Photo credit: Vika Glitter 

This Week’s Podcast

This episode, returning guest, Occupational Therapist, Stephanie Peters, DIR Expert & Training Leader and Clinical Director with Kinder Growth discusses the developmental considerations around sharing.

A Developmental Perspective on Sharing

by Affect Autism

Bonus Insights

A Closer Look at ‘Sharing’ Goals

The idea for this podcast came up when Stephanie’s more behaviourally-minded friend was visiting Stephanie’s two-year-old and asked her for the crayon she was holding. Stephanie’s daughter clammed up a bit and held her it, not wanting to give it to her. The friend responded with, “Aww.. I’m so sad!” When the child finally gave her the crayon, the friend said, “Thank you for sharing!” and said it again when she left and said good-bye, adding, “It made me so happy!“. It made Stephanie think about the social expectation that we have for kids.

When we teach social skills, in general, Stephanie says, there’s generally a sharing goal, but the whole experience just felt so ‘clunky’ that she needed to look at it with her DIR lens. I shared how I went through Dr. Gordon Neufeld‘s courses when my son was young, and that’s one thing that was stressed all the time: meet children where they are developmentally. You can’t expect a two-year-old to share. Sharing comes later. They’re still forming their sense of self at two years old.

It got Stephanie thinking about what is tricky with this. The notion of teaching sharing by saying you’ll be sad if you don’t share, and happy if you, do creates a system of feeling like if you don’t share, the adult will be mad at you or not like you, and happy if you do. It made Stephanie wonder about many things:

  • What about what the child thinks about sharing?
  • Why does the child need to share?
  • What’s going on in the child’s mind?
  • How can we connect with someone if you don’t want to share?
  • How can we set boundaries if we have to share?
  • How can we be more developmentally-minded to support someone intrinsically being interested in sharing with another human being?

The Emotional and Praxis Components to Sharing

I shared how Dr. Gordon Neufeld talks about how young children are really only experiencing one emotion at a time until their prefrontal cortex starts to kick in. Then you can begin to mix your emotions, but that’s comes in the later Functional Emotional Developmental Capacities (FEDCs), along with theory of mind. At age two, you might still be all only in your own mind, not able to take another’s perspective. Stephanie adds that the child might see that you’re mad if they don’t share, but do they understand how that affects them? In DIR terms, there was only one circle of communication expected which was asking for a turn, then the child giving you the object. There was no space for emotional processing.

When you ask the child to share in this way, there’s no time given to process the cue, Stephanie continues. And what about praxis: supporting the child’s plan? How do we help the child figure out how to respond to you? What does the child do next once they give you the object? Sometimes we hold on to something because we don’t know what to do next, in general, in life, Stephanie emphasizes. 

When someone asks you to share and forces you to share, you’re not supporting the person. We’re not supporting that they might feel confused or stressed, or are holding on to the object because they don’t have a plan and it’s grounding them in the moment, Stephanie says. Once you take it away, the child is left with no plan, they think you are mad at them, and they will be stuck and more disengaged.

The Relationship Component to Sharing

There’s so much more that needs to happen in that moment, Stephanie continues. As a parent, trusting that if they don’t share this time, it’s not setting the expectation that they’ll never share. There’s a fear that if you don’t share, you’re teaching them it’s ok not to share. It’s exactly what parents are worried about, I responded. We’re also worried about judgment from other parents that I’m not teaching my child how to share!

In the moment, Stephanie’s friend asked for a turn, but Stephanie’s daughter had a stress response. She didn’t want to give the crayon to Stephanie’s friend. Stephanie thinks about so many things: Why do I have to give this to you? I don’t want to give it to you. I don’t know what to do next. I’m not ready to give it to you. Give me a second to process what I’m doing so I can think about a plan. If we don’t give that processing time, Stephanie urges, the child may clamp on tighter and get dyregulated, disengaged, maybe cry, and disconnected. 

Then what do we do? We say you have to give it to me, Stephanie says. We are basically telling them that they have to have discomfort in the comfort of giving your things away! While there is power in building comfort in the discomfort, Stephanie stresses, it has to come with the foundation of connection to ground you, otherwise you’re teaching the child that the world is unpredictable, you will never feel safe, you will constantly be ruptured in your relationships with no option for repair, you’re not understood nor supported, and your stuff gets taken away! Your response will have to be a fight/flight/freeze response!

And what does this do to the Relationship? Not unique to Dr. Neufeld as it’s just developmental psychology, he says that you really are rupturing that relationship when you are essentially making threats like implying that if they don’t give you their toy, you’ll be upset. Stephanie agrees as she imagines being in that position. Why is this person doing this to me–taking away my prized possession? It must come from connection. 

What does it mean to share?

There’s so much to unpack about sharing for a child. If we think about meaning making, understanding what sharing involves includes understanding the perspective of another person, which only just starts at the fourth Functional Emotional Developmental Capacity (FEDC). Yet, Stephanie adds that if you look at every social skills section of any IEP, there’s always a sharing goal. It’s a way to measure someone’s capacity to be social, but it’s a very black-and-white way of thinking about it. It’s very complex.

When we teach somebody to share, Stephanie says, we can instead help somebody think about connection and what it looks like. We can talk about sharing experiences, things, attention, smiles, moments with someone. If you get two people in a room, especially two two-year-olds, there are bound to be some conflicts, but we can support that experience by having a million different moments that will lead us to understand that there is a reciprocal nature to interaction, Stephanie offers. 

If someone wants something from you, you can say, “No“. You can say, “I’m not ready yet“, “I’m still playing with this“, “Give me a minute“, or “I’m really enjoying being with this. Do you want to look at it with me?” It doesn’t have to be that I give it to you and I’m alone in this moment, Stephanie explains. There’s a huge gray area that supports healthy relationships in the long run, she insists.

The goal is to share moments of connection with somebody.

Stephanie Peters, DIR Occupational Therapist

How to Foster Sharing

You can certainly do a lot more with a child who is further along in their developmental capacities, I added. You can negotiate: “Your friend really wants to play with this, too.” With a younger child, maybe they can’t understand that. I asked Stephanie what to do if parents have a child who refuses to share and maybe there are conflicts with siblings when they want the same toy. How can we foster sharing?

Certainly when we’re promoting our child’s FEDCs, it will come in time, but it made Stephanie think about a client of hers. There may be two siblings in the room who have two different profiles. Thinking about the first FEDC, Self-Regulation and Interest in the World, we can wonder what is making it so tricky. There’s probably a very long list, she says. First, as an Occupational Therapist (OT), she thinks about how praxis–the ability to come up with a plan and figuring out how to interact and connect with someone–is a big thing.

An adolescent would take his two-year-old sibling’s toy and it would end up with them arguing and became more physical, Stephanie explained. The parent said that they can’t keep separating the kids or taking away the toys. So in that situation, thinking about the first FEDC and supporting ideation, Stephanie took away the pressure of ‘toys’ that required more ideas (i.e., more pretend play type of toys that require a lot of praxis energy because you have to think about what you do with it, what comes next, how to involve somebody else, how to share your ideas, etc.) and said we lean more towards tactile sensory play where there are multiple ‘things’, and the fun and the play becomes experiencing it together.

The shift is that it’s not about separating; it’s about how we get everybody closer together. And how do we support more connection, which will allow for more opportunities to feel comfortable and build safe Relationships when we’re in the same space, getting used to somebody’s individual differences, getting used to how they send cues, and feeling like we can be successful together.

Stephanie Peters, DIR Occupational Therapist

Rather than sharing the item, we’re sharing the moment, and connecting in the joy of how this feels in our bodies. The parent said that it’s actually working! Stephanie says that it’s hard to do because it takes a lot more planning. It takes time and energy to set up and put in place. It takes time and effort to support the interaction between the siblings, but it was helpful and set up the regulation pattern for the rest of day.

The Experience of Connection

We talk about different stages of play where babies will start with sensory experiences by putting things in their mouth, and some of our kids do that well into elementary school years. Then we get into object play where it’s about cause and effect. Let’s throw things off the bed and see what happens. Let’s pop the water balloons and watch them splash. Then we get into imaginary play where we start with simple sequences, which then develops into more emotional themes, bridging sequences in their play, but that experience of sensory play doesn’t mean you’re going backwards if you’re already in symbolic play. 

It’s fostering an experience of connection where you’re learning to be with another person–with whom maybe you’ve had a hard time being with–so that two siblings can enjoy something together rather than fighting with each other. Once they realize they can have fun with each other, they will likely want to replicate that experience.

Stephanie says that everybody needs that experience with another person, unless we’re developmentally moving backwards. If she had to do her taxes with her husband everyday, she might feel stress with him and feel like it’s hard all the time to just be with him. Play is how our nervous system feels safe, aligned and connected. It shouldn’t always feel like work to do. It may take a lot of effort to ‘take it down’ to where we want to just feel good with somebody, she says, but that’s the joy of connection.

Even in businesses, they do team building activities all the time to foster this connection, I added. Stephanie responded that in a work situation, it’s really important to see someone else’s perspective, to share ideas, and to share the things that are really important to you. There are conflicts all the time in the workplace. The higher developmental capacities (FEDCs 4, 5, and 6) require the ability to feeling safe with someone, knowing that you can work something out with them in order to take their perspective so you can see what they want you to be doing without feeling like you are in shut down or being misunderstood, Stephanie explains. 

That doesn’t come just because you’re a grown up and your brain is mature. It comes from a million micro-moments of getting to know somebody, and setting that culture of figuring it out, understanding each other, and being with each other, Stephanie continues. It seems straight forward when we think about it in our own experiences with other adults, I shared, but we somehow forget about it when we think about children, because we are always thinking about teaching them so they can learn. We forget that idea of process-oriented learning that can take years.

Walking through an example

Stephanie shared another example. A family was able to put a swing in their home, but there were two kids. There were a lot of opportunities of what to feel when both kids wanted the swing at the same time, Stephanie explained. There is no right or wrong answer. The thing that experience offered Stephanie, she said, is the necessity sometimes for grown-ups to be the anchor, or the safe person to set boundaries, to help everybody feel heard and understood and help everybody figure out what the best solution is. In thinking about a swing, it’s about helping somebody identify why you need the swing, why the other person needs the swing, and validating that the child seems to really, really want the swing. 

You can say something like, “I wonder if I could…“, giving the child a different plan in order to feel connected and supported in their regulation while we’re waiting for someone else to finish on the swing, Stephanie offered. I shared that this is where my son is at. As long as he’s engaged, socially–and he’s very social, all is well. It’s when that attention is diverted to someone else at school–because he is an only child and gets all of my attention at home–that he doesn’t know what to do and that’s when we will see some behaviours such as knocking something over, or taking another child’s object.

OT Maude Le Roux had shared with us that this is when we can give him a task while he’s waiting because it’s that down time that makes it hard for him–that praxis component. Give him a job to do so he has something to be focused on. I asked Stephanie what another way to do that is, especially with non speaking children or children who may not understand how to process why they or the sibling needs the swing. Stephanie says that if one person is playing with something and it looks like fun, everybody wants to do it.

Co-Regulating Through Connection

The challenge of sharing, especially with someone who has challenges with coming up with ideas, Stephanie points out, is that when they see someone doing something, that gives them an idea. They see how the other child did it and they want to do it, too, coupled with the memories that it makes their body feel good. So, Stephanie explains, they meaning of this activity is that they have an idea. They’ve done it before. 

They know it feels good, so their mirror neurons are firing as they see the other child doing it. They make a plan. That’s what they want to do. When that stops because someone else is having their turn first, they fall apart because they’re not supported in the other areas, Stephanie explains.

Stephanie offers that it’s a combination of acknowledging the child’s plan. This was your idea. I see you looking at this person. They have this toy. They’re swinging. You look so excited to do it. Despite the spoken language capacity of the person we’re talking to, Stephanie explains, you can still validate their idea, what they’re thinking and feeling, and slowly shift towards offering a new idea and experience–that you can hopefully think of on-the-fly–that supports their body, knowing that this is also going to feel good, and give them something to have a new plan for, until this other option becomes available again.

So, if the swing isn’t available, maybe we can experience the disappointment, the frustration, validate the plan, and then offer space and connection, Stephanie continues. “I wonder about (doing this task)“, “I noticed that…“, or, “I wonder if we could dance together instead“, thinking about what feels good to them. We tailor the next idea to support their regulation, which will help them be able to wait longer, come up with their own idea, stay available for connection, and initiate a circle. Maybe when they notice the other child coming off the swing, they can go try it, or maybe have a different idea of what to do, Stephanie shares.

Providing Comfort through the Discomfort

I offered a few ideas, such as having a transition song if your child is musical or enjoys songs. You can sing a song while the child is waiting, so now you have two things that are fun: the swing, and singing with the adult while waiting for the swing. You can use visual prompts that can help the child understand that first it’s your turn, then it’s brother’s turn, or whatever, representing it visually. You can have stations of activities that are fun, set a timer and making it fun by shouting, “Switch!” in a funny way when it’s time to transition between the stations. Putting in structures can help make it more predictable for them, I suggested.

Stephanie agrees that we can add fun and give off the vibe that we’re going to work it out and that this is our system. But Stephanie advises practitioners and parents to slow down on offering the solutions. Our solutions can go really fast, she says, and that doesn’t help. The child is still thinking about what’s happening over there. How do we support their bodies so they can process what’s going on? You can try, “Come sit next to me. What’s going on? I noticed that you’re really excited about that swing. Not yet, but it’s almost time for your turn!” Give them time to process what they want to do, Stephanie urges, because that is more time for us to stay connected.

I said that it’s especially helpful to slow down for older children because they’ve had patterns for years. Helping them get to that understanding might take a bit longer, breaking out of old patterns. Stephanie emphasizes that FEDC 1 is about getting to a place of being curious about the world. We get dysregulated because our plan is stopped and we don’t know what to do next, and that doesn’t feel good. But when we can be grounded in our relationships and our connections, and be able to stop and stay curious about what’s happening, that will allow someone to get another idea, or stay comfortable, Stephanie says.

It’s having comfort in the discomfort. “I don’t have another idea but it’s ok because I’m still processing what’s happening. When I’m ready, that idea will come.” Then they’ll be in a place to pay attention when the adult might suggest, “Let’s go jump on the trampoline while we wait!” It’s understanding that someone’s telling me something to begin with (versus not hearing them or processing what we hear when we’re still dysregulated).

Stephanie summarizes by saying that we want to focus on connection, keep in mind those Individual differences–especially around praxis, and work on slowing down–especially when our children are calm and regulated. Allow them to sit in that stretched rubber band challenge just enough to get used to that discomfort and what we can do about it. By working on this when we are calm and regulated, we have more experience with it for the times when we’re dysregulated.

This week’s PRACTICE TIP:

This week let’s foster connections around shared experiences.

For example: Does your child seem ‘possessive’ of their toy? Let’s foster connection around their toy by joining the child, showing interest in the toy, and if possible, grabbing our own similar toy to play together to share the experience of the toy with them.

Thank you to Occupational Therapist, Stephanie Peters, for sharing her thoughts and insights on a DIR perspective of sharing! We hope you found it very enlightening and will consider sharing this post on social media! Please feel free to respond in the Comments section below.

Until next time, here’s to choosing play and experiencing joy everyday!

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