This week we have a follow-up with Kristy Gose from our last podcast with her, Floortime with Family and Small Groups. Kristy is an Infant Family Mental Health Specialist, a Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship-based (DIR) Expert Facilitator and trainer, and a professor at Fresno City College where she co-ordinates the Early Intervention Certificate Program. She also owns and operates the Touchstone Family Development Center in Fresno, which is a DIR centre. This week she wants to touch on promoting the symbolic piece of early social-emotional development in small-group settings.

Promoting Symbolic Thinking in Small Group Settings with Kristy Gose

by Affect Autism

What is symbolic thinking?

Kristy says that symbolic thinking is not only imaginary play. It’s logic, it’s sequencing ideas, it is creating a story line. There’s the thinking piece, but there’s also the organization of the body piece. When your body is organized, you can connect another idea to your story line. The DIR model brings home how we can support this process. 

Mom and Dads often like to pull out a lot of toys to get to this symbolic thinking piece, but recall that the Sensory profile and our Relationship with the child affects this process. We need to become part of the story. When our son says, “Watch out, Gekko!” we can become the gecko rather than pulling out a toy gecko.

Strategies for parents

Typically when a child is in the fourth Functional Emotional Developmental Capacity (FEDC 4) inching into FEDC 5 and FEDC 6, it can be very dysregulating for them. Kristy looks for how many circles of communication interactions she can get, and when they start to break down, she realizes there is dysregulation. She’ll notice 20 or 30 circles of communication and then the child will hide under the table, or bite her, for instance.

When this happens, we want to wait on that appropriate challenge for a minute. After creating those 20 or 30 circles of communication, watch your rhythm and reduce the demand. Sit down now and maybe go back to organizing the body or doing a rhythm with rhythm sticks, a swaying movement, swings or breathing, and then say “That was a great story, wasn’t it?” After that, jump back in to the theme–or the child might change the theme, and that is fine.

The swing becomes your pirate ship. The climbing structure becomes your fort. The cowboys are running around the structure, etc. to whatever the child’s theme may be. Kristy notices that parents and professionals will sometimes become dysregulated when working with symbolic thinking. Some kids may have a great idea, but it’s going to take a time element to sequentially organize their body. We all have to process, and wait our turn. The time element is essential to symbolic thinking.

What if you lose regulation during your symbolic thinking play session? Watch the level of demand that you are supplying ideas to the child. You may have to go back to AFFECT-ACTION-WORD. Go back to using your face, reducing your speech and using your body. Maybe assign a single word, “Gekko” while gesturing like a gecko and then work back up to the story line.

Example Kristy was recently in a toddler classroom where teachers were operating at the higher social-emotional capacities of FEDCs 5, 6, and 7 and the children were getting dysregulating. There was too much language including too many What/Why/How/Where/When questions. It was too much even for the neurotypical toddlers. Kristy says when children are dysregulated, reduce the speech and language to get your kids to the higher capacities of symbolic thinking. You want that deep, intimate, joyful engagement. You have to support the regulation up, up, up that developmental ladder.

Example I shared with Kristy my own story of driving with my son and how he gets dysregulated when we have to stop at a red light or a line up of cars at a stop sign. He finds it challenging to wait and gets anxious, demanding to know when we will be able to go again. After my podcast with Maude Le Roux where she discussed his challenge with timing and sequencing that he is currently working through, I implemented a strategy she suggested. First, I co-regulated with him saying, “Oh no. We are going to have to stop for a long time! How high do you think we will have to count before it turns green?

My son replied, “Six!” So, I began to count very slowly and rhythmically, “One… twwwwoooo… threeeeee…” and so on up to six. Coincidentally, the light turned green at “six” so I exclaimed, “Wow! You were right! We counted to six and the light turned green!” But when we got to the next red light, I knew it would be a doozy, so I said, “Oh boy… I think we might have to count to ONE HUNDRED before we get to turn at this street!” Low and behold, I counted slowly and rhythmically all the way to 100. My son even joined me in counting. Although he was a bit frustrated from time to time, he was able to stay with me and the counting and by chance, again, we got through the light right at 100! 

As I mentioned to Kristy, this worked really well for his regulation, and next time it might not. But this is the type of thing we have to do. Kristy said that in her groups, she also uses rhythmic counting when she will put up a story board to draw a stick figure or a single word to represent someone’s idea. They realize their idea has been visualized, even if they can’t read, so they can visually sequence and notice their story. She’ll then say “What’s number 1? What’s number 2?” as she points to the story board. That rhythmic counting is regulating.

What if that doesn’t work for me?

I asked Kristy, what about anyone who doesn’t feel comfortable doing that ‘Kindergarten teacher voice’ of  “1…2…” in that sing-songy rhythmic way? Kristy says that doing that voice indeed could be dysregulating for some. We are dysregulated when we are asked to go out of our culture of origin. It might make you feel embarrassed or demeaned. Kristy says find your way to play that feels good to you. 

Your child will join you because your affect will be warm and nurturing. Find the interaction that feels warm and cultural to you. And once again, this involves finding your own sensory profile. Kristy points out that everyone who trains in to learn the DIR model and Floortime had to do this and find what our own cultural indices were to get the higher developmental capacities with children in our Floortime sessions.

The End Goal

We want our children to be able to engage in a joyful way with their fellow humans, so we want to increase the range of humans they can interact with and develop their skill as well. So we do want to increase the demand they are able to tolerate. Therefore, Kristy will switch between her AFFECT-ACTION-WORD voice and the way she regularly talks. It’s about co-regulation. She wants her little one to gain skill in supporting the co-regulation as well. When she loses regulation, she’ll go into her support strategies, but when they are interacting with her, she can go into mirroring them to support them. In the course of regulation, we gain skill and the little ones gain skill, Kristy says.

Example Kristy gave us an example of trying to get a child to engage with dinosaurs. The child kept leaping around the room and Kristy was trying to figure out what his idea was. She said, “I see you have an idea!” Dad said he’s been watching the cartoon “Spirit“, a horse, so Kristy said “I’m Spirit!” and he started talking and leaping with her. He said “Drink water“. The idea, the body, communication, and the co-regulation all came together to get him up the developmental ladder. She didn’t need to use the ‘baby talk’ affect. She simply followed his lead by saying “Spirit“.


Helen Townsend produces wonderful materials for supporting parents in co-regulation. She delineates the fight/flight/freeze/submission behaviours and strategizes how to support regulation in each of these over-registered states. Kristy sees ‘submission’ more than she originally thought. It looks under-registered and shut down. It looks like freeze without the anxiety. It’s dissociation. It’s wandering. It’s tossing the toys or the idea aside. Co-regulation is simply relational safety. It’s, “I’m right here. I see that you’re feeling upset” even when there might not be affect. “Your body tells me something’s going on. Let’s sit and let’s breathe together.

Primary Care Groupings in Classrooms: The ‘I’ and the ‘R’

In a classroom, Kristy sees a critical difference when there are Primary Care groupings versus when there are not. Primary Care groupings is supported by the literature. A single adult teacher can only engage 5 or 6 children appropriately in one time. If child 7 joins, the engagement falls apart and it falls apart for everyone. The DIR Model requires that nurturing, warm, deep Relationship (the ‘R’) that is central to growth and development.

Primary Care groupings help us mediate sensory processing (i.e., Individual differences, the ‘I’) so much more easily. A teacher has primary intimacy responsibility with a set grouping of children so these children attach deeply to the teacher, as well as with those in their primary grouping peers. That touchstone in the big classroom is critical. Children need that primary care teacher there to support them when they need them. The small grouping within the big class helps and children can also look for their emotional anchor which helps them block out all the other visual spatial information that can be dysregulating.

There is some resistance to Primary care groupings in child development because it communicates to some teachers that some of the children won’t like me or I won’t like some of them, but that is not how it operates, Kristy says. It has to do with the critical need for intimacy in our group care settings. Once again, we need to look at the sensory profile of the teachers. They need to become awake & aware of their own sensory triggers of what is over-registering for that teacher. We can foster co-regulation by creating sensory profiles that are easily supported by one another.

The ‘D’ 

I asked Kristy what do we do in groups to move our kids developmentally? She said that nothing works like typically-developing models. She is a real supporter of good inclusion. Terrible inclusion is really easy to do. Good inclusion takes organization, understanding, and DIR understanding.

Kristy said that when she sits with her neurodiverse children who aren’t eating well at school and all the other kids are eating, for instance, that the neurodiverse child will eat with the correct sensory support. Rituals and routines that connect to home come alive when we are able to add a typically developing peer, she says.

Understanding the Routines and Needs of the Family

Kristy had a conversation with a Dad who said that meal time at home is so hard. There was celery in the soup and the child could not tolerate it. She says we need to focus on relational safety which looks something like, “We are going to sit at the table. Our family sits at the table. We eat supper together. We love sitting at the table with you.” 

Then, once you have regulation, you need to problem-solve about the celery which looks something like, “Our family has a lot of ideas. What can we do about this celery? We don’t have to eat the celery, but we do have to sit at the table and sit with my family.” 

DIR Feeding Resources

West coast: Diane Cullinane’s Interdisciplinary Feeding Team

East coast: Jake Greenspan’s FOODTIME

Kristy says we have to help our little ones understand that sitting at the table doesn’t mean they have to eat celery, and help them walk through that, understand that, sequence that, and symbolically represent that.

It’s always a go forward then come back for regulation. That’s OK. It’s progress. Today your child was able to process a little more demand.

Kristy Gose

ICDL Online Parent Support Drop In

During Affect Autism’s online parent support drop in, a parent reported they were not sure where their child is on the early Functional Emotional Developmental Capacities. They thought he is only at the first capacity because he is dysregulated, but mentioned that sometimes when he is with people he likes he is capable of back-and-forth interactions at the third capacity. I referred them to the podcast with Dr. Gil Tippy about how we are always moving up and down the developmental ladder in Floortime and that your child’s capacity is whatever they are capable of at their best.

Thank you to Kristy Gose for sharing her expertise with us! I hope you found this podcast helpful. If so, please consider sharing it on Facebook and/or Twitter. If you have any relevant comments, experiences to share, or questions, please type them in the Comments section below.

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

Sign up for our updates

CLICK HERE TO SIGN UP You can be assured that we will not share your information.