Have the right plan Stan – the Co-op Approach

What’s the plan Stan?

Ever wondered why you and your child have practiced something and still can’t do it? If you’ve had the bike kicked or a pencil or shoe chucked at you in frustration, you’ll know what I mean.

We all have a plan or idea of how were going to do something but if that plan isn’t the right one, then no amount of practice is going to help, or at best help very little. This is a huge shift in my thinking as an OT. In the past I would have watched a child do something, broken it down into the components of the task and practised those. This might have been practising specific fine motor skills or balance or coordination. I may have seen a small shift and the kids were certainly having fun with all the activities we were playing but as far as succeeding in the actual task they dearly wanted to be able to do, I saw only a small amount of change. It was like that song ‘I can’t get no satisfaction’ was playing on repeat. But then I discovered a problem-solving approach that came from Canadian OT motor learning research. It was as if the sun came up for the first time.

Problem solving that works

The approach is called Cognitive Orientation to Occupational Performance which is a mouthful but put plainly and simply it’s a coaching approach that uses the child’s own problem solving to come up with plans on how to do something.

The missing link?

The vital link I was missing was the cognitive or the thinking and planning aspect of performing a task. Be it riding a bike, writing or wiping your bottom. This differs in a number of ways to the way I was working previously. First of all, the child chooses the goal. No more cajoling them through stuff that mum wants them to do but they just don’t care about. Winner! The child is already invested and will work their bottoms off if it’s actually important to them.


The coaching aspect is where the skill is, but like all skills anyone can learn it. It’s all in the questioning. To put it simply ‘Ask, don’t tell!’ You can see what the child is doing wrong when they attempt things but we’re very quick to jump in and tell them how they should be doing it. Child psychologist Jean Piaget quoted “Every time we teach a child something, we keep him from inventing it himself.”

So how do we do it?

Watch them and note to yourself where the breakdowns are. It may be that they’re looking down at their feet when riding a bike and their legs aren’t pushing hard enough on the pedals. Instead of screaming across the car park “look up. Look up!” You might stop and have a chat and ask them “Where should your eyes be looking when you ride your bike?” You know what the answer should be, but you coach them through it with your questions to come up with something new and then try it out. It’s important to then check to see if the plan worked and if not, no problem, you just need a new plan. They may use a phrase or self-talk. Encourage this because this is their ‘plan’ and they own it. It will not only help them with this goal but with many more in the future because it’s teaching them how to solve problems. Once they get the right plan then you can practice. The applications are endless.

The 3 stages of learning something new

This brings me to the three stages of learning something new. First, we have the cognitive or thinking stage which is where the development of the plan happens. We’re consciously thinking of everything we’re doing and working things out. Then we have the stage of acquisition which is where we’re improving, make errors occasionally and still may need to remind ourselves of the plan. And finally, the automatic stage where we no longer even have to think about it. Driving for an hour to your destination and arriving not even remembering the journey is a perfect example.

Seeing Co-op in action

Here is an inspiring Ted talk by Helen Polatajko which demonstrates this approach in action with a girl with significant physical disabilities learning to ride a bike. I hope you can check it out. I love this approach because it’s empowering and exciting. I get far more satisfaction now seeing these kids achieve what they want to do. I can’t imagine how it makes the kids and their parents feel but their faces seem to give me a fair idea.

Cheers all,
Deanna Williamson
Occupational Therapist

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