You Have to Follow to Lead: Engaging Young Children
If you have a young child who struggles to share joint attention, take turns, or engage with others, this post is for you! If you want to work on expanding your child's ability to problem-solve, communicate, and engage with others, this post is for you!
I am in the midst of completing an introductory course in The Greenspan Floortime Approach and am really excited to share some of the great things I am learning (hence the overuse of exclamation points)! What is Floortime? The author of the Floortime website writes, "Greenspan Floortime was created by Dr. Stanley Greenspan for children on the autism spectrum and those with developmental delays. It gives them the skills necessary to progress in school and in life and to be independent." If you're interested in learning more about the DIR Floortime model, you can visit their website.
Today, I will be sharing ideas from my own experiences as a speech-language pathologist and ideas from the DIR Floortime model to help you connect with a child who may seem otherwise preoccupied with their self. Although the Floortime model was developed primarily for children with autism, many of the underlying concepts are useful for young children with a variety of developmental disorders who experience speech-language difficulties.
Many of the ideas I will share are ideas commonly used in early-intervention sessions with young children, but my goal in sharing these ideas is to help YOU as a parent feel empowered to connect with your child at home.
Let me begin by debunking the myth that you need to have all the bells and whistles to entice your child to engage in an activity with you. You don't need the latest and greatest light up, singing, dancing, battery-operated toy. In fact, depending on the child's unique interests, you may not need a traditional "toy" at all. All you need is to find a way to enter into your child's world. I know. I know. That sounds very crunchy, but it's true. If you try to force a child to play with a toy (I've been there), you will get nowhere. Trust me.
So what does this "entering the child's world" look like? Well, it can look kind of mean, to be honest. Let me reassure you though, it isn't mean at all, but instead very intentional. Dr. Greenspan shared the notion of "playful obstruction". In speech therapy sessions, we often use "playful sabotage" (I don't think that's a real term), as well; for example, we place all the items needed to complete a craft on the table, except for 1 (e.g. the glue) and hope this prompts the child to ask for help.
Key takeaway from this blog post (I hope): Follow your child's lead!
At home, if your child is preoccupied with an object (any object) such as a hat, show interest. "Wow! Can I see the hat? I really want to wear the hat! That is so neat! Can I wear the hat?". The hope is that the child will see your interest and respond in some way, even if that response is refusal (e.g. "no" or a head nod). If the child ignores your request and walks away, you can re-insert yourself into the world via playful obstruction. Without taking the object from the child, you can playfully stand in front of them or say "I'm going to get the hat!", making it a game.
If you still have no luck, don't worry there's another trick to put up your sleeve. One idea I really loved from the DIR course is that of Dr. Greenspan's making a "fence" around the child. Without touching the child, create a "fence" with your arms wrapped around them. This forces the child to acknowledge your presence and opens up the opportunity for you to model "open", "Do you want me to open or close my arms?", "Do you want to go around?", etc. The key here is to always do these activities in a playful manner-remember, you're trying to convince the child that engaging with others is fun and rewarding.
Once you have managed to engage your child, you can start to expand the interaction with others. For example, ask if another toy (e.g. stuffed animal) or person can...wear the hat, drink from the cup, play the drum, etc. Get creative and have fun! Put the hat (preferred object) behind a door and practice saying "open".
In terms of "playful sabotage" (I'm rolling with this term), at home something I highly recommend is putting preferred items out of reach in clear containers. If you have a climber, well, look out! (kidding, kind of-my son is a climber). You can put snacks, or any preferred toys in these containers, which will entice the child to ask for help, whether that be verbally saying "help", signing "help", pulling your hand, pointing toward the container, or looking toward the container. That's when the magic happens and you can help support your child to expand upon their current level of communication. "I see you looking at X. Should we get it down? What do you want? Should we open it or close it?".
Don't be afraid to get animated, be silly, and most of all share joy with your child. Sometimes we try so desperately to help our children that we forget to follow their lead. Trust me, I am not perfect. I have had many therapy sessions, where I have had to abandon my "plans" because it just wasn't working. I wanted to play with Play-Doh, but the kid wanted to flick the light switch on and off. I've learned to breathe, roll with it, and follow a child's lead.
Sometimes, we have to follow in order to engage a child. Once they let us in, we can begin to lead, but just like communication itself, the process should always be dynamic and reciprocal.
Thanks for reading! :)