Photo by Anna Shvets

This Week’s Topic

This episode we are discussing intentionality in the third Functional Emotional Developmental Capacity (FEDC 3), which is Intentionality and Two-Way Communication in the Developmental, Individual differences, and Relationship (DIR) Model, and moving from FEDC 3 into FEDC 4, Complex Communication and Shared Problem Solving. Our guests presented on Intentionality and FEDC 3 at the ICDL DIR Conference in March and you can watch that presentation here as an introduction to this podcast episode.

This Week’s Guests

I have two first-time guests today. Andrea Snyder is an Occupational Therapist and DIR Expert and Training Leader in Colorado Springs who sees clients in the home setting and teaches certificate courses for the International Council on Development and Learning. Naomi Wong is a Speech-Language Pathologist and DIR Expert and Training Leader in Singapore who owns a clinic called Speech Therapy Adventures helping parents and children navigate their developmental adventure together.

Nurturing Intentionality as a Bridge to FEDC 4

by Affect Autism

The Early Social-Emotional Capacities

To begin, I asked Naomi to describe the first three Functional Emotional Developmental Capacities in the DIR Model, even starting with what Colette Ryan called ‘FEDC 0’ last episode, or that ‘felt’ sense of safety. Naomi shared that in the first FEDC, Self-Regulation and Interest in the World, we transit from a sensory realm into an emotional realm and experience sensory integration. If you can integrate your senses well, she explains, you then have the emotional availability to attend to someone and communicate and interact with them. 

In the 2nd FEDC, Engaging and Relating, we think of the ‘gleam in the eye’, or the capacity to have a simple back-and-forth circle of communication with someone. Picture a baby who coos at their caregiver, the caregiver smiles, then the baby smiles back. These first two capacities after that sense of ‘safety’ are about feeling regulated and ok in your body so you can attend to others in a social sense, Naomi explains.

I complimented Naomi on her eloquent description of FEDC 1 and she said that she started using this definition because when she would refer clients to Occupational Therapy, parents would ask why their child needed it? All they wanted to work on was the communication bit. Once Naomi explains it, they are happy to go for the sensory integration component of their child’s program.

The third capacity is about having that idea to want to communicate. Naomi and Andrea themed their New York City ICDL DIR conference presentation, ‘Intentionality’ because they wanted to think about the child having to take the initiative to communicate. To do this, you have to give the child a purpose, because having a purpose and having something to share is the very first step to meaningful communication, Naomi explains. So, if you want intentionality to come on board, you want to ‘woo’ the child to have something to really want to communicate with us.

Mismatched Communication-Action-Affect

Sometimes the children we work with have mismatched words, gestures, and affect. Naomi shares an example of a client who would jump on the sofa at her clinic saying, “You cannot jump after you eat“, but he would keep jumping. That is what his parents have been saying to him, and he repeats that script whenever he jumps on the couch. Conversely, Naomi continues, he was then taking a transparent bottle of Naomi’s, shaking it intently and staring at it, fascinated by it. He wanted to get the beads out of it. He said, “This is not a real bottle. It’s a fake bottle.

If you compare both sentences, the shorter sentence, “This is a fake bottle“, it makes a lot more sense, with intentionality, and conveys a lot more than the longer sentence about jumping on the couch, Naomi explains. There are also examples of mismatched gestures where a child might be pointing to something, but their eyes are looking at something else. You have to watch their eyes to see where their intentionality is.

Sometimes parents get really frustrated because they are keen to listen to the words, but not read the body language. In Floortime, we used to talk about W-A-A (Words, Action, Affect) which we now refer to as Communication-Action-Affect where we can watch how they communicate, whether it be with an AAC device, with words, or with gestures and affect.

I highlighted what Naomi said about how parents can miss cues children send, such as their eyes looking in a different direction. I gave the example of my son playing Monopoly with Mario characters as the game pieces. He loves to change his character between each turn, so as he begins counting spaces to move his character after his dice roll, he counts corresponding to the spaces for a few spaces, and then miscounts as he moves his character forward. 

Another player noticed and pointed out to me that his eyes wander to the pile of characters when he loses his counting correspondence, so I now alert him to watch where he’s moving his character, or to start over. Some parents are better at picking up their child’s cues than others. Naomi says that it is natural for us to tune in to what is verbal, and not look and listen to the body language. Most of our communication is non verbal rather than verbal. We are not cueing into the non verbal language sometimes.

Nurturing Intentionality

Andrea highlighted that my example speaks to my son’s intentionality when he is so excited to change his Monopoly character when his turn ends. He’s going through the actions, but his true intrinsic intentionality is what he’s focusing on with his eyes and body–not his motor actions that he’s passively going through in order to get to what it is that he’s intentionally interested in interacting with. I said that his intentionality has been strong in him for years; it’s the sustained back-and-forth that is still challenging to maintain.

I shared how in my Floortime documentary series ‘We chose play‘, I talked about how when my son was much younger, it didn’t seem like there was intentionality, which can be hard for parents. You’re trying to get that engagement. You might have to initiate the circles for the child to respond before the child starts initiating. Getting this going is really strengthened, Naomi says, when that engagement is more robust. As Dr. Kathy Platzman has said, when you work really hard on FEDC 1, you get FEDC 2 for free. When you work really hard on FEDC 2, you eventually get FEDC 3 for free, and so on.

The Transition into FEDC 4

When our children are entering the fourth capacity of Complex Communication and Shared Problem Solving, we begin to see representational play come out, Andrea says. An individual starts playing different themes that they experience on a day-to-day basis: of going to school, of caregivers going to work, or of caregivers making dinner. One of the big shifts we see moving from FEDC 3 to 4, she continues, is that emotional quality.

This is where we really see emotions come into their interactions–different feelings and experiences–contrasted from the third capacity where we’re getting that robust back-and-forth together and are emotionally connected, but are not emotionally expressing our internal feelings like when we move into the fourth capacity.

Naomi says that in their presentation on Intentionality at the ICDL conference in March, her and Andrea spoke a lot to taking into account the Individual differences of the child. In Naomi’s example of the child with the bottle, the child loves music. Anytime there’s a musical instrument and they’re singing, you see the gleam in his eye, so Naomi uses that through the first two capacities and then, using support, moves in to the third capacity. 

This support helps the child navigate into the third capacity and stay there, Naomi explains. It’s about following the child’s interests, whereas in FEDC 4, you might not need as much support to keep the circles of communication going, and you might not need to follow their interests as much as you need to in FEDC 3.

Following the Child’s Lead

Considering the individual’s differences includes honing in on what is intrinsically motivating to the child, so practitioners should have materials out that support their play preferences, their sensory preferences, and their motor preferences, Andrea explains. By supporting these, it allows the child to have the intrinsic freedom to fully express with us what it is that they want to play with and how they want to play with it. 

With Naomi’s client, Andrea continues, Naomi will have toys or items to support that music desire/motivator, since she knows he loves music, and through that, it allows him that intrinsic freedom to open up that intentionality of interaction and communication with Naomi. So let’s talk about how to do this.

I shared that when we read the descriptions of the capacities, it’s describing neurotypical development and what ‘the baby’ does, but parents say, “My kid isn’t a baby. He’s 8.” They don’t know how to interpret it. I want to see that my child is intentionally communicating with me and responding to whatever communication I’m sending back. 

So in Naomi’s example, she might hold up the ‘fake’ bottle, for instance, in anticipation, and the child looks. Then, Naomi can make a noise such as “Ahhh!” and the child smiles back. Right there, that’s two circles of communication. When we get more and more of these ‘circles’ and have this robust back-and-forth, with dozens of ideas, you approach the fourth capacity.

Naomi continues that when you are holding up the bottle, she is looking at the quality of the child’s communication, affect, and gestures and if they are intentional. She wants to see that all three align nicely for that communication purpose. As the communication goes back-and-forth, she might drop the bottle and it might roll somewhere else and she can use affect, saying “Whoops! Where did it go?

When is it Time to Challenge?

In a good Floortime session, Naomi continues, there’s always the engagement, and there’s also a little challenge that creeps in. Will they go look for it? We want to challenge a little to know if the individual is ready to move forward, or if they would lose that interaction because it’s too difficult for them to continue.

I shared that when I visited Jake Greenspan some years ago, he saw all six capacities in my son, but said that the tree trunk (referencing The Learning Tree) was very narrow and we want to work on widening that tree trunk by making the third capacity more robust across situations, environments, and caregivers. This is what we’re talking about.

Andrea said that it is part of the challenge of parents when we really do want to see our children move from capacity 3 to 4. We want to move to that next step, but it’s so important to sit in capacity 3, Andrea stresses. We want it to be robust. It’s so tempting to throw in some playful obstruction when we get a few circles. We want to see that intention with a variety of toys, in a variety of settings, with a variety of people. 

It’s hard not to want to jump into capacity four, Andrea continues, but we want to sit and hold capacity 3 for as long as we can which will set up our child for success to move into capacity 4 so they can have that intentionality when there’s a challenge. If they don’t have that robust intentionality yet, the child will just walk away. 

You could say, “Uh-oh! Where did the bottle go?” as a little test to see if the child is ready for us to stretch a little bit because it’s a small challenge. We want to start with that super small challenge, Andrea asserts. That’s how we know when our children are ready. When they take our small little shift, they figure out what comes next with us, their play partner.

Stick with a Small Challenge

Naomi stresses that it is a very small shift. In her example, the bottle might roll slowly towards the couch so the child sees it and can track where it has gone. It’s a simple challenge. If they are not ready and their eyes don’t follow the bottle, it is our queue to stay with FEDC 3. Andrea repeats that the small shift still includes the play partner. We want the child to figure out where they bottle went jointly with the caregiver, not on their own. 

In DIR, it’s all about the Relationship. We don’t want to lose that relational quality of finding that bottle together. We want to see the child maintaining their intentionality with their play partner in that little shift. It’s about that relational-conversational-interactional quality versus solving a problem by yourself. It’s about doing it all together. It’s a shared experience.

If you make the challenge too big and the child walks away, that behaviour is the clue that the challenge was too hard. I shared that in my Floortime documentary series ‘We chose play‘, I shared a clip of a consultation I did with Dr. Gil Tippy where we watched a clip of my son playing trains with his Dad, but then Dad uses a crane in a symbolic way and our son throws his hands up in the air and leaves the interaction with a scream.

Dr. Tippy asked me why my son left the interaction. I replied that he didn’t like what Dad did. Dr. Tippy said it wasn’t just that; it was also that the play was functionally, emotionally, developmentally too far ahead of where he was at that time for where he was developmentally in that moment. Many times, parents don’t know what to do when the child walks away. They think the child isn’t interested in playing with them. 

Sometimes, the child walks away and comes back. My son would do that to regulate and then return to the interaction. And sometimes we challenge too much. In Season 1, Episode 6 of ‘We chose play‘, Colette Ryan is coaching me retrospectively about a 7-year-old Floortime video where my son was 5 years old and I was challenging my child way too much and trying to teach my child. 

What stood out for me was Dr. Tippy saying to me once that if you change one little thing, stay with it for three months. In the video with Colette, I stayed with a change for about 3 seconds! Dr. Tippy said 3 months! When you’re teaching and challenging, you’re forgetting about keeping the back-and-forth interaction going.

Holding that Space

Andrea says that we feel stuck in the play as parents, feeling like we’re doing the same thing over and over, and that we should be doing more. But with the DIR Model, Andrea asserts that we’re intrinsically giving our child that freedom to want to continue through these developmental capacities, and our children show us when they’re ready for us to give them that expansion. We’re doing everything we should by following the lead of our child and waiting for their cue that they’re ready. 

We might take it too far and challenge too much, and that’s ok because we can always repair the broken interaction, Andrea assures us. When there’s a rupture, we re-initiate that interaction, which sets up our child for future experiences where they might experience a rupture in the classroom, and now they know how to repair it. By returning to that interaction by re-joining and re-following, we are strengthening their intentionality in FEDC 3 and waiting a couple more weeks to try that little shift or challenge again.

I used to find myself in ‘performance’ mode when doing Floortime and I didn’t know how to self-regulate when I was frustrated in the interaction. Waiting in that moment is so important. We want to focus on ‘being’ over ‘doing’. It can be uncomfortable to sit and wait on the child’s cues. It’s a real art, and it’s always changing as our child continues to grow and develop. Naomi says that when we are able to wait with our child and engage them in a relaxed interaction, having that just-right challenge and having fun, without having to push for another goal, this interaction can be very regulating for both the parent and child. 

When we talk about co-regulating, Naomi continues, the interaction is rejuvenating for both the parent and child. This is the sense of ‘being’ together. This helps build the relationship and keeps us together over time in our bond and intimacy, which is what we want for parent and child, versus a parent taking on too many hats being a teacher and a therapist, too. Know when is the time to just ‘be’ with your child, and when you are playing and doing Floortime, still ‘be’ the parent in that interaction. 

Inserting the Pause

Andrea adds that parents can keep in mind the power of ‘the pause’ to actively be in the interaction while our worlds are moving so quickly. We tend to constantly think about what’s next, but the pause allows our child the opportunity to show us what’s next because they have that idea, but sometimes they need that extra time from that processing, from a motor planning, or from an initiation standpoint.

Being in that connection with our child gives our child so much power to figure out the next opportunity, Andrea adds. They feel that intrinsic, “I got this” versus them needing to respond to what the caregiver gives next. It allows that true active ‘being’ in the interaction. Naomi says that in a course her and Andrea taught, there was a parent who just sighed, breathing out, as a pause, and after that the interaction was so much better.

Dr. Gil Tippy did a video series during Covid called For on the Floor about waiting, and how when we’re rushing, the child ends up thinking there’s a right answer and that there’s a demand on them. They’re eager to please so they don’t think but just respond, so I love what our guests said about taking that pause. We so naturally direct our children all day long and at school they’re always being directed. We want to give them the time together to just sit back and let them show us their ideas. 

I gave an example that parents can do with their child on the weekend when there’s no rush to go anywhere. Say that it’s time to get dressed and then wait. See what they do. Then you might say, “shirt?” and wait, or “pants?” and wait. It might take two hours to get dressed. You give subtle hints to see if they take the initiative. When you have a sock see if they know what to do with it. You could even put it on their hand and see if they protest that it doesn’t belong on their hand.

Andrea says it’s so easy for us to say that it’s time to get dressed and disengage. In my example, she said, we are holding the space affectively, being curious and wondering, sending that emotional experience of anticipation with the child. It’s holding the emotional space, which is so powerful. Andrea might affectively say, “What are we going to play today?” and look around the room with anticipation. If they’re stuck, she’ll give them a nudge to see if they come up with the next step. 

Slowing Down to Go Faster

She’ll affectively hold that emotional space in excitement and wonder, which motivates the individual to have that space to figure it out. I reiterated how important it is to slow down, and when you think you’re going slow, slow down even more. When you think you can’t go any slower, slow down even more. If you film yourself doing Floortime and watch it back, you can see how quickly we tend to go, leaving our children lost in the interaction.

Naomi said that the paradox is that we are slowing down to speed things up. When we slow down we give our child the chance to make a choice, and to be intentional and initiate. If we are rushing and entertaining them and not giving them that space, we rob them of the time for them to think and figure out and process the next step. I shared how Mike Fields called that being an ‘opportunity thief’. We are robbing them of their third capacity, Naomi says.

This week’s PRACTICE TIP:

This week let’s practice sitting in the moment with our child and holding the space for them to initiate their ideas with us. 

For example: Find an activity your child loves to play, such as blowing bubbles, and just enjoy being with them holding the bubbles, waiting for them to initiate that they want you to blow the next bubble.

I am so grateful for Andrea and Naomi’s podcast this week! I really learned so much about supporting my child at FEDC 3 to strengthen it in order to strengthen FEDC 4. I hope you found it as helpful and will consider sharing this post on social media.

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

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