Social Skills and Communication
Floortime is basically a word for extra “hang-out time” with the child, to develop their capacities for thinking, communicating and relating. It does not follow a pre-determined plan for what will take place. It is about the process, not the outcome.
Progressing through the developmental levels aims to move the child increasingly towards self-sufficiency. I aim to assist children to move towards the long term goals of independence, jobs and relationships, where possible.
To assist your child progress through the developmental levels, try the follow strategies depending on which level you are working on. Aim for 15 minutes per day to start with, during pretend play.
Pretend play is an opportunity for children to practice their newly developing skills in a safe setting. They can try things they wouldn’t normally do in real life, to see how it feels to develop an understanding and empathy about these things. For example, they may explore what it is like to be cheeky or teasing during a game (ie. being a cheeky monkey), when they wouldn’t usually behave this way in real life. They can then start to learn how it feels to be the person teasing, as well as the person teased. They can then be supported to explore the impact of that behaviour and reflect on whether this is a way they want to behave in real life. This applies to a range of other behaviours and emotions, both positive and negative.
Pretend play also offers the opportunity for the child to play out real life scenarios in a non-threatening way, to explore different emotions and try out different strategies. For example, if a child is having difficulty with being ‘bossy’ (which is more likely a result of anxiety and a need to control to try and reduce the anxiety by making things more predictable), the carer can use a character or puppet to be bossy during the pretend play, so the child can become more empathetic about how it feels to be ‘bossed’ around, and what the consequences are.
Start to use the strategies during everyday tasks, such as when going for a drive, having a bath or eating tea. It will start to become natural and infiltrate all interactions that occur during the day with the child.
Typical pretend play flows through the following developmental sequence that can be supported:
- Sensory-motor play
- Playing familiar themes that the child sees around the home (such as going shopping, cooking tea, mowing the lawn)
- Playing less familiar themes such as going to the moon in a rocket, playing monsters or dinosaurs, or being a spy, fairy/princess or superhero.
Children may be at any level of the developmental ladder at any given moment. For example, when getting ready for school, a child who is able to reach level 6 developmentally may be operating at level 1 due to the stress of the task.
Meet the child at the level they are at, at the time (and then start to draw them up a level as they start to respond positively). This can change quickly and they can go up or down levels within a matter of minutes. It’s a bit like changing gears in a car due to the changing road conditions. You don’t drive in 5th gear in a slow speed zone. Each level can be broadened and solidified so the child operates more strongly at that level.
A child may be developmentally at level 4 with their familiar care givers, for example, but drop a couple of levels when playing with their peers. There can be a number of factors involved including that adults tend to be more willing to follow the child’s ideas, and tend to be more predictable than same aged peers. Another factor can be that the environment may be more multi-sensory when playing with their peers. The game may move at a faster pace, the environment may be busier, with more people, more noise, more light, or other sensory inputs to contend with, whilst the child also tries to monitor what is happening during the play. The child may have trouble planning their bodies and words to fit in with the increased pace and complexity. When the care giver plays with the child, the child can work on higher levels of their thinking, relating and communication skills. When the child is supported to play with their peers, they can solidify and expand their skills at lower levels of the developmental ladder to be more robust at those levels.
I like to use a combination of play-based (or activity-based) learning, as well as explicit instruction, and rewards/incentives as needed, to assist children to progress through the developmental levels. For new skills where explicit instruction is drawn upon to build skills development, these can be reinforced through rewards and incentives. This is similar to a working adult being paid for the job they do. There is a reward for ‘good behaviour’. For example, the child is taught a concept, a plan is made for them to try it out, together you decide on how they will be rewarded for trying the plan, the child tries the plan and reflects on how it went - if it went well or if a different strategy needs to be used, and then gets the reward for trying. Rewards can include praising the process the child used, giving the child a tangible reward such as a sticker on a reward chart or something more significant for skills they really struggle with such as a trip to the park, or natural rewards. The motivator needs to be more than the difficulty to carry the new skill out. Natural rewards may be the success a child feels when they have a positive play experience. This can be reinforced by asking the child if they feel good about how they played, etc. Natural rewards can also include good things that the child was going to get anyway but didn’t know about yet. For example, “after trying out this [whatever agreed upon] skill, you can have a play date with your cousins tomorrow” (which you were planning to do anyway). Rewards are gradually phased out over time as the child becomes more competent at the skill. If they start to slip back, the rewards may need to be brought back in for a time. Try to work on one or two new skills at a time, until they are more consolidated.
Remember that non-verbal communication (including body, face and tone) accounts for 80% of the message relayed during an interaction. It is important to use this with the child, and assist them to use stronger, clearer, non-verbal communication. The child can be educated that listening is with their ‘eyes’, ‘ears’ and ‘body’ (slightly turned towards the person).