How “Success-Only” Activities Promote Learning

Many years ago, I worked at a day program training adults with developmental disabilities and noticed that some of them struggled with goals such as matching or sorting objects by color. They had been working on these goals for years- perhaps decades - although they did not possess the cognitive ability to discriminate colors!

I immediately set about creating realistic, achievable goals based on the client's cognitive abilities and sensory motor skills. Success-only activities were helpful in reinforcing familiar and possibly new concepts. An example is shown in the photo below. The white plastic piece with triangular and round holes must be positioned correctly in order to fit over the dowels.

What Are "Success-Only" Activities?

Success-only activities will only work when performed correctly. In other words, since only the red rectangular rings in the feature photo above will fit over the red rectangular stack and only the blue triangular rings will fit over the blue triangular stack- the colors will automatically be correctly matched when the rings are pushed down the stacks.

The user may or may not learn the concept of color matching, but this is a great way to introduce the concept.  This illustration and a more detailed description is found in my book: The Recycling Occupational Therapist.

 Minimize Verbal Directions!

The coin insertion bottle shown above is designed to teach how to discriminate the copper colored pennies from silver coins. I provided a pile of quarters, pennies and nickels. The slot in the bottle is large enough for the pennies to fit inside. The quarters and nickels are too large to fit and there are no dimes since they are small enough to fit. This is a great way to teach children to think about the size of the coin before attempting to fit it into the slot and to discriminate pennies. It is also helpful to begin teaching to identify pennies because they are a different color.

When the child attempts to insert the nickel or quarter into the slot there will be no need to provide a verbal direction such as that is not a penny, its too large because the child will discover that while manipulating the materials.

The instructor may point to the pennies to promote success and minimize frustration. In addition, using nonverbal cues is often preferable when working with individuals on the Autism Spectrum. There are many more teaching tips in my book From Flapping to Function: A Parent's Guide to Autism and Hand Skills. 

This activity may be adapted to teach discrimination of nickels and quarters by cutting an opening just large enough for the nickels to fit through. This will help them to learn that the nickels are not as large as the quarters because only the nickels will fit through the slot.

Start Out with Limited Choices

Traditional baby shape sorters have 3 or more shapes and corresponding holes.  This may be too frustrating for children with learning challenges. It is easiest to begin by inserting a single shape into one corresponding hole.  Gradually increase the challenge by providing more complex or a greater number of shapes to insert. The little girl shown above is inserting blocks and flat plastic pieces into the 2 corresponding holes.

Its easy to make shape sorters! My 2-year-old client had previously mastered inserting a round shape into a round hole. I cut a square hole into the yogurt container so that only blocks fit inside. He found it challenging to orient the block before inserting it. I provided lots of opportunities to practice this skill by using only blocks. After he mastered orienting blocks, he  worked on fitting dominoes into a small rectangular opening.

Orienting Shapes to Ring Stacks

The little boy in the photo above must orient the rectangular rings to fit over the sword. I cut the rings out of detergent bottles.  I bought the sword at the dollar store.  He loves swords and is motivated to engage in this repetitive task.  He was next ready to try the triangular shaped ring stack shown below!

I made the triangular shape ring stack by attaching cardboard packaging to a broken ski pole and covering it with foam and contact paper. I cut out lots of red circular and blue square shaped rings but only the yellow triangular rings will fit on the stack. Therefore, children will automatically be  matching yellow if they are able to push the rings down the yellow stack.

Discriminating Money from Non-Money

I love to individualize  therapy materials to meet cognitive, sensory and motor skills of students and adults with developmental disabilities.  The success-only adaptation pictured above was made to encourage my client to problem solve rather than manipulate materials impulsively without consideration of shape or size.

I provided a pile of pennies and little green plastic rings. I made the rings by cutting circles out of plastic containers and punching holes in them. The green rings can be strung onto the cord and are too large to fit inside the slot in the bottle. The pennies obviously cannot be strung!

I provided enough assistance with point cues so that she would not get frustrated during the learning process. Eventually, she was able to work on this independently, allowing the activity rather than me to give feedback on what works and what needs to be tried in a different way.

Combine Matching Shapes and Pictures

Many individuals love to look at, match or sort pictures. I cut and laminated pictures so that they fit inside a formboard puzzle frame. I designed this activity to help clients to associate objects such as pizza slices with their corresponding shapes- (i.e. triangular ). At the same time, the pictures won't fit inside the wrong shape openings....

These are just a few ideas on how to make learning easier by adapting materials to be success-only ! I hope that you find great success using this training technique.

2 thoughts on “How “Success-Only” Activities Promote Learning”

  1. Wonderful, tasks to establish attention and independence while learning. Do you use movement activities with your varied populations, Barbara.

    1. Thank you. I try to incorporate movement into all activities whether at work or in my own life. I have retired since Covid hit in March but I still have lots of ideas from past work and seminars to blog aabout…..

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