As summer break approaches, you may be worried about your child losing ground academically or that they didn’t make enough progress during the school year. Your unique learner’s teacher may have recommended summer school for your child. Your child is likely feeling burnt out and the last thing they want to do is more school.

As parents, we want to support our children in improving their capability of accomplishing their day-to-day activities. Educators also hope to take a fresh look at their next year’s classrooms and plan how to motivate and develop independence in different learning styles.

Can your unique learner improve his or her learning skills, even though school is out for the summer? Yes! In fact, summer provides an ideal opportunity to work on these foundational skills. Without the daily stress of reading, writing and mathematics, you can improve your child’s learning readiness in ways that feel like play. We need to use a different metric when considering their progress.

Keep your expectations for yourself and your child simple. But, by all means, do have expectations and goals to help your child build on learning skills in a non academic and non competitive home environment.

Our children, and especially our children who are unique learners, need to be better understood. These students may be low in some foundational abilities and need to learn to assimilate the information around them, recognize patterns, and consider alternative explanations before selecting the most likely. This type of problem solving not only needs to occur when performing reading, writing, and arithmetic but also on the playground and when driving home from school with siblings.

Try One More Time

The first area on which to focus is improving your unique learner’s ability to implement “try one more time” strategies. Start by stretching your child’s attention span by having them “hang in there” a little longer. Play with that toy a little longer, work on solving that difficult puzzle just a moment longer, read a little longer, and encourage them to “stick with” that chore you assigned them, just a little longer.

Make this goal of yours, designed to help your child, a secret. Without talking about it, start role modeling this behavior yourself and when you’re playing together. If you’re playing a game with toy cars, stretch out the game a little longer by adding a new and creative dimension. Perhaps enjoy having the toys convoy to a pretend parking lot at the pretend zoo. If your child is reading a story, have him or her look at the pictures just a little longer. Ask your child to describe all the things that are red in the picture or all the things that make a sound. Play card games, even a second time around. Invent a new way of playing with the backyard bowling set and teach your child to stretch their imagination.

Teaching your child to stretch their imagination to play longer will help improve attention span for back to school days. Teaching your child to “hang in there”, problem solve and execute one more attempt at finding the lost sock, attaching that bicycle wheel back onto the bike frame, figuring out the best solution to the riddle of the day, and finishing the chore independently can all help keep the mind engaged in a productive manner.

Help your child to enjoy feeling their mind successfully wrap around a predicament. Look for opportunities for your child to “think a little more” or “try one more time”. Encourage and support the effort.

Sometimes, you may need to be a part of the solution. Try to help your child feel the pleasant experience of overcoming an obstacle, even if the suggestions and solution came from you.
We want children to enjoy using their minds and develop “try one more time…” strategies. They will need them when they head back to school as well as for the rest of their lives.

Improve Spatial Awareness

Second, every child must have an innate, internalized, automatic sense of the physical world. In other words, they need to understand three dimensional space and be able to navigate their physical body in, over, under, through, around, and to explore all physical spatial relationships.

Navigating space seems simple to us because, with just a quick glance, we can easily see how to navigate to the restroom in a busy and unfamiliar restaurant. The visual sense of space develops after experiencing it physically. We may not remember learning this skill, but learn it we surely did.

Our children need to learn this skill too. They must learn the words to describe physical space and be able to separate themselves from that space. The ability to separate themselves then allows them to learn to observe the objects, people, places, and things that are in the space around them. This, in turn, develops the ability to visually judge space without having to physically move around the room.

When we talk about physically experiencing the world around us, we are really talking about the sensory system that perceives movement in relationship to the space around us. This sensory system, the vestibular system, perceives the gravitational pull of the earth’s surface and creates an innate drive for balance. This drive informs the muscle and joint system that has its own set of receptors, called proprioceptors, that allow the body to smoothly respond to different shifts in the center of gravity.

We correct our balance while riding a bicycle by a small action of a specific muscle and joint system, the proprioceptive system. Sometimes, just tilting the head to the side is sufficient in overcoming any slight loss of balance when cycling around a curve. Activities such as cycling require the integration of the vestibular system with the proprioceptive system.

If these two systems aren’t functioning properly, the brain will struggle to learn. They are foundational to learning as well as a sense of emotional and physical security.

The vestibular system needs exercising and the proprioceptive system needs exercising because the vestibular system and the proprioceptive systems are fuel for the brain. This information can provide a world of understanding in providing the most effective support for children who are unique learners.

The vestibular system provides an overall sense of calm and of emotional security and may explain why taking a walk is so pleasant. Movement, exercise, sports, martial arts, yoga, dancing, and juggling all offer excellent opportunities for the movement system to stimulate and help facilitate brain functioning.

Why do you enjoy yoga so much? It’s because you’re continually challenging your center of gravity with the gravitational pull around you. Accomplishing this and successfully balancing is associated with a positive emotional response.

Often unique learners’ performance is judged according to a standard metric of speed of performance and accuracy of responses. However, now that you understand how foundational the vestibular and proprioceptive systems are to learning readiness, you can support your unique learner’s growth by embedding movement as a part of the fuel necessary to grow the brain.

The unique learner who has difficulty sequencing, reasoning, and independently problem solving literally needs physical movement (often more beneficial than added homework) in order to facilitate effective thinking.

A more typical student may seem to respond well to practice, practice, practice. A unique learner seems to respond better to practice, movement, practice, movement.

Now you understand your unique learner better. Your resolution to do better is already achieved because doing better, for these children, requires a better understanding of their actions. So rather than focusing on more “homework” type worksheets, use this new knowledge during the slower days of summer and you will find your unique learner has greatly improved their learning readiness when school resumes.

Strategies to Try

These exercises for the vestibular and proprioceptive systems will help your child’s learning readiness and are fun to do.

Some exercises will be more enjoyable for younger children than older and vice versa. Observe what your unique learner does naturally and what exercises he or she enjoys.

Use that information to choose exercises to focus on. For example, one young girl with autism frequently will move her body forward and backward, as if she is vigorously rocking in a rocking chair. This hints that this child will benefit from vestibular exercises, in particular, especially things like rocking or swinging since that is what she is naturally seeking.

It is important to remember that your unique learner should view these activities as fun and games, not chores that need to be done.

Exercises for the vestibular system:

  • Summersaults
  • Swinging
  • Wobble boards
  • Rolling on the floor or down a hill
  • Crawling
  • Yoga
  • Martial arts
  • Swimming
  • Horseback riding
  • Balancing on an exercise ball.

Exercises for the proprioceptive system:

  • Marching with pounding feet
  • Pretending to be in a marching band or a toy soldier are fun games.
  • Helping with heavy chores
  • Washing the car, raking or sweeping, vacuuming are good examples.
  • Wall, chair or floor pushups
  • Start small and slow, they aren’t trying out for the Olympics
  • Tossing a weighted bean bag

This requires a gentle partner and a ball or beanbag weight appropriate to the age of the child (big brother might not be the best tossing partner).

Seated chair pressups

These are done by sitting on a chair and placing your hands beside you flat on the chair, then lifting your bottom off the chair with your hands.


Children can hug themselves by crossing arms and squeezing their own torso, but plenty of squeezes from mom or dad are good in more ways than one.

Make a sandwich

No, not the eating kind – play a game where the child lays on the ground between two cushions. Gently “roll” the cushions on your child, pretending to be squishing the cheese into the right spot.

Pushing or carrying something heavy

This should be heavy enough that they have to work to carry it, but not so heavy as to hurt themselves. This could be pushing a chair or a grocery cart. Carrying could involve helping bring groceries in, moving rocks in the yard, or carrying a milk jug.

Feel free to be creative in making up games or exercises of your own. What you are trying to accomplish is movement that allows the body to feel the earth’s gravitational pull or activities that help develop a strong awareness of the body, arms, and legs.

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Suzanne Cresswell Administrator
Suzanne Cresswell is an occupational and physical therapist who has worked with unique learners for over three decades. Suzanne works to educate and provide proven solutions and strategies to those that parent, instruct and work with unique learners. By creating an understanding of unique learners and their learning behavior, she helps parents, teachers and the students themselves find the ability in learning disability.
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