It is often said that children are like little sponges, and it’s true. To the fascination of many parents, children are quick to absorb and make sense of the information around them. They learn words, phrases, and even the nuances of social interactions without formal instruction from parents or teachers. Until recently, we didn’t understand how children were able to grasp these things so quickly, but now, thanks to research, we do.
Patterns in the environment
Children learn language and social skills in part by picking up on patterns in their environment. Over time, they learn that certain pieces of information occur together more often than others. This is called statistical learning, and takes place without the child’s awareness.
“Children learn language and social skills in part by picking up on patterns in their environment.”
Young children learn words and their meanings through this process. Hearing common sequences of syllables helps children draw words out of what would otherwise be a random stream of syllables. For example, the syllables in ba-by occur much more commonly as a sequence in English than those in by-ba. Children hear those sounds together frequently and unconsciously learn that together they form a meaningful word.
A similar process helps children understand how certain behaviors relate to the goals and intentions of another person. Children detect the behavioral patterns of others, which helps them learn play patterns such as cooperation, turn taking, and exchanging toys. Picking up on the behaviors of others enables children to respond appropriately.
Difficulties with statistical learning
Many children learn these statistical relationships at a very young age, and with little apparent effort. For some children, however, this type of learning does not occur as effortlessly, and we are beginning to understand how difficulties in this area may be linked to developmental disorders. Autism spectrum disorder is characterized by struggles with social communication and restrictive, repetitive patterns of behavior. Autistic children may have difficulties with statistical learning. This could help explain the challenges autistic children can face in language and social communication, relative to their non-autistic peers.
“Any child experiencing challenges in language or social communication may be struggling with statistical learning.”
According to one study, autistic individuals are less likely to register the ‘oldness’ of patterns after seeing them repeated several times. This may pose challenges for learning patterns in language and social communication, as every rule that needs to be learned about language or social interaction seems new. These difficulties appear to extend to those with less severe autism symptoms who do not meet the criteria for diagnosis.
Encouraging pattern learning
Any child experiencing challenges in language or social communication may be struggling with statistical learning. Caregivers and teachers may see only the consequences of such difficulties, as it is not easy to identify statistical learning as a cause outside of the lab. Nonetheless, whether a problem has been identified or not, parents and educators can incorporate activities into play and other natural settings that may encourage pattern learning. Unfortunately, studies on statistical learning tend to focus on the deficits and links to language and social skills, rather than testing the ways we can help children who are struggling. It is my hope that future research will directly examine the ways in which we can support these children.
“Taking small steps to bolster a child’s ability to learn patterns may ultimately result in better language outcomes and more rewarding social interactions.”
In the meantime, here are some practical suggestions to get caregivers and teachers started:
- Use everyday objects like buttons, cereal, socks, or candy to help children identify patterns. Prompt children to group the objects, and then to describe their different textures, sizes, colors, and shapes.
- Read books and sing songs that include repetition.
- Create a pattern with objects at home or at school and have the child copy it. You could also start a pattern with these objects and encourage the child to continue it.
- Describe the child’s actions during everyday activities like setting the table for a meal or cleaning up at school to help them notice the pattern. For example, point out that “you’re taking the building blocks down and putting them in the box”.
Patterns are everywhere. They can be found in many daily routines, like getting dressed in the morning or preparing for bed at night. Some children may need a little more help than others in identifying them. Taking small steps to bolster a child’s ability to learn patterns may ultimately result in better language outcomes and more rewarding social interactions.