Leaning into Behavior DIR Style

By Stephanie Peters, MS, OTR/L, ICDL Newsletter
In Floortime, we advocate for a strategy called “following your child’s lead” as a way of entering a child’s world and a way to create a shared experience. This is all well and good if a child is playing with something relatable (sure, I’d love to craft!) and age-appropriate (how cute is it that they love Mickey Mouse!), but what happens when your child is self-absorbed and only wants to watch you-tube, or has to have something a certain way? How do we follow a child’s lead when they are doing something we don’t really want to encourage?

In “The Whole-Brain Child”, Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson talked about a strategy they coined “connect and redirect”. The authors advocate that in the face of an escalating tantrum, make space to engage with your child to understand their perspective before trying to shape the “behavior”, or their actions. By connecting first, finding regulation and shared attention (FEDCs 1 and 2) you are supporting your child’s ability to stay regulated and think logically, rather than what’s referred to as “flipping your lid” where your emotions take control and spill over.

I found this line of reasoning particularly powerful in reframing how I engage my clients with neurodiversities while they are exhibiting what is often labeled as a “behavior”. As a Floortimer, I perceive this observable behavior as communication. By wondering “what is this behavior telling me?”, you will open up a whole new level of trust and understanding that will enable greater gains and a stronger relationship than by reacting with “How can I control or eliminate this unacceptable behavior?

”This past year, I worked with a child who let me know he had to have his obstacle in a particular way via a huge and aggressive meltdown when I would try to add or change a component. My first reaction was to dig my heels in and think “I NEED to teach him to be flexible, and if I give in, I will only be reinforcing that if he acts this way, he can get whatever he wants.” With the help of my reflective practice, I was able to see this would teach him that he was spending one hour a week with someone he couldn’t trust, would not listen to him or be able to understand him. By leaning into the behavior, I was able to make space to wonder “Why is this so important to him?”, and “What else could happen if I help him feel like I will listen to him when there is something important to him worth communicating?” It turns out, a whole lot.

By digging a little deeper, I was able to see that the necessity to have an obstacle course always be the same was the result of challenges with praxis/motor planning and sensory processing, which created limits with his ability to easily navigate and feel safe in his world. Instead of trying to prove that I could take back control by waiting for his aggression to dissipate (which didn’t, by the way), I started responding with “Oh this isn’t right! Let’s put it back” which earned me a double glance and eventually his ability to use words to let me know “No thank you!” when I had an idea he didn’t like. Gradually, once he learned that I would listen to and respect his voice, I was able to introduce new ideas that he would say “yes” to. By connecting first, I was then able to challenge him because he felt safe, understood, and trusting in his relationship.

The next time your child is being “behavioral”, create an opportunity for yourself to wonder the why behind it. See if you can cultivate more back and forth interactions in your aim to understand why something is so important to them. Does it have to be your way? What could the benefits be if we lean into what our child is telling us they need, and finding a way to communicate “I hear you, I see you, and I am here to help you feel safe and capable in your world”. Dr. Greenspan said it best with “There is no greater feeling than being understood.”