Perceptual and Motor Skills, 1992, 74, 1031-1039. O Perceptual and Motor Skills 1992

SYMMETRY IN BUILDING BLOCK DESIGN FOR LEARNING DISABLED AND NONLEARNING DISABLED BOYS ' MARTHA J. MEYER, SHERYL LEE DAY, AND W N G - B I N BENJAMIN LEE Valdosta State College Summary.-This scudy examined perceptual differences in symmetry with and without a model between 21 learning disabled boys with reading deficits and 28 learning disabled boys with deficits in mathematics. 55 nonlearning disabled boys served as controls. All boys were in Grades 3, 4, or 5 . Without a model, all learning disabled boys built significantly more asymmetrical building block designs than nonlearning disabled boys. However, with a model, all learning disabled boys could imitate the model, but it took them longer to complete the task successfully. All boys appeared to have difficulty in modeling asymmetrical tasks talung more time for task completion after seeing an asymmetrical model. This study suggests modeling perceptual casks might be an effective teaching strategy for such chlldrcn

Perceptual deficits are listed when evaluating children for learning disabilities (U. S. Office of Education, 1977). These deficits contribute to children's difficulty in locating where decimal points belong, sequencing ordinal numbers, and writing fractions (Gearheart & Gearheart, 1989). These children often lose their place, have difficulty copying from the blackboard, and are unable to conceptualize and arrange a multistepped problem (Mercer & Mercer, 1989). Many experience academic failure even though they have normal IQs. Studies indicate these children never catch-up and are "at risk" for dropping out of school (Gearheart & Gearheart, 1989; Lerner, 1989; Mercer & Mercer, 1989). Distance and symmetry are spatial relationships dependent upon perception. Many learning disabled children are reported to be unable to estimate size or visualize distance even though they can recite mathematical facts, such as number of ounces in a pound or number of inches in a foot (Johnson, 1987; Marzola, 1987). How students use visual memory is reflected in Johnson's study of haptic perception in which he videotaped the hands of normal and learning disabled preschoolers. Analysis showed less active searching for critical attributes and more hands-on pressing and squeezing movements by the learning disabled children than by normal children. Johnson states "Perhaps they did not have sufficient imagery and/or background knowledge on which to base their explorations. That is, they did not know for what to search" (p. 138). These preschoolers needed more tactile experience in their efforts to visualize attributes of size and form. Using Piagetian 'This study was supported in part by a grant from the Graduate School Research Fund of Valdosta State College. Request reprints from Martha J. Meyer, Department of Special Education, Valdosta State College, Valdosta, GA 31198.



theory, action upon concrete materials (e.g., manipulatives such as used in Johnson's study) is internahzed into mental actions (van Erp & Heshusius, 1986). However, when children exhibit deficits in visual memory and spatial relationships, Piaget has little advice to give as to how this internahation might be structured, expedited, and actuabzed through teaching. I t is from this belief that perception, visualization, and thinking in children do not develop automatically but rely on guided action that we turn to the learning strategy of modeling. Modeling is a broad concept which can be defined "as a process in which a person learns something or changes h s subsequent behavior as a consequence of having observed another person (a model) perform that behavior" (Browder, Schoen, & Lentz, 1987; CulLnan & Kauffman, 1975; Grantham & Joslyn, 1981; Greeson, 1986). Modeling is most effective when observers view models similar to themselves, such as same sex and age, and are more likely to match the behaviors thcy see modeled (Bandura, 1986). The modeling process can have three effects on a student: (a) new behaviors may be learned, (b) previously acquired behaviors may be strengthened, or (c) previously acquired behaviors may be weakened (Mercer & Mercer, 1989). There is evidence motor behavior can be successfuJly modeled. Thomas, Pierce, and Ridsdale (1977) found that 7- to 9-yr.-old nodearning disabled girls were successful at modeling a stabilometer balance task; however, these researchers also noted that once a young child begins to acquire a learning strategy, the introduction of a model seems to interfere with learning. If this is the case, learning disabled children who have already developed inefficient visual memory and spatial perceptual skills may be ineffective modelers of peers who appropriately model these skills. In other words, modeling may not be a powerful enough change agent. However, if learning disabled children lack a learning strategy for these skills, modeling may be a viable intervention. This could account for some learning disabled children experiencing difficulty in reading but not mathematics and others failing in mathematics but not reading. This research project further examined the roles visual sequential memory and spatial relationships in building block designs play in differentiating between learning disabled children having deficits in reading vs mathematics. Also investigated was whether these groups perceive spatial symmetry differently than nonlearning disabled peers with and without a model. The purpose of this investigation was to answer the following questions: Are there differences i n spatial symmetry and time on task between learning disabled boys with reading deficits and learning disabled boys with mathematics deficits before a modeling treatment and after a modeling treatment? Are there differences with modeling on these measures between all learning disabled boys and their male controls?



Fifty learning disabled boys and 55 nonlearning disabled boys participated in this study. All boys were enrolled in Grades 3, 4, or 5 within six elementary schools located in a small city in South Georgia. Racial representation in these schools was as follows: 36% white, 62% black, and 2% other (Asian, Hispanic, and Native American). All learning disabled boys had met criteria required by the State of Georgia for placement in special education services for learning disabled children. Also, they were gouped by specific learning disability. One group of 22 boys (12 or 55% white, 1 0 or 45% black) received reading instruction; the second group of 28 boys (ns = 14, 50% white, 50% black) received remediation in mathematics. Eleven of the former group also received remediation for deficiencies in mathematics; however, no boy in the mathematics program was or had previously received remediation in reading or was currently receiving services for reading. Nonlearning disabled boys (25 or 45% white, 30 or 55% black) had never been evaluated or received services for learning disabilities. Selection criteria included being between 102 and 149 months in age. Cognitive Abilities Test (CAT) verbal standard scores had to be between 85 and 115. To be considered specifically learning disabled in reading or mathematics, boys also had to satisfy achievement criteria. Composite standard scores earned on the mathematics or reading battery on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills had to be at least one standard deviation below the population mean for the children's ages. This additional measure was used to assure deficiencies in reading or mathematics before making final decisions about group. Boys with reading or mathematics achievement scores below grade but consistent with their CAT Verbal scores were nor included in either group. Nonlearning disabled boys exhibited academic achievement in both reading and mathematics composite standard scores neither exceptional nor deficient relative to their age and ability, i.e., their composite standard scores were within one standard deviation of the population mean in both reading and mathematics. AU demographic data had been collected on all boys before assignment to group and treatment. The means for age, race, Cognitive Abilities Test Verbal standard scores, and Iowa Tests of Basic Skills reading and mathematics achievement standard scores were examined. Analyses of variance were performed to assess equality of groups. No differences were found between the learning disabled groups except on the two Iowa Tests of Basic Skills measures. These were significantly different from nonlearning disabled boys on mathematics and reading composite scores as well as on I Q and age. The latter two occurred because the investigators only had access to graded classes for subjects. Previous research suggests children identified as having



learning disabilities usually experience at least one or two years of failure and grade retention before being placed in special education (Algozzine & Ysseldyke, 1983; Westman, 1990). Studies of learning disabled subjects with nodearning disabled controls also report differences in IQ, with learning disabled children having lower mean IQs than their nonlearning disabled peers (Algozzine & Ysseldyke, 1983; Grantham & Joslyn, 1981; Walker & Poteet, 1989). See Table 1 for demographic data. TABLE 1 MEANSAND STANDARD DEVIATIONS FOR DEMOGRAP~IIC DATAA N D TESTSCORES Learning Disabled Boys Readine Mathematics


Age, months Race Cognitive Abilities Test, Verbal Iowa Tests of Basic Skills Standard Scores Reading Mathematics





121.4 1.5' 98.9

11.3 .5 7.9

126.3 1.5 94.6

14.0 .5 10.6

Nonlearning Disa bled Peers

35.9 73.8

23.4 47.2 16.9 14.8 27.0 12.6 'Codes for race: Caucasian, 1; Black, 2; Asian, 3; for ns, see p. 1033.

From an initial pool of 124 learning disabled and nonlearning disabled children, 105 (84%) met all criteria. One learning disabled subject deficient in reading was lost during the course of the study because he relocated. Setting The boys identified as learning disabled attended resource room programs in their respective elementary schools. Nonlearning disabled boys attended classes in regular classrooms. The baseline and treatment conditions were conducted with individual boys in isolated rooms away from distractions. Procedure Baseline condition.-Each of the 105 boys was provided with 120 natural wood building blocks and asked to build anything- he wished. All blocks matched exactly in size and shape. All projects were timed and judged for symmetry and balanced design, using two criteria. (1)A block structure must be at least 75% or more in symmetrical halves or quarters to be judged symmetrical and balanced. (2) A block structure not meeting the 75% criterion for spatial symmetry was judged to be asymmetrical and unbalanced. This criterion was used for both baseline and treatment conditions. Judgments about criteria were made immediately on completion of each boy's project. Treatment conditions.-Boys were randomly assigned to one of two ex-



perimental conditions: (1) viewing a videotape of another boy constructing a symmetrical and balanced project with the same 120 natural wood building blocks used in the baseline condition or ( 2 ) a videotape of another boy constructing an asymmetrical and unbalanced project using these blocks. Both videotapes were 4 minutes long. An equivalent number of subjects from each group and grade were randomly assigned to the two conditions. Independent variables.-The two manipulations in this study were group (learning disabled in reading, learning disabled in mathematics, and nonlearning disabled subjects) and treatment (viewing a videotaped model building a symmetrical and balanced construction and a model building a project which did not meet the criteria). Dependent variables.-The two dependent variables were building time and judgment of symmetry and balance in each boy's completed (or nearly completed) project. Building time (time on task) was the time each boy used in constructing his project, with a maximum limit of 10 minutes. Judgment for symmetry and balance was based on the described criteria in Table 2.



Block structure needs to be over 7 5 % In balanced halves or quarters in order to meet criteria for balance and symmetry If the boy uses (a) small block(s) on one side, (a) s m d block(s) OF similar size and type need(s) to be used on the opposite side of the structure. 2. The structure will only be judged For balance and symmetry when the boy has indicated he is Finished. Boys will not be coached about what they are building. 3 . Block structures not meeting the 75% criteria for balance and symmetry will be judged to be asymmetrical and unbalanced in design. 1


A judgment will be made immediately after the building OF each boy's structure. Slides will be taken of each buildmg project for judgment at a later time if there is question whether the structure meets the 75% criteria for symmetry and balance.

Task: baseline condition.-Each of the 105 boys went to the research room, was introduced to the data collector, and told: "I am interested to see how you build with blocks. You may build anything you want. I t is not necessary for you to use all the blocks; just build as if I were not here. I will be timing you, but I don't want you to hurry. This just helps me to know how much time I have left for the other boys we'll be seeing today. You do have a ten-minute limit for building, which should give you plenty of time to conlplete your project. When you are finished, tell me and I'll stop my watch and take a picture of it. Do you have any questions? (Pause) Have fun!" The assistant began timing each boy with a stop watch when the first block was picked up. Boys were not coached about what they were building by the assistant nor did boys engage her in conversation while building.- he watch



was stopped when each boy indicated he had completed his structure. Each building project was judged according to the described criteria for symmetry and balance. To assure criteria were met, a 35-mm slide was taken of each boy's project. These slides were viewed when there were doubts whether a boy's project met the criteria. After the picture was taken, each boy was told the assistant would return in three weeks so they could build again. Each boy was then thanked and asked to take apart his project and restack the blocks in preparation for the next boy. Tasks: conditions.-After a 3-week interval, each of the 104 boys returned to the research room, were seated in front of a videotape player and monitor, and told: "It's nice to see you again. You w d be watching a videotape of Zac building with blocks. Notice how Zac is building. When the tape is over, we want you to build your project today as much like Zac's as you can. This tape is only 4 minutes long, so you will get to build soon." The videotape was started and the assistant left the room. When the tape was finished, each boy was brought to the pile o t blocks he used in the baseline condition and told: "I am interested to see how much you can build like Zac. Again, it is not necessary for you to use all the blocks. Build your project as much like Zac as you can; just build as if I were not here." The rest of the instructions were the same as those for the baseline condition. Timing of the building and judgment of the project were also the same. After the picture was taken, each boy was given a pencil and thanked. Interrater Agreement To ensure reliable evaluations of time spent building and judgment for symmetry and balance, these measures were evaluated independently by another observer. Before data collection, the assistant and an observer were trained for three hours on the two measures, building time and judgment of symmetry and balance on the completed (or nearly completed) building block project. The assistant and observer were instructed on how to use the stop watch when timing each subject's building activity. Also the assistant and the observer were instructed in using the criteria for symmetry and balance for making a judgment for that measure. O n completion of training both assistant and observer timed and rated the building performance of two fourth grade girls, both in baseline and treatment conditions. Agreement on time was a 5-second difference between time recorded by the assistant and the observer. Agreement on symmetry and balance was based on the previously described criteria. The percentage of agreement was computed using the following formula: Agreements Agreements + Disagreements



The interrater agreement exceeded the minimum criterion of 80% for each measure after trajn~ng. On-site reliability measures were obtained for a randomly selected 2Oqo of the subjects during the baseline and for 15% randomly selected subjects during Time 1 and the same for Time 2. Interobserver agreement between the assistant and the independent observer was: for baseline condition, time on task .86, spatial symmetry .98; at Time 1: time on task .88 and spatial symmetry 1.00; at Time 2: time on task .92 and spatial symmetry 1.00. These values exceeded required interrater agreement o f .80 for a l l measures.

RESULTS The experimental design used in this study was a 3 x 2 randomized control-group design (Isaac & Michael, 1983). Planned comparisons for significant differences were made between learning disabled groups for measures of building time and symmetry. These two groups (with specific disabilities in reading and mathematics) were merged and compared with a nonlearning disabled group on the same measures. Analyses of variance were computed for all measures. Results for both baseline and treatment measures are reported in text and means and standard deviations are reported in tabular form.

Baseline Condition Table 3 contains means and standard deviations for the two measures, time on task and symmetry, by group for baseline condition. When no treatment model was presented, no significant differences were noted between those with deficits in reading and mathematics for time on task (F,,,, = 2.02, p = .16) and symmetry (F,,,, = 3.62, p = .06). When both groups of learning disabled boys were combined and compared with nonlearning disabled boys, differences in building time were not significant (F,,,,, = 2.43, p = .09); however, there was a significant effect for symmetry (F,,,,, = 3.56, p = .005). Learning disabled boys built more asymmetrical structures than nonlearning disabled boys when no model was presented. TABLE 3


Learning Disabled Boys Mathematics, n = 27 Reading, n = 22 M SD M SD

Time on Task, seconds 155.2 470.2 397.9 Symmetry in Building* 1.3 .5 1.1 1 =symmetrical building; 2 = asymmetrical building.

193.0 .3

Nonlearning Disabled Peers, n = 55



361.3 1.0

211.2 .2

Treatment Condition Table 4 contains means and standard deviations for time on task and symmetry by group. There were no main effects after treatment between




Time on Task, seconds Symmetrical Asymmetrical Symmetry in Building* Symmetrical Asvrnmetrical "1 = symmetrical building; 2



Learning Disabled Boys Reading, n = 22 Mathematics, n = 27 M SD M SD 446.4 482.8

153.8 179.2

1.1 1.6


= asymmetrical


399.5 432.2 1.1 1.6

Nonlearning Disabled Peers, n = 55



170.6 150.2

312.4 391.2

110.4 172.9

.3 .2

1.0 1.7




learning disabled groups with reading and mathematics deficits for time on task ( F,, = 1.08, p = .30) or for symmetry ( F ,,,, = ,001, p = .97); however, when learning disabled groups were combined and compared with nonlearning disabled boys, there was an effect for time on task (F,,,,, = 8.06, p = ,006) but not for symmetry (F,,,,, = ,053, p = .82). After viewing the model, learning disabled boys took more time to build their structures than nonlearning disabled boys but could imitate the model. No interactions of group by treatment were found. Two points of interest were the differences in baseline condition on symmetry and time on task after perceptual modeling treatments.

Modeling Treatments This study suggests learning disabled boys do see symmetry differently than their nondisabled peers. When left without a model, they built more structures judged to be asymmetrical. Modeling building block construction may be a useful teaching strategy. Both learning disabled and nodearning disabled boys were able to imitate the model successfully in both conditions, but learning disabled boys tended to be slower. All nodearning disabled boys imitated the model building a symmetrical structure, but three nonlearning disabled boys were not able to imitate the asymmetrical model. These findings suggest modeling can be used as a teaching strategy for tasks requiring perceptual skills. When a model is presented, more time is needed to imitate the modeled activity successfully. I t might be advantageous for teachers to provide clear models and to allow ample time for completion of the modeled task.

Conclusion When presented a peer model, learning disabled boys do as well as their nonlearning disabled peers, but it takes them longer to successfully complete a task requiring perceptual skills. All boys appear to have difficulty modeling



asymmetrical tasks, indicated by extended time for task completion after the asymmetrical modeling treatment. These results lead to additional questions: Would using peer models demonstrating specific reading and/or mathematics perceptual skills be a successful intervention for learning disabled children? If so, at what age would these be effective? How does attention to the modeled perceptual skill affect performance? If learning disabled children can model successfully, will they also be able to reduce the amount of time on task if given more opportunities for practice? REFERENCES h c o z z m e , B., & YSSELDYKE, J. (1983) Learning disabilities as a subset of school failure: the oversophistication of a concept. Exceptional Children, 50, 242-246. BANDURA, A. (1986) Social foundations of thought and action. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

BROWDER, D. M., SCHOEN, S. F.,& LENTZ,F. E. (1987) Learning to learn through observation. lournal of Special Education, 4, 47-61. CULLINAN, D., & KAUFFMAN, J. M. (1975) Modeling: research with implications for special education. Journal of Special Education, 9, 209-221. GEARHEART, B. R., & GEARHEART, C. J. (1989) Learning disabilities: educational strategies. Columbus, O H : MerriU. GRANTHAM, R. J., & JOSLYN,M. S. (1981) Modeling implications for rehabilitation counseling process and outcome. Rehabili*ltion Counseling Bulletin, 24, 342-353. GREESON,L. E. (1986) Modeling and mental imagery use by multiply handicapped and preschool ctuldren. Psvcholo~v - in the Schools.. 23.. 82-87. ISAAC,S., & ~ C H A E W. L , B. (1983) Handbook in research and evaluation. (2nd ed.) San Diego, CA: EdlTS. JOHNSON, D. (1987) Nonverbal learning disabhties. Pediatric Annals, 16, 133-141. LERNER, J. W. (1989) Learning disabilities: theories, diagnosis, and teaching strategies. (5th ed.) Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin. Pp. 76-94; 282-290.

W Z O U , E. S. (1987) Using manipulatives in math instruction. Reading, Writing, and Learninn- Disabilities.. 3.. 9-20. ~ R C E C. R ,D., & MERCER, A. R. (1989) Teaching students with learning problems. Columbus, OH: Merrill. THOMAS, J. R., PIERCE, C., & RIDSDALE,S. (1977) Age differences in children's abhty to model motor behavior. Research Quarterly, 48, 592-597. U. S. OFF'ICE OF EDUCATION. (1977) Procedures for evaluating specific learning disabilities. Federal Register, 42, 65082-65085. VAN ERP, . W. M., & HESHUSTUS, L. (1986) Action psychology: learning as the interiorization o f' action in early instruction of mathematically disabled learners. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 19, 274-279. WALKER,S. C., & POTEET,J. A. (1989) Influencing memory performance in learning disabled students through semantic processing. Learning DisabiLities Research, 5, 25-32. WESTMAN, J . C. (1990) Handbook of learning disabilities: a multisystem approach. Boston, MA: ALlyn & Bacon.

Accepted April 27, 1992.

Symmetry in building block design for learning disabled and nonlearning disabled boys.

This study examined perceptual differences in symmetry with and without a model between 21 learning disabled boys with reading deficits and 28 learnin...
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