The use of sign-symbolic tools by preschool children with intellectual deficiency. The psychocorrectional aspect

General Information

Keywords: psychological tool, substitution, mental retardation, preschool children, intellectual deficiency, sign, correctional-developmental work

Journal rubric: Psychotherapy and Psychocorrection

For citation: Gavrilushkina O.P. The use of sign-symbolic tools by preschool children with intellectual deficiency. The psychocorrectional aspect. Kul'turno-istoricheskaya psikhologiya = Cultural-Historical Psychology, 2006. Vol. 2, no. 5 (In Russ., аbstr. in Engl.)

A Part of Article

Over the past decade interest in the problem of signsymbolic development of children with special needs has significantly increased. It is connected to the need of developing a holistic approach to the study of specific characteristics of disontogenesis in order to create an integrative technique of psychocorrection. Under the supposition that the divergence of cultural and natural ways of development takes place in disontogenesis (L. Vygotsky) psychologists are looking for the ways to harmonise child development. The key point here is to explore the means by which children with special needs can appropriate the systems of cultural signs and symbols.

An early form of a sign-symbolic function in ontogenesis is substitution. It lays the basis on which operations such as coding, schematization, modeling and experimentation can be formed. N.Salmina has identified the main characteristics of semiotic underdevelopment in junior schoolchildren with low academic achievements. They include inability to use formal language and scientific symbols; difficulties in transformation of certain content from one signal system into another and distinguishing between a real and a symbolic functioning. They also include inability to restore reality on the basis of provided signs and vice versa, inability to express the same notion through a number of different symbolic means.

Underdevelopment of sign-symbolic functions affects the child’s personality. An internal conflict between low academic achievement and strong unsatisfied need to be acknowledged (especially by peers) leads to psychological tension, fear of failure, lack of self-confidence and anxiety. In addition, it affects the child’s communicative behavior and interpersonal relationship as well as encourages the display of unmotivated aggression and maladaptive forms of behavior.

The problem of semiotic development is especially relevant to children with special educational needs such as mental retardation and developmental delays which are due to the poor development of higher mental functions. Such children manifest some difficulties in the use of sign-symbolic means at early stages of their development and display delays and qualitatively different ways of language system formation, functions of speech, social modeling in play, ability in informative drawing and so on. Later it life it affects their academic achievements and might cause dysgraphia, acalculia, dyslexia and so on.

Semiotic development in preschool age can be viewed as a process of the development of a syncretic sign as it emerges in play with objects, gradually branches into a number of specialized forms of signs which all attain relative independence at the end of preschool age. First of all syncretism of child development manifests itself in play. The syncretic basis of play is provided by the integrity of the three types of symbolic means: sensori-motor, imagery and verbal (with the dominance of sensori-motor symbols). The phenomenon of syncretism is observed in other types of child’s activity but the sign dominance can change. Substitution in pretend play is a psychological tool through which the process of transformation occurs. There are three levels of substitution in play: substitution for objects, role-taking (social substitution) and acting in an imaginary situation (contextual substitution). With the appearance of all the above levels of substitution (especially the first two) play shifts to the status of a leading activity.

A comparative analysis of dramatic role-play in children with different levels of intellectual development revealed that children with mental deficiency experienced difficulties with substitution at all the three levels, including play with objects. However, the children with developmental delays reach the level of object substitution either at usual times or slightly later. Yet, as far as role taking (social substitution) is concerned, this level of substitution is not accessible for children with mental deficiency without special training.

Play of preschoolers with mental deficiency displays a lack of social skill (substance), poor verbal support of the game, deficit of communicative speech utterances and limited repertoire of intonation, mimic and gesture as its sign-symbolic means which indicates that the primary syncretism of these children’s play remains underdeveloped.

The same situation can be observed in drawing as a “relative” branch of play. In the normal course of development it is typical for children to bring prior experience obtained in other kinds of activity such as play and communication into the process of drawing. When the child is not able to express something graphically s/he compensates for the deficit of drawing capacity by using familiar sign-symbolic means such as verbalisation, expressive gesture etc., which indicates that drawing at preschool age is based on syncretic sign.

The analysis of drawing in children with a retarded type of development revealed that their mastery of the image-graphic type of sign-symbolic means of in preschool age is problematic even for children with developmental delays. The communication of the meaning in drawing by play or verbal sign-symbolic means appears to be impossible for them. Thus even in the case of moderate mental retardation drawing doesn’t possess a syncretic structure and a sign integrity. It is also necessary to mention that these children are unable to distinguish between the real object and its graphic image, which can be noticed both in perception of real objects and in perception of pictures.

Dysphasia in children with intellectual deficiency is also connected to difficulties in communicating the meaning of certain content by the means of verbal signs. All the speech functions, communicative, cognitive and regulatory, appear to be affected. Sense programming, language structuring of the utterance, processes of speech production are hampered. All the components of the language system appear to be defeated including vocabulary, grammar, syntax, morphology and so on. Verbal thinking also displays an extremely low level of development.

The latest studies indicate that in the case of mental disorders which are followed by absence of symbolic play, the primary syncretism and the specification of signs is not formed and preschoolers (with normal and low intellect) display significant age scattering in their ability to specify signs. This point is very important for predicting a child’s readiness for formal schooling and for decisions on decreasing the age for early school entry. It is the author’s view that the reduction of the syncretic period in sign-symbolic development, when the process of sign specification is not yet completed, is a frequent cause of low academic achievements and school maladaptation. The reduction of the preschool period of life leads, in fact, to a loss of a developmental period which is crucial for cultural development of a child.

Thus in disontogenesis of a retarded type underdevelopment can be observed in all kinds of cultural practices of a sign-symbolic nature: play, speech and drawing. In the case of even moderate retardation in development the acquisition of various forms of signs becomes impossible without special psychocorrection interference. If provided in time it allows children with intellectual deficiency to acquire the ability to draw and later to write, to use verbal and nonverbal means of communication and to master socially acceptable behaviors.

At present a new correction-educational paradigm is elaborated which allows psychologists and early childhood educators to construct comprehensive correction programs and techniques. A new developmental correction model is created which enables the formation of sign-symbolic activity in children by involving them in socio-dramatic role play, constructive activity, drawing, and verbal communication.

The use of graphic tasks in sessions aimed at speech development and construction and based in communicative activity; the introduction of elements of sociodramatic play, imitation; attention to social contents of play and the social ways of interrelations between the characters; combination of play, speech and drawing within one session — all of these means, taken together, provide a corrective developmental effect in the normalization of children’s cultural development during preschool age.  

Information About the Authors

Olga P. Gavrilushkina, PhD in Education, Senior Researcher, Head of the Psychology of Abnormal Development Laboratory, Professor of the Preschool Psychology and Pedagogics department, Moscow State University of Psychology and Education (MSUPE), Member of the editorial board of the journal "Psychological Science and Education", Moscow, Russia, e-mail:



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