Mastering a Skill; Measurement of Progress and Actual Development

Earlier this week, I had read an article by another Music Therapist, Kimberly Sena Moore, on being stuck in a rut in therapy ( ). Her timing was perfect with this article. This had not been a glorious therapy week. I had also read several articles on sensory integration therapies being valid practice or not. In combination with the ongoing Olympics, I thought this would be a good time to talk about mastery of a skill, measurement of progress, and actual development.  Our Olympic athletes certainly are an example of that: hours and hours, years and years of hard work, and look at the amazing results.  Some, like Michael Phelps, master and achieve multiple times. Some winners, such as the gymnasts, win by a score given on predetermined standards of gymnastic events, but yet still by subjective scores given by human beings, or the judges. Others prevail by proving themselves better, stronger, or faster than their opponents throughout a number of contests.

In education, mastering a skill now means it is easy for the student to reproduce over and over what you are asking of them, simply put.  The skill is past the stages of emergence or developing; it is now mastered.  Therefore in school, the child should be currently learning beyond that mastered skill in the best of all possibilities. This seems to make perfect sense.

What about the winner of a spelling bee, who has outlasted all his / her opponents in their own school and others? In order to achieve this, he or she must learn countless words, suffixes, prefixes, and both basic and complex rules of the language.

But what did we forget?  What about the child who is innately smart, never studies spelling because he / she goes home at the end of the school day and makes dinner for him / herself and three other siblings because their alcoholic, single mother is often times not able and incapacitated?  After dinner, this child takes care of mom and does anything to keep her from flying into a drunken rage.

Did this child have someone studying with her daily or encouraging her all the way?  Did she even know if there would be study time available when this she came home?  It had nothing to do with safety or security or food. When she got to the microphone, she was presented with a word which most kids her age could not spell and probably secretly thought, “Whew. Glad I didn’t get that one”. As she was about to take her turn, her mother came stumbling. All the child wanted was to hide, and as a result misspelled the word.  Spelling the word suddenly sank to the bottom of important things to do.

How about the child who never does homework, and is failing the class because of this? This child not only passes each and every test, but soars through them.  The evening prior to the PSAT test, he is up all night huddled with siblings as his mother is taken to the hospital and her boyfriend is taken to jail for beating her up.  He fails everything miserably.  Had he not really mastered some of those skills, is his learning capacity not beyond those scores?  They are, but not on this day.

 A common complaint I hear from parents in IEP’S is, “but my child can do this, he knows this, that, and the other thing.” However he does not, and will not perform. The child who spells, identifies words, and can read, but is non-verbal, continues to try to pick “A” out of a set of 3 letters. The person holding the letters is a teacher who believes the child can’t and thinks that he is most likely retarded. She has allowed him to continue to attempt to match the blue, red, yellow and green blocks day after day after day. He cannot do that at school. There are way too many distractions, such as bright lights, itchy clothing, and screaming children. Letter “A” is not a priority. It is not important. Making sense of where he is in space and getting a hold on his environment in order to feel safe is his goal. Instead of pointing to the “A”, he flaps his hands. At least now he is pretty sure he does exist.  

We have to have a system of measurement to set in place, but many times there is more to the picture than just that. Without keen observation and thought, we will assess the child wrongly. We will miss the individual and the opportunities they present for learning. Not only do we do the child a great disservice, but we bore and frustrate and tire ourselves trying to find a spark.

Even in therapy, we have to look at where the progress is happening. I myself often expect to see the same excitement and exuberance I had seen in the last couple of sessions. When it is not there, I feel like I have failed. However, when I go to write my notes, I often realize: No, I did not get what I was expecting or hoping for. I did get something else that was significant development instead. It just did not come in the way I expected.

This week I worked with a 5 year old who does not walk, can not always hold herself up sitting, and has very infantile fine motor skills. Every week she comes in exuberantly playing the chimes with me, keeping her arms lifted, all the while building strength and endurance in her arms, back, and torso. This week, however, I did not see this. I kept trying different things. Towards the very end of the session, I gave her a light drumstick with a rubber head.  She usually swings this and throws it down, unable to control it well enough to strike anything.  This week she played with it, swinging and then holding it with both hands at mid-line for several seconds (two handed grip – skill not seen yet, nor seen at mid-line). She would switch hands. She would swing for several seconds and repeat the process before throwing it down. I continued to offer her the stick, and even though her chimes and a drum were right there for easy access she did not make any attempt at utilizing them. Her short term goal this month is to shake an object for 3 seconds, 3 times.  Although she is given this opportunity at the beginning and end of each session, not much time is spent doing this.  Today, as she swung, she hit a lollipop drum head accidentally. She then continued to hit the drum head repeatedly, intentionally.  We had spent 50 minutes trying to regain the exuberance on the chime playing, but failed.  However, progress was made, as she had gained some control over those little arms and hands today.

This easily could have been overlooked, as the entire 50 minutes was spent looking for something else – progress elsewhere. Momentum and opportunity could have been lost, leaving us both frustrated. I could have left, looking in all the wrong places for the development, leaving me feeling frustrated and discouraged. I could have passed this on to her by simply not recognizing the progress this individual had made.

Each client, each person ticks differently. Studies and research are extremely helpful in expanding our skill area and insight. Research and studies do not always, however, ,constitute “the answer”. Each person is an individual, receptively and developmentally.  Studies and research help us, but they don’t reveal all the answers. We have to look at the individual – look at them closely.



Can this awareness on how to know when assessing has supported a student be an instructive tool (workshop, training, etc.) for staff? Or is this developed through years of experience? I ask because I work in the ECE field. To have staff be more intuitive, knowledgeable, or observant seems to be pretty difficult in this field. How do staff get to where you are in knowing “when,” “what,” and “how?”


To be frank, Pam, I think this is something that is either very natural or needs to be developed. I think there is such a pull from outside sources (paperwork, for example, that has very little to do with the client) or a need to prove there is progress from a certain standpoint (instead of an individual standpoint) that distracts us and takes our time away from paying attention to the client. It is a tough road to balance, but not impossible. Taking a quick note when we are done, can, over time help us to be more aware.


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