The Value in Repetition and Cyclical Learning for the Child with Special Needs

The Value in Repetition and Cyclical Learning for the Child with Special NeedsWelcome to Day 27 of the 31 Days of Random Reflections on Raising and Homeschooling a Child with Special Needs. You can find the main page for this series here.

In an age where everyone strives for more, more, more, I encourage you to do less, less, less, then repeat.

I will write that again.

In an age where everyone strives for more, more, more, I encourage you to do less, less, less, then repeat.

You might feel you must do everything you find online, but your child can learn more with less.

If you’ve been on this site for a while, you already know that I am not of the strict “drill and kill” mindset

However, I have found much success in the repetition of simple activities over an extended amount of time.

There is enormous value in repetition for learning, specifically if it’s followed-through without pressure. If the learning is also cyclical (i.e.: teach, move on to other lessons, return to the concept, repeat), retention is even greater.

Repetition, as I speak of it here, is different from rote memorization. What I’m referring to is the repeated practice of a skill, task, or concept with the intention of naturally (not incessantly) retaining, internalizing, and generalizing it. Repetition, as I refer to it here, allows for learning to be stored in long-term memory — not just in working-/short-term memory.

Note: We can get deep into this discussion with studies backing up this idea and others disproving it. However, I’m not going to get technical about it within the scope of this series. What I share below is my perspective based on my personal experience with my son.


These definitions guide the views in this article:

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines repetition as “the act of saying or doing something again.”

It defines memorization as: “to learn (something) so well that you are able to remember it perfectly.”

It defines cyclic as: “happening again and again in the same order : happening in cycles.”

Rote [learning] or rote [memorization] is defined as: “an established and often automatic or monotonous series of actions followed when engaging in some activity.”

How I use repetition in our homeschool

Repetition is strong in our home. I am sure if I break down our day, I’ll find that I repeat everything we do.

Here are some examples from our home:

  • To build receptive language. Receptive language is understanding language that is either read or heard spoken. When I introduce a new word or phrase, I repeat it, along with the corresponding ASL sign, over a span of weeks before ever expecting my son to fully understand its meaning. I also reinforce the words/phrases through songs. These days, the learning happens much quicker. Sometimes our son shows understanding immediately, but I repeat just the same to ensure full acquisition of the concept.
  • To learn ASL signs. We also repeat ASL signs hand-over-hand for weeks before expecting our son to independently produce them on his own. Sometimes we modify the sign to accommodate for his physical challenges, but we repeat often.
  • To learn a verbal routine. Since we learn through play in our home, the expectation of expressive language (either through sign or vocally) only comes after much repetition of a verbal routine. Verbal routines can be used to teach concepts like prepositions (e.g.: over, under) or exclamatory words (e.g.: “Weeeee!”), etc. An example of a verbal routine is: “Up, up, up goes the ball, then weeeeeee down the slide!” in the same way (including intonations) each time we play with the ball-and-slide toy. The goal is to eventually have my son repeat the routine on his own.
  • To learn to feed self. My son is so close to independently holding a spoon to feed himself. However, for a very long time, he’s been hooking to my hand with his hand (his choice) and directing my hand to scoop up the food in the bowl and bring it to his mouth. He’s been doing this in the same repetitive manner for so long, I feel him internalizing the movements. When I temporarily let go of the spoon, he attempts it in the same way on his own.
  • To follow the flow of a daily schedule. Since birth, I appreciated the importance of rhythm and routine in our home. It’s been 8 years and there is a clear-cut rhythm to our day because it’s been repeated in the same way for so long. My son anticipates what comes next based on what we did right before or the meal that preceded. He is also guided by verbal routines for transitions into other activities (e.g.: “All done” after a meal leads to clean-up and coming out of his feeding chair; “All done” after a meal when the caregiver is present leads to clean-up and going into his walker). In repeating daily routines, a child begins to anticipate what comes next and will reduce frustration over time.

Finger Play and Preschool Song Cards

Cyclical learning as a form of repeated learning

In addition to repeating throughout the day and within activities, I return to concepts, skills, and goals in a cyclical fashion.

This means I teach a concept this week, I move on to other skills next week, but within those concepts, I include/repeat what we worked on last week. Then, we move on to other concepts the following week, but always circle back to the previous concepts — spending less time and putting less emphasis on them, but always including them within our new activities. The intention is to keep the learning at the forefront of the mind and repeating it enough times so that it gets completely internalized and generalized over time.

Another way I use cyclical learning is from year to year. Since we rely heavily on the changing seasons to guide our themes, many of the songs, books, rhymes, vocabulary words, etc. are repeated on a yearly basis. This helps reinforce learning over a lifetime! It’s thrilling to see my son’s excitement when I pull out thematic books each year. This alone indicates how he has assimilated the learning.

You will notice that in none of the examples given here do I pull out flashcards and drill repeatedly. That’s because this doesn’t work for my son. I know that it won’t only frustrate him, it will also frustrate me to no end when he won’t sit still for this kind of conditioning.

Have you observed repetition working for your child, too? How do you use repetition with the intention of gentle and natural learning? How can you include cyclical learning within your homeschool? Share on Facebook or Twitter.


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