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Pyramid of Learning

The pyramid of learning is a visual that helps to add clarity and understanding. When we look at each child's unique skills and abilities it is imperative to look at the whole child. A comprehensive approach is best achieved when assessing the whole child.

This pyramid was developed by an occupational therapist and educator. Maryan (special educator) and Kathleen Taylor (occupational therapist) created this pyramid. It helps to give us a better understanding of why some children have "splinter" skills. When looking at a child's development it helps to start with their foundation and go from there.

Let's use the model of a house for our pyramid of learning.

The foundation of a house for a child is their sensory system.

The ability for a child to understand and modulate their bodies sets the foundation for so many skills. When we think about our children as infants; the ability for them to self soothe, interact with those in their environment, and process sensory information sets the stage for how they grow and develop.

The central nervous system works similar to a computer to take in information and then process and organize an output that others can understand and use. There are many times that the information our child takes in through their CNS is overwhelming; therefore, their ability to process an appropriate output or action is not organized and can't be understood by those around them. For example, as a toddler when they express very strong opinions about clothes; this is often their way of trying to control and decrease overstimulation, but it comes across as a meltdown. Reference sensory threshold blog post for a closer look at modulation and sensory processing.

As we move up the pyramid, we see that our ability to understand their sensory system is the concrete foundation, then the walls of our house or framing of the house is sensorimotor.

This is our postural stability, body awareness, directionality, motor planning, integration of reflexes and ability to transition through our environment with a plan or scheme. When our children are unable to modulate their sensory system how can they possibly be able to know where their body is in space or have appropriate motor planning. Body awareness comes from understanding our proprioceptive system - muscle and joint awareness. If a child is always seeking proprioceptive input such as running, jumping, and/or climbing they are not able to develop strength/endurance and postural control due to their constant need for movement.

The next part of our pyramid is similar to the walls and roof of the house. it is the part that keeps together and allows our children to learn and attend. The ocular motor and visual perceptual part of our pyramid allow us to visually organize new information. Many times, it is this part of the pyramid that parents will start to see difficulties. For example, they have a hard time with ball skills (not great at sport), lose their place often when reading, difficulty with puzzles, and/or handwriting. When we don't have a firm foundation or frame our walls and roof are shaky and have holes.

The top part of the pyramid is what makes our children functional - just like the finish outs for a home. These skills are the doors, cabinets, water faucets, air conditioning, and heating system. They take a higher level of technology, organization, and maintenance. In our children this is their ability to complete activities of daily living (bathing, dressing, and grooming), behaviors (how we react to redirection, new experiences and/or social), and learning. When our children are struggling with executive functioning such as organization, planning, coping skills, social skills, and/or learning it is easy to focus only on one area.

It is very important to look at the whole child when we assess strengths and weaknesses. Many times as an occupational therapist we have parents say "My kiddo only has difficulty with handwriting". The shortcoming of only assessing handwriting or fine motor skills is we can not have fine motor skills without sensory modulation, postural control, proximal strength/endurance, ocular motor skills, and visual perceptual skills.

I am really excited to be breaking down common questions we get asked as occupational therapists and questions you should be asking your OT. I encourage everyone to take a holistic approach when assessing child development and milestones. Children are amazing and create many compensatory strategies because they don't know any difference than the wonderful kiddo they were made to be. As therapists, caregivers, and parents it is our role to provide resources and skills to help our children learn to the best of their ability.


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