More and more research is demonstrating what Dr. Stanley Greenspan and Dr. Stuart Shanker told us in The First Idea years ago: that we develop within emotional relationships with our primary caregivers. This development progresses as a result of emotional exchanges between child and caregiver, or as Floortime calls them, circles of communication. These affective reciprocal exchanges involve gestural and other non-verbal communication along with verbal communication.

The Importance of a Continuous Flow

In the stumbling blocks series of blogs, you read about strategies to help promote the back-and-forth continuous flow of interaction between you and your child. But why is this stressed so much in the Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship-based (DIR) Model?

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University has validated what Floortimers have practiced for years: that by getting a continuous flow of back-and-forth interactions between you and your child, you are affecting the development of your child’s brain circuitry.

The significance of this is that a child is not born with these skills. We are only born with the potential to develop these skills, which is why a developmental approach is so important. This makes the caregiver’s process all the more essential to a child’s development and growth.

5 Steps for Brain Building

Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child talks about circles of communication as ‘serve and return‘ and provides some helpful tips with a downloadable .PDF which you can find here.

Circles of communication involve sending a communication, receiving a communication back, responding to it, and seeing the child responding back. The goal is to get a good rhythm of non-verbal, affective gesturing and emotional signalling between you and your child.

What Circles of Communication Aren’t

Too frequently I see parents, and practitioners, misunderstanding what circles of communication are. They say that their child does interact with them, and while that may indeed be true, the interaction they describe is not the same as a continuous flow of circles of communication.

Not Waiting or Interrupting A challenge for many of us is waiting long enough to give our child the opportunity to respond to us–verballly or non-verbally through gestures or facial expressions.

Often this happens because we have an agenda we are focused on rather than staying attuned in the moment with our child. If you are trying to get your child to do something or focused on your child learning something you are trying to show them, then it makes it hard for you to wait.

When we do wait, watch and wonder what our child is processing, thinking, and/or experiencing, it makes it easier to wait and see what they communicate back to us: verbally, gesturally, or behaviourally.

Does your child hit or scream to get what they want?

If your child hits or screams to get what they want, they have not yet developed the capacity to have a continuous back-and-forth flow with you in order to regulate and negotiate their needs using affective signalling. That is, they are missing out on all of the non-verbal cues that can guide behaviour. This capacity is essential to DIR/Floortime.

Stop-start interactions I also see this happen all of the time: Question, question, question, question. The child may or may not respond, and then you ask another question. This is not a continuous flow of interaction. Instead we like to comment to stay on the same topic and allow the child to take the lead in the interaction.

When the child isn’t staying on topic with us, we can use our affect to entice the child back into an interaction around the topic of interest of the child–not our own agenda. So if the child shows you an object indicating they are interested in playing with it, but then wanders away, you can say, “Hmm… I wonder what THIS does?!” or “Uh-oh! NOW what?!” You could put it on your head and say, “Look at THIS!

Wandering Sometimes it is a challenge to stay in the interaction, which will lead to stop-start interactions. Our child might seem to lose interest in what is happening and wander off, so we get discouraged. Because we find it challenging to stay attuned with our child and in the moment, we ourselves wander off to something new to engage our child instead of staying with the current interaction.

A better option for staying in the interaction to facilitate the circles of communication with our child is to work on getting the engagement again by playfully obstructing what the child is doing, by joining what the child is doing, or by creating anticipation around something the child is doing such as saying, “I’m coming toooooo…!“, for instance.

Repeating When you don’t know how to keep the interaction going, it’s very easy to just repeat back what the child says or dictate what the child is doing (“You’re rolling the ball down the slide!“). While this is fine, to get more circles of communication going, you need to then foster the child to initiate a circle of communication back to you and then keep it going.

While repeating or sportscasting the entire time will help foster a connection and engagement, we want to move beyond this when your child is ready. That’s when we want to put the ball in your child’s court so they can continue the interaction process. See the list of links below for more strategies on how to do this.

Talking Too Much When you don’t know how to keep the interaction going, it’s also very easy to just keep talking and talking. But for many of our kids, auditory processing is a struggle to varying degrees and it takes time to process what we say to them. The non-stop talking can be quite confusing and they might tune us out to protect the resources they require to attend to other sensory input.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, we need to again, attune to our child in the moment, follow their lead, join them, and use a lot of affect, anticipation, and non-verbal communication to entice them into interacting with us–something they desire. An important distinction to make about interacting is that when the child is overwhelmed and dysregulated, the focus should strictly be on co-regulation.

Please review these blog posts for some great strategies and tips for inspiring circles of communication with your child:

Why such an emphasis on Circles of Communication?

Without the ability to regulate through circles of communication, it is easy for our children to stay in their own isolated world where we don’t understand them, and/or for them to behave aggressively to get what they want because they are unable to communicate their needs to us. This only frustrates both us and the child.

A continuous flow of back-and-forth signalling, or circles of communication, will defeat the need to be impulsive or withdrawn. DIR/Floortime works on the developmental capacities that regulate aggression. The earlier a child can develop these capacities, the less behavioural challenges as the child gets older and bigger because the child is happier and more in control of their world.

If you found today’s post helpful and informative, please consider sharing it on Facebook or Twitter, and please share your experiences, challenges and success stories in the Comments section below. Happy Canada Day to our Canadian readers and 4th of July to our American readers!

Until next time… here’s to affecting autism!

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