Capacity 3: Intentionality and Two-way Communication

Opening and Closing Circles of Communication

When a baby falls in love with his parents, an interesting thing happens. He realizes he can have an impact on them. When he smiles at Mommy, she smiles back. When he reaches out to Daddy, Daddy reaches back. The baby expresses a feeling or an intention, and his caregiver responds. This is the beginning of communication; the baby and his grown-ups are having a dialogue.

We like to think of these dialogues as opening and closing circles of communication. When a child reaches out—with a look, for example—he opens the circle. When the parent responds—by looking back—he builds on the child’s action. When the child in turn responds to the parent—by smiling, vocalizing, reaching, or even turning away—he is closing the circle. When the parent responds to the child’s response—by holding out a toy, by saying, “Don’t you want to play?”, by echoing the child’s vocalization—and the child responds with another gesture (a look, a smile, or hand movement) they have opened and closed another circle.

Fairly quickly the baby extrapolates from this experience; not only can he cause Mommy and Daddy to react, but he can cause other reactions, too. He bangs a toy, and the toy makes a sound! He drops a block; it falls to the floor. He has an impact on the world, and for the first time the baby becomes a person of volition, someone who can actively choose to do things, knowing that his actions will cause a result. He is learning fundamental emotional, cognitive, and motor lessons.

Two-way communication is essential for all human interaction. It also allows children to learn about themselves and about the world. The older child hugs a teacher and the teacher hugs back; she learns that she is appreciated. She pushes another child, and that child begins to cry; she learns that her actions can move someone to tears. Without these essential experiences in two-way communication, children can’t form a basic sense of intentionality, which means they can’t begin to form a true sense of who they are or see that the world is logical.

From his very difficult birth Scott seemed hard to engage. Many of his senses were underreactive, his muscle tone was low, and his motor development delayed. His left side was weaker than his right. At eight months of age his parents were told that he had cerebral palsy and would need physical and occupational therapy to learn to coordinate and build strength in his arms and legs. Even with therapy he showed little interest in the world and initiated few activities. When his mother smiled and cooed at him and tried to get him to smile back, he turned away, closed his eyes, or stared past her.

After working on gaining his interest and building intimacy (using the approaches described earlier), his mother began to help Scott master the third critical skill, two-way communication. It was no longer enough to get Scott to pay attention to Mom and Dad; he now needed to be challenged to respond to their gestures with gestures of his own.

Scott’s parents began showing him the power of his gestures. Whenever Scott made the slightest noise or movement, his parents ooh-ed and aah-ed or responded in an exaggerated way. They were careful to build on motor gestures that Scott could do easily, such as looking or moving his tongue or head. Soon he caught on that his gesture produced a reaction in them. He had an impact on his world! Gradually Scott’s parents turned these gestures into dialogues. Each time Scott moved his arms, however slightly or seemingly unintentionally, Daddy waved his arms; then Scott would move his arms again. He had closed a circle of communication.

As Scott came to appreciate his power to make things happen, he began to take initiative. He would knock a toy off his high chair. Plunk! Now his parents could use toys to lure him into further communication. They would get down on the floor with him, face to face, and hold a toy he was looking at to see if Scott would reach for it. Or they would put a toy he was touching just outside his reach and challenge him to slither toward it. When he succeeded, they congratulated him heartily: he had closed a circle of communication. In this way, by using Scott’s natural interests and existing motor capacities, they restarted the developmental progression. They helped him begin to master the third functional emotional milestone. With their work at home, his physical and occupational therapists also reported more progress.

From Theory to Practice: Tips on how to help your child master stage 3

Stage 3: Opening and ClosingCircles of Communication

  • Encouraging two-way communication

    • Communication builds on intentionality, the goal is to help your child take the initiative. Your child's interest and purpose is the first step in meaningful communication.

    • Your child will OPEN the circle of communication by his own purpose or intention, by doing what he wants to do

    • You can then build on this intention by helping your child achieve his goal.

    • Your child will CLOSE the circle of communication when he takes advantage of what you offered and gestures back to you

    • Getting to a continous back-and-forth communication is the goal of this stage.

Goal: Becoming a two-way communicator.

How you know your child is communicating: Your child may open up gestural dialogues with you by doing the following:

  • Reaching out to you to be picked up, or hugging you back when you hug him

  • Smiling, vocalizing, putting a finger in your mouth, taking a rattle from his mouth and putting it in your own, or touching or exploring your hair

  • Pushing undesired food off a high-chair tray with an accompanying angry look, screaming when a desired toy isn’t fetched quickly enough, or wiggling out of your arms when he has no interest in getting dressed (His angry face, shouts, and squirmy body clearly communicate his sense of protest or anger).

  • Looking for the toy that fell to the ground or (toward the end of this stage) looking in your hand for a hidden, desired rattle.

  • Showing caution or fear by turning away, clinging to your leg, or looking scared when a stranger approaches too quickly.

  • Follow your child ’s lead and challenge him to exchange gestures and emotional signals with you about his interests.

Do’s and Don’ts as your baby learns to communicate

  • Do simultaneously exercise as many of the seeing, smelling, hearing, touching and moving elements of your child’s nervous system as you can while the two of you interact.

  • Don’t be a ringmaster and direct the way your play unfolds. Follow your child ’s lead and help him use his interests to give direction and organization to his new abilities.

  • Do play lots of emotionally pleasurable games for longer times. The more interactive playtimes you share, the more fun you’ll have.

  • Do seek out the magic moments.

Becoming a Communicator

Take note of the things your child is naturally interested in (your funny nose, or the rattle you’ve placed in your mouth, for example) and then challenge him to express himself with feelings and actions in a purposeful way. In this way you will help him become a two-way communicator!

Games to help your child master Capacity 3:

The Funny Sound, Face, and Feeling Game

Notice the sounds and facial expressions your child naturally uses when he’s expressing joy, annoyance, surprise, or any other feeling, and mirror these sounds and facial expressions back to him in a playful way. See if you can get a back-and-forth going.

The Circle of Communication Game

Try to see how many back-and-forths you can get going each time your child touches a tiny red ball or pats your nose and you make a funny squeel or squawk in response. Or see how many times he will try to open your hand when you’ve hidden an intriguing object inside. Each time your child follows his interests and takes your bait, he is closing a circle of communication.