and concentration and the corresponding decreases in problem behaviours are, of course, in line with the Waldon theory of handicap and retardation. This postulates that such behaviours as escape, visual avoidance, or stereotypes are all defensive strategies designed to protect a pupil from excessive demands on his understanding and performance. By minimising these demands during the course of an asocial lesson such defensive behaviours should automatically diminish.

Another implication of the Waldon theory is that a close relationship exists between understanding and effort/concentration, any increase in one augmenting the other. It would thus be expected, that as the pupils' under- standing increased, their effort/concentration should increase too. It is, however, difficult to test this hypothesis directly by means of the available data, since both the normative test measures and the behavioural ratings are too global and non-specific. The theoretical prediction refers more to particular kinds of activities/understanding, rather than to a general competence as measured by normative tests.

Nevertheless, the positive significant correlation between the improvements in the pupils' test performance and their teachers' behavioural ratings indicate that a link between gains in understanding and in improvements in attention, interest and effort does exist.

It is certainly also true that improved attention and effort in appropriate activities will enhance the pupil's experience and learning, and will thus most likely lead to a growth of understanding. The above correlation could thus be equally attributed to this process.

The positive significant correlations found between the pupils' effort/ concentration already before the intervention started and their gains on the normative tests do indeed suggest that a positive behavioural 'set' will maximise the developmental benefits derived from the asocial lessons.

Effects on the teachers - sceptical at first

The observational ratings of the teachers' behaviour during regular and 'a social lessons' revealed several important changes. Probably the most significant was the drop to zero levels both in their use of extrinsic rewards and in talking during the a-social lessons. This indicates that they all followed the Waldon conduct guidelines very conscientiously. Moreover, and somewhat against expectations, most teachers did not find this 'unusual' way of behaving particularly difficult or unnatural once they began using it themselves. This contrasts with their initial misgivings and scepticism, as expressed during the theoretical phase of the course.

Equally important these results demonstrate that effective teaching can be carried out by relying entirely on intrinsic (specific) reinforcement derived by the pupils directly from the activities they engage in. The test performance gains suggest that indeed this represents a more effective learning paradigm, and that as such it may be generally preferable to the behaviour modification approach with its heavy and systematic use of extrinsic reinforcement.

It is also worth noting that the test performance improvements occurred despite the fact that the activities during asocial lessons bore no direct similarity to the majority of the test items. Consequently, the so-called 'coaching' effect cannot account for these gains. Rather they would seem to reflect an effective generalisation and application of learning and understanding.

It would also appear from some of the results that for the more difficult and backward of the pupils, the use of direct physical guidance was a highly effective way of facilitating concentration, and effort, and a decrease in problem behaviours. By contrast little such guidance was needed with more able pupils, who responded well to a mere presentation of appropriate teaching materials.

The effect which the use of the Waldon Approach had on the teachers was also assessed through their own responses to a structured questionnaire. These were very positive with regard to their feelings of increased competence, understanding and work satisfaction, as well as their expressed desire to learn more about the Waldon Approach. It is worth noting that they were not afraid to be critical and that they did on occasions give more negative responses, particularly in their course evaluations. The main areas of criticism related to their lack of understanding and coverage of behavioural problems, and the design and selection of teaching materials. It is felt that any future course of this kind must deal more effectively and devote more time to these highly practical issues.

Postscript

I visited Jiri Berger in Iceland in August 2011 and recorded the following comments from him:

The study was done in a special school for the most retarded children with combined mental handicaps, sometimes combined with physical handicaps. It was very encouraging because when I started I could see that the teachers were really at a loss to find things for the children to do and specially things that they were prepared to do by themselves.

It was a revolutionary discovery for the teachers to find that they did not have to do everything with the children and sit with them all the time. The children started to work very independently ... Initially they started on a one-to-one basis but after a while some of them, not all, were able to work independently and it was those who were enrolled in the class- room study. The teachers adopted the approach quite quickly because they saw that it worked. When you watch the tapes some of the children do not seem to have many difficulties but when we first started to work with them they looked very different.

At the Hester Adrian Centre I was doing a research study on the inter- reaction between mothers and their Down's syndrome babies. It was very social - completely the other end of the scale from Waldon. I met Waldon really by chance and became interested in his work and visited regularly to observe and have discussions with him.

After I moved to Iceland I designed the research study on the Waldon Approach. The school was mixed with autism, cerebral palsy, mental retardation and Down's syndrome children. Waldon is general and works with all the children. There is no reason why not also with Down's....

As Geoffrey emphasized, movement is a very important basis for cognitive development, so if children are limited in their movements either physically or by motivation it is more difficult for them to develop well intellectually.