For many weeks, we have been going over stumbling blocks that parents face when playing with their children in each of the functional emotional developmental capacities outlined in the DIR model. Two weeks ago we reviewed challenges you can see at the fifth functional emotional developmental capacity (FEDC 5).
I could write many entire blogs just about the content in that video clip.
I listened to this video of Dr. Greenspan at least 5-10 times. It is really at the heart of that key shift from emotional catastrophic reactions to using emotional signalling and understanding symbols. It’s even much more than that. I highly recommend listening to it many times and jotting down the terms he uses, then looking them up in the Search feature at the top of this site to read up on them.
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This week we conclude our series on stumbling blocks when trying to play with our child. We will focus on the sixth functional emotional developmental capacity (FEDC 6) which is building bridges between ideas. It is also referred to as emotional and logical thinking. Once children are regulated, engaged, interacting, socially problem-solving, and creating new ideas, we begin to see connections forming between the islands of ideas they had at capacity 5.
DISCLAIMER: These are general suggestions and guidelines. Context is important and can impact how to handle a stumbling block. Children can also exhibit certain behaviours at home or with you that differ from those at school or in other settings with others. Please contact a professional for specific recommendations for your own child.
Other developmental and even some behavioural interventions are successful at supporting children with developmental challenges to reach FEDC 3, but DIR/Floortime can help children move beyond this capacity from the concrete world into the abstract. Below is not meant to be a comprehensive list, but hopefully you will find some helpful suggestions here.
DISCLOSURE: I have received help from our featured book from last week’s blog, Floortime Strategies to Promote Development in Children and Teens: A User’s Guide to the DIR® Model in the stumbling blocks and suggested strategies below. Much gratitude goes to Dr. Davis and her colleagues.
Child does not show emotional self-awareness or notice and comprehend emotions in others
Dr. Davis’ book describes how we have used narrating a child’s emotions, or mirroring, in earlier stages such as to co-regulate, but in FEDC 6, it is about the child realizing what (s)he is feeling and eventually tying that to what others feel as well. We first learn what we are feeling through our relationship with our primary caregivers which helps us learn how to manage our overwhelming emotions ourselves.
- Make your child aware of emotions all around you: in stories you read, people you see, strangers in public such as “Oh no! That boy is crying. He must be really sad.“
- A great game is to take turns making faces and using nonverbal gestures to guess what emotion the person is feeling. If your child is not ready to do this yet, you can do it to help him/her recognize different emotions.
- Recognize your child’s emotions by empathizing and mirroring what your child feels, labelling it for him/her (not asking) without trying to control or influence what (s)he feels. Empathizing means really trying to feel what (s)he feels yourself and show it on your face and with your regulated affect so you can really connect. If your child corrects you, acknowledge this and change your feeling to match his/hers.
- Whenever possible, do include the possible cause of the feeling to help the child connect why (s)he feels that way, for instance, “You’re mad because your tower fell down.”
- Use the classic Floortime technique of wonderment. “Hmm… I wonder why that boy is so excited?” This promotes thinking in your child.
- Again, it’s of the utmost importance for your child to feel safe with you to express all feelings so you have to accept all feelings without judgement. It’s so tempting for so many parents to say “C’mon! It’s just a tiny splash of water. That’s no reason to be upset!” in various contexts, but with all kids–especially those with developmental challenges–you have to be comfortable with the full range of emotions so you can help your child manage these difficult emotions. All emotions are felt 100% in these early years so a tiny drop of water on his/her shirt is equally as catastrophic as a gash in his/her knee after a bad fall or Mommy leaving for work or not getting to play with his/her favourite toy.
- Reflect on emotions the child experiences by again, using the “hmm…” such as “Hmm… I wonder why you felt so upset when we were at the grocery store. Do you think you were mad?” The User’s Guide to the DIR® Model book gives many more great examples.
Child does not practice or experiment with emotions in play
In typical development, children will play out emotions in their play to experiment with how they feel and how they will manage these emotions across situations. For instance, a child might come home and play ‘school’ making the teacher boss the stuffed animals around or scold one to explore what happened earlier at school.
(S)he might play good guys/bad guys with superheroes, or have a doll talk mean to another doll playing out what mean things a sibling said to him/her. All of this play is about practicing real life without consequences, as Dr. Neufeld says. This practice will help the child process and then manage his/her emotions as well as become self-aware–a quality that even many adults in today’s society lack.
- Encourage difficult topics your child brings up in play as best as you can with complete acceptance, interest and curiosity; you are the child’s partner in helping make sense of the emotions felt by being his/her guide rather than dictator.
- Invite emotions into play that aren’t being expressed in current play so the child can begin to explore these feelings rather than avoiding them. This must be done delicately depending on how resistant your child is to these feelings, so you also want to be as indirect and non-directive as possible. The Floortime “Hmm…I wonder...” technique is good for this.
- Example: If a child has had toileting accidents and is feeling shame, you can carefully and non-chalantly introduce the theme of shame into play by having one of the characters or dolls have an ‘accident’.
- When and only if the child is ready, you can connect the feelings in play to situations that happened in real life to encourage self-reflection.
- Highly recommended is Dr. Gordon Neufeld’s Making Sense of Play course or DVD set which talks about play in neurotypical children from a developmental perspective, but is so essential to play in all children.
Child’s play has islands of ideas but child is not able to join the ideas together
In FEDC 6 we want to help our children develop logical reasoning so they will be able to think and reason when having discussions with others. This skill will help children connect and sequence their ideas together, and help them connect their thinking with that of others as well. This will promote cooperation in their relationships, help them with planning and goal-setting, and better differentiate reality from fantasy.
- Ask your child to clarify reasons for changing direction in play or actions by noting that first (s)he was doing one thing, then (s)he did another thing, then asking why (s)he switched or what made him/her change her mind. This will inspire thinking.
- When your child requests to do something, don’t give in without asking to know why, what, when, and how to help the child not only develop reasoning, but also to encourage the child reflecting on his/her decisions and wishes.
- Similarly, when you request something of the child, explain the reasons why you are making this request and allow your child to provide a counter-argument you can discuss.
- Present questions about what you see happening in play or real life as comments such as making your train fall off the track and saying “Hmm…I wonder why my train derailed?” or in real-life, “Hmm… That car just turned left. I wonder where that car is going?” or in a story you read “Oh, poor little bear. He feels sick. Do you think he is scared and wants his mommy? Should we take his temperature?“
- Change your daily routine of directing your child to inspiring thought and reason in your child. We are committing to you that this week, we will beginning this exercise with our son. For example, when we get up in the morning, instead of directing him to the bathroom we will say, “Time to get up! What do we have to do first?” After using the washroom, we can ask, “Hmm… now what do we need to do?” If the answer is “Play trains!” we will say, “Oh…hmm…I think there might be something we have to do before that…” etc. throughout the day.
- This can be used for promoting another capacity of FEDC 6 which is sequencing time and events. So you can extend these questions to “What did we do yesterday?” “What happens tomorrow?” with more specific examples of events the child is aware of, or reflect on things that happened before, in the present, and will happen in the future.
Child is unable to answer questions such as “why” or “how”
A child who is unable to respond to questions might be stuck in memorization mode, especially if they have had a lot of applied behavioural intervention therapy. Questions also might bring up anxiety as the child feels put on the spot to please the person asking the question. In extreme cases, it could send the child into a flight or fight response so that the child is literally incapable to thinking because (s)he can only react in an attempt to return to a state where (s)he feels safe again.
- If your child struggles to answer, you can provide multiple-choice answers to spark his/her thinking until (s)he is able to come up with his/her own response. You can always make the latter choice be a ridiculous answer to inspire the child to wonder why you suggested such a silly explanation. For instance, you can ask why we need to come to the dinner table. Is it because we are hungry, because we are tired, or because it is raining outside? (You can be more creative than this!)
- Avoid asking the same questions to avoid the child memorizing answers rather than thinking of possible explanations.
- If your child is anxious, rather than asking questions you can use comments to inspire thinking such as “Hmm… I wonder why we need to come to the dinner table right now?” or “I wonder why Gordon pulls the express and why Thomas pulls Annie and Clarabel? That is very interesting…” Making a statement rather than posing the question can relieve the pressure from a child having to answer and this small difference could be enough for anxious children to want to participate in coming up with an answer.
- Simply commenting on things in general and wondering why out loud can start your child’s process of thinking about reasons things happen. For example, you can say “Hmm… I wonder if it will be raining tomorrow? We might need to bring an umbrella!” or “Hmm… Sir Topham Hatt was very angry with Thomas. Thomas didn’t stop at the red light!” or “Well, I wonder why the garbage truck is so late this morning. Maybe the driver had to stop to get a coffee.” (You can be more creative than this!)
That concludes our series on stumbling blocks we come up against at each of the first 6 FEDCs in Floortime. I hope you found some helpful tips to use in play with a child you care about. Next week, we will visit a concept that is so important in Floortime which is slowing down and stretching out interactions.
Until next week… here’s to affecting autism!