Concept Development

Concept Development

A young boy sits on the floor with a basket of dry leaves on his lap. He holds a leaf in one hand and looks at it. Expand Image
A student explores a basket of dry leaves during a class lesson about the four seasons. He previously collected these leaves from outside.

What is the difference between a concept and a skill?

A skill is the ability to perform a task. Concepts provide the understanding of "why" we do the task. For example, the individual can learn to load the dishwasher, but does the student understand why they are doing it? Does the learner have an understanding that only dirty dishes go in the dishwasher? How do we know if dishes are dirty? What is clean? Why is it important to know the difference?

Learning concepts, not just skills, helps the student with deafblindness make sense of all parts of life. Skills relate to abilities, while concepts relate to understanding what you are doing and why.

"ABDC - Always be developing concepts!" Dr. Adam Wilton, Program Manager, PRCVI

A BAD Example: Nicole and the Test Tubes

We once designed a wonderful routine for a student in a middle school, Nicole. She was totally blind, had moderate hearing difference, stood and walked with some assistance, had good receptive understanding of object cues and some understanding of tactile sign, and her formal expressive communication with object cues was just beginning.

The routine was cleaning test tubes and beakers for science in her classroom. We were very proud of it.

The routine was excellent in:

  • Being functional - it worked on educational goals for mobility, gross and fine motor, interaction with classmates, vocabulary building (particularly for concepts wet/dry, dirty/clean)
  • It performed a service for the class
  • It was inclusive, bringing Nicole into the classroom by participating in a meaningful way
  • The routine embraced the Intervenor's motto: Do with, not for
  • The routine had a start, middle, and end

She had responsibilities:

  • Getting beakers, washing tools, and setting up the washing
  • Washing, rinsing, and handing the beakers to a classmate for drying
  • Putting dry beakers onto a tray
  • Putting everything away, including beakers and washing tools

It was excellent, but a member of staff pointed out one large and terrible problem: NICOLE HAD NO IDEA WHAT IT WAS ALL ABOUT!

The routine did not make sense to Nicole. Nicole was pushed through a series of skills with the beakers, but lacked a conceptual understanding of what she was doing and why. What was Nicole's motivation to do this activity? The routine was not meaningful for Nicole.

Why Do Concepts Matter?

  • Motivation: When something makes sense, it is more motivating because the learner knows why they are doing the activity. Being a participant in life is intrinsically motivating. There is satisfaction in being actively engaged in life.
  • Problem Solving: When something makes sense, the learner is able to solve issues that may arise.
  • Transference and Generalization: When the learner understands the concept of an activity, they can quickly adjust to new situations.

Strategies for Concept Development

  1. Participate in whole cycles of activities. When does laundry really make sense? It makes sense when you have got your own shirt unmistakably dirty, identified it as dirty, taken it off, washed and dried it, identified it as clean, and put it on again. It is important for the learner with deafblindness to be given opportunities to participate in the whole cycle of laundry.
  2. Base curriculum activities that "Make Sense" to the learner. The learner is most motivated to learn in activities that are meaningful to him/her.
  3. Analyze the concepts as well as the skills in activities.
  4. Attach language to all participation. All concepts are carried by language. Use a Total Communication Approach. Model the language that goes with the concept even if the learner does not know the word. A sighted, hearing learner hears words hundreds of times before s/he attaches meaning to them. A student with deafblindness needs the same opportunity and exposure to language before it becomes meaningful. The difference is that the learner with deafblindness may need thousands (or more) of repetitions to make the same associations between the word and the action or concept it represents.
  5. Use teachable moments. A moment when the learner is fully interested in something is a moment when concepts can sink in. Always be on the lookout for those moments and give them language.
  6. Use the Total Communication Approach. Use body language, facial expressions, touch, objects, sign, voice, pictures, photos, or line drawings to help your learner understand. Remember, the learner may get partial information from several of the modes. The Intervenor often uses a combination of communication modes to help the learner understand.
  7. Generalize concepts to many situations.
  8. Start with concrete, functional concepts (eat, ball, stand) before abstract concepts (red, three, yes). It is easier to learn the labels for an action or an object and the functional use of an object, than it is to learn more abstract concepts, because the learner can actually touch the object and interact with it. Once the learner has the understanding that objects and actions have names, then it will be easier to learn more abstract concepts such as attributes (colour, shape, size), directions (up, down, here, there), positions (over, under, in, out), emotions, time, and manners.


For all activities, it's important to consider the skills and concepts required, as well as how you will provide the learner with language for them.

A GOOD Example: C. and Bella Biscuits

Making sense of their world is particularly difficult for C. who is totally blind, profoundly deaf, and has a seizure disorder. We had a hard time developing educational routines for C. because their mom insisted that they must mean something to them. We tried to develop routines in recycling, vacuuming, and plant care.

C. received a trained companion dog, named Bella, who was permitted to be at school with them. This gave us an idea for C. to make biscuits for Bella and feed one to her.

Eventually, C. understood all the parts of the routine - the skills, concepts, and language. They understood mixing, baking, bagging, set-up and clean up. They understood "food for Bella."

The team used the activity to work on all of their educational goals - fine and gross motor, communications, choosing, and social interaction - because the activity made sense to them. They understood the concepts.

Ways to Assess Concept Development

Skills are easy to measure because they relate to physical actions. How do we measure concept development?

  • Observe positive or negative responses by the learner
  • Observe appropriate responses outside of the normal context
  • Observe consistent or frequent responses to things
  • Test for use of skill in a new setting
  • Observe "wrong" use of calendar system
  • Teach the learner specific skills to "pick up," "give," or "go to," a named object so s/he can show you on request

One last example: Watering plants

The individual with deafblindness is learning "wet" and "dry" as part of his job with plant watering. The concept can be learned as part of a real and purposeful task of caring for plants.

  • They feel the soil and it is "wet." They give the symbol for "wet" to their Intervenor, signs "wet," and does not water the plant.
  • They feel the soil and it is "dry." They give the symbol for "dry" to their Intervenor, signs "dry," and waters the plant.

This is learning within a meaningful activity where the individual is learning by doing.

By Gerald Harris and Joyce Olson. Updated by POPDB, 2023