Some children are hard to engage with. They want their episodes of play and interaction to give rise to warm, familiar feelings. They want their cognitive landscape to be of their own design. In terms of the ideas they are prepared to have, they are in a warm, fuzzy feedback loop. We might see the domain of their experience as being worryingly limited, but if that experience is everything to a child, then that child is all-powerful and all-knowing. Intrusions and impositions are generally unwelcome. He just can’t accept that a decent idea can come out of something as intrinsically random as a person. If we don’t find the right way to make him feel comfortable, the ideas and the experiences we seek to offer him run the risk of becoming a source of irritation. He could already be fading us out, back into the background.
So when we are working in one-to-one with a child, and when we are helping that child as part of a very small group, he will explore new mental territories with more vigour if we can dress the experience in familiar clothes. In one-to-one, this means echoing what he does does, enjoying it, and trying to make him understand that we are enjoying it. The closer we can get to his way of thinking, the easier it will be for him to incorporate and attribute any variations, extensions and explanations we might occasionally proffer. He will find it easier still if he sees us as being interesting and emotionally available.
In a social interaction group, the above still stands, but the rules and structure, repeated within and over the short sessions, themselves feed into the child’s wish to have some degree of ownership over an essentially familiar experience. In one way then, the aim of a block of social interaction groups is for the patterns and rhythms that underlie them to be as apparent to the children as they can be. To this end, we:
- Use visual timetables. These give the children a readout of what the current activity is, and how far through the activities they have come.
- Repeat roughly the same activities, in the same order, from session to session.
- Have a definitive sense of completion and finality after each activity.
- Promote repetition within activities by offering opportunities for each child to have a turn, and then to experience the activity again as an observer.
The lower the level of a child’s attention and social interaction skills, the more play all of the above will have. It never stops being true though – everyone knows that children generally do better when their environment is thoughtfully structured. Adults who work with children would do well to remember this as they go about deciding just how much novelty they can get a certain child or group of children to take on board in a given session.