In DIR/Floortime we ‘follow the child’s lead’. This statement has been one of the most misunderstood aspects of the practice. It does not mean that we just follow whatever the child is doing. We talked about this a little bit awhile back, but today we will explore what it means in a bit more depth.

Recall that Dr. Stanley Greenspan‘s DIR model was based on the finding from neuroscience research that babies develop through emotional experiences within relationships with primary caregivers. It is this affect, or emotional experience, that we aim to capture in Floortime.

Following the child’s lead simply refers to getting that emotional experience activated within the child so they are motivated to interact with us. Let’s explore some examples of what this could look like.

Without the child’s motivation, you can’t go very far.

1. Determine what motivates your child

We’ve talked about this often, how we observe what our child is interested in, what the child notices, or what the child is actively engaged doing. We then JOIN the child in that activity to enter into the child’s world. Once we can establish an engagement with the child, we can entice the child into a shared world of interaction.

We have to go in with an open mind and no agenda. What does our child find fun? What gets their ‘gleam in the eye’? If your child likes kicking down towers, then that’s where you start!

Maybe your child likes constructing the structure. Maybe your child is more interested in kicking it down. Maybe your child likes the cause-and-effect play that happens when they can impact what happens, such as when they cause the tower to fall. Maybe your child likes the crashing sound of the tower falling down.

But what is it about the kicking down towers do they like? Look for clues. We want to see that emotional interest because that is what will hook the child into learning with you. The child will learn and develop from the emotional experiences that bring them shared joy with you.

2. Use sensory information about your child to maintain attention

Referring back to your child’s sensory processing profile, you can find clues to peak your child’s interest. Our son loves funny noises, sound effects, and expressive affect. So if building towers is what we’re going, we are going to exaggerate our expressions when the tower is about to fall. This is following the child’s lead.

We are going to use anticipation in our expression to wonder what will happen next before our child knocks the tower down to show how interested we are! We are going to make huge sound effects when it does fall. We are going to share the expression of joy after it happens.

On the other side of the coin, what does your child find aversive? We want to avoid loud noises or being loud if your child is sensitive and over-reactive to sound. Instead, we might see that the child is visually interested in a pattern in the rug. We can trace the pattern with our fingers, we can use quiet expressions as we slowly reach for the rug to feel the texture. We want to show our child that we are interested in what they find interesting.

3. Use affect to keep your child in an activity longer

When we are playing with our child, in whatever way that means for the child’s developmental level, we can use affect to keep our child in the interaction. Using facial expressions, exaggerated affect–which can be silent like putting our hands to our cheeks with our mouth and eyes wide open to look surprised, gasps and different tones of voice and intonation, we can entice the child to stay engaged with us.

For example, if your child’s interest is running at full speed and crashing into pillows, you can use affect by saying “My turn!” then getting in a ‘on your mark’ pose and having an eager look of anticipation on your face. You can nod and open your eyes wide to signal that you are about to ‘go’, then when you crash you can use exaggerated gestures and expressions of excitement at how fun that was.

By radiating your own joy and enthusiasm through your affect, you are essentially encouraging the child to SHARE with you their own joy and enthusiasm that they already have in their chosen activity.

4. Challenge the child without losing their attention

While you and your child are playing together, you have to challenge the child in order to move them up the developmental ladder. In doing so, you are still following the child’s lead. The child has indicated by their actions what activity they are interested in, so stick with that activity.

Within this activity, you can now playfully obstruct the child’s efforts so the child has to communicate or think to continue. We have given many examples of this in past blogs. If your child has shown you that they are interested in ripping apart play dough and throwing it on the ground, then you continue playing with play dough but provide simple little playful obstacles for the child, such as holding it in your fist exclaiming that your hand is stuck and can’t open, or throwing it in a container that then won’t open, all while showing enthusiasm and interest in being a part of their play and making sure your child doesn’t get too frustrated. You playfully figure out the solution together.

You can also act confused so that the child has to come up with what happens next. If the child is at a stage where they know they want play dough and indicate it to you, you can say “Hmm… I wonder where we put that play dough?” You can start to look for it together and you can be puzzled and use affect to keep them motivated enough to keep searching with you, together, to find it.

Your child will be motivated to meet your challenges if you are following their lead in an activity of interest and meeting them at their developmental level, taking into account their sensory profile within a safe, caring and nurturing relationship.

5. Expand your child’s play by changing it up

Following the child’s lead also means that while you are playing together in an activity that brings your child joy, you inject new ideas into the play. We always want to expand whenever we can so the child’s play does not become repetitive or based on rote memory. We want to encourage creativity and initiation on the child’s part, but some kids need a little nudge.

This is aside from a child doing a repetitive activity to self-regulate, or that they find soothing. Instead, this refers to when a child might be stuck playing in the same way due to motor planning and sequencing challenges, where they just need a little playful nudge to help them expand their ideas. We are staying with what they love, and allowing them to guide you and be the ‘director’ in the play.

You can introduce imaginary play into repetitive tasks. For example, if your child likes to play with cars, add a car wash, add a passenger, make sound effects, be the driver, etc. Try to do it a little differently and add a new element each time you play cars. Cars is the following the child’s lead, but changing it up is helping your child’s brain make new connections.

6. Slow down and/or stretch out interactions with your child to support sustained engagement and communication

When you are playing with your child in an activity of their choosing, you have a lot of leeway to really get a rich interaction going. By stretching out each step in your play and slowing down your interactions, the activity can keep going for much longer than it otherwise might have, and that is our goal.

For example, if your child likes to hear a particular song and repetitively sings the same lyrics over and over, you follow their lead by joining in and singing as well. But you can stretch out the interactions by taking turns singing, by playing clueless as to what lyrics come next, or by singing the wrong lyrics. You can slow things down by singing more slowly, by acting out the lyrics, or by bringing in toys to enact the lyrics. With each resisting notion from your child, you can say “Oh! You didn’t like that! Okay then!” Always make sure they are in control.

7. Model language in your interactions

You can follow the child’s lead while helping their language come along. If your child is interested in rolling a ball on the ground, you can join in the rolling and put your hand on the ball mid-roll saying “Stop!” You can name the colour of the ball. You can do ‘fast’ or ‘slow’ rolling. You can roll the ball ‘behind’ or ‘in front of’ something. You can roll it ‘over’ a bump, and hide it ‘under’ a towel.

Although you are doing many variations of activities with the child, you are still following the child’s lead because the child finds the ball so enticing and fun to play with. You are using your affect and expressions to engage your child into sharing the joy of playing with the ball with you, and in doing so, having a rich experience modelling useful language.

8. Incorporate body work in the play to sustain alertness & regulation

Many of us find that our children find it difficult to stay with one activity because they get dysregulated. Our son really needs to move around and have vestibular and proprioceptive input in order to stay regulated, so we must incorporate this kind of body work into our play sessions to sustain engagement and interactions with him.

His activity of interest might be playing with trains, but we can get his body moving by making our train drive up a slide. We can make our train fly through the air as we run around the room. We can drive our train over a pillow that we put on our child so he can feel the pressure of the pillow and the train driving along it on his body.

So while we are staying with his interest of trains, we are enticing him to enjoy the trains with us by having so much fun ourselves playing with our train that he will take notice and participate in the shared activity. Having to reach up high to a new track, drive the train over a bumpy surface or a big foam mattress on the ground, or over a tipping plank balancing from one couch to another, for instance, all gives the child the body work his system might require to stay regulated and connected with us.

9. Include others such as family members or friends in play

Again, following the child’s lead means that the child is motivated enough by an activity that we can entice them to stay in the activity with us. We can include siblings by all playing the same game of stacking tiny blocks. We can all use affect while we add a block to the stack, wondering when it will fall over, for instance.

If your child likes to enact scenes from movies or television, each person can be a different character and say the lines of that character. You can change it up and again use playing clueless to forget your line, or say the wrong words and then make it funny that you forgot. As long as everyone is enjoying the moment, this is our goal. When our child sees the fun others are having, they will be more likely to want to be a part of it, and we can help support them in this.

10. Join and play alongside your child

It really is so important to get down with the child and play alongside them. When we follow the child’s lead, we immerse ourselves in what they are interested in and work on sharing that experience of joy together. This is difficult to do if your child is laying on the ground moving a truck back and forth and you are on the couch across the room commenting to them.

In this example, we would want to sit close to the child and move our own truck in parallel, then drive it over to the child’s truck, then maybe block the child’s truck playfully, then even drive the truck along the child’s leg. If the child is laying on the floor they might be craving the proprioceptive input into their body so the car could provide that pressure they seek.

But being ‘in it’ with your child need not mean sitting glued to each other either. You might be swimming together and your game is being on opposite ends of the pool and swimming towards each other to then ‘get’ each other, or having a race. The possibilities really are endless, but your child needs to feel that you are in it together to benefit from the play.

SUMMARY: How can I share JOY with my child?

The point of following the child’s lead is that we want that window into the child’s emotional world. Some children are so enticed by numbers and letters, so we use that interest to bring out engagement and rich interactions. We encourage thinking and creativity by presenting the challenges and expanding what we do with letters and numbers.

So as you can see, following the child’s lead isn’t just following the child aimlessly from activity to activity, but rather using what the child enjoys to get a connection with them. It is the joyful connection that allows us to challenge the child appropriately which will foster brain development in our children. Whatever we can do to have a playful, joyful shared experience is where we want to be, as often as possible, many times each day.

Do you feel more confident in your Floortime now, understanding following the child’s lead better? Please share your thoughts and/or experiences in the Comments section below.

Until next week… here’s to affecting autism through playful interactions!

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