Capacity 4: Complex Communication & Shared Problem Solving

Expanding the Circles of communications to Solve Social/Relational Problems

Did you practice capacity 1, 2, and 3? Don't run into capacity 4 until you have mastered, at least partially, capacities 1, 2, and 3! Observe Your Child: Complete this chart to help understand where your child is developmentally

Once a child has mastered the basics of two-way communication, the number of circles she can open and close grows rapidly. And with their number, so grows their complexity. When earlier she responded to things with a single gesture, now she can link gestures into complicated responses. When she sees her mother after an absence, she can run up to her, put up her arms, and squeal with delight, a series of gestures that were impossible at an earlier stage.

For the first time the child has a vocabulary for expressing her wishes. It is a vocabulary of gestures, not of words, but by linking them together she can communicate fairly complicated thoughts. For instance, when she is hungry, she no longer needs to wait for Daddy to offer food; she can take him by the hand, lead him to the refrigerator, and point to what she wants. When she is angry at her brother for stealing her toy, she can hit and kick and try to grab the toy instead of merely crying. She can also go look for it in his room and bring it back to her own play area. When she is happy with her parents, she can run over, flirt with them, and hug and kiss them, rather than simply smile. When she is disappointed, she can give them longing looks and then punish them with a period of unforgiving coldness.

Her growing gestural vocabulary offers her more complex ways to express herself, and along with this expressiveness she becomes creative. She no longer has to do things exactly the way her parents do; she can now add her own elements to a game of chase or mimic her mother’s gesture while adding a flourish of her own. Her new gestural and communication skills provide a myriad of ways for her to express her individuality. The child’s personality emerges. At the same time, her sense of self is becoming far more complex. She now understands that 20 or 30 behaviors—a pattern of behaviors—are involved in being close to, or angry at, someone. She has a wide range of feelings and a varied behavioral vocabulary with which to express them.

As she uses her growing gestural vocabulary to express her many feelings and intentions, and as she responds to the growing complexity of her parents’ gestures, she and her parents engage in lengthy gestural conversations. Twenty, thirty, forty circles are closed, and each circle builds the child’s sense of self. She understands that “I” is built of patterns of intentional behavior, not simply of isolated responses.

Meanwhile, the child begins to comprehend the patterns of others. She can figure out from her parents’ gestures whether she is safe or in danger, approved of or disapproved of, accepted or rejected, respected or humiliated. Before she used words to any degree, she and her parents hold dialogues on life’s major themes. She forms character patterns, expectations of others, and a sense of self. Patterns of helplessness or assertiveness and expectations for love and respect or harm or insult also emerge.

These growing dialogues are the prelude to speech. Through her extensive experience with communication the child builds the foundation for speech. During this stage, the child may begin to imitate the sounds of her parents’ words. Communication difficulties are often first revealed by a child’s difficulty in mastering this stage, long before the more obvious lack of speech is evident. If between 12 and 20 months of age your child is not making complex gestures, such as taking your hand and leading you to the door in order to play outside or pulling you along to help her find a toy, a full evaluation is probably indicated. Often when a child is not using words, parents and professionals are caught up trying to decide whether to wait and see or to implement a full evaluation. Even if a child is not talking, if she shows complex problem solving, such as taking you to the door or toy corner often, you can wait and see. If she does not engage in such preverbal patterns, however, waiting is unwise.

The ability to express herself through complex gestural conversations builds a child’s motor and motor-planning skills. To convey her wishes and intentions she must first organize her behavior into logical sequences and she must learn to read the sequenced behavior of others. As her ability to use and enjoy the world grows, so grows her ability to grasp the world cognitively. Now she knows that when Daddy is hiding behind the curtain, Daddy hasn’t disappeared. Now she can pull the curtain aside and find him.

At three years old, Andrew was an aimless child. He would pick up a toy then drop it, go over to another, look at it, then run to the window and clamor to go outside. If his mother refused to let him go outside, he would dissolve in bitter, inconsolable tears. This kind of random, piecemeal activity characterized his behavior. But most disturbing to his parents was Andrew’s seeming lack of sustained interest in them. He would come over to them for a fleeting hug, but wouldn’t stay for more than a few seconds. In that time he would close two or three circles of communication—perhaps meeting his father’s eye, or respond to his mother’s gestures by putting his head in her lap to be stroked, or taking a proffered toy—but before they could do more Andrew would run off and resume his aimless wandering. Three minutes later he might return, but only for several seconds. Andrew’s parents were also troubled because his vocabulary was limited and he seemed clumsy to them—poorly coordinated and physically insecure.

An evaluation revealed that Andrew had fragile X syndrome. He had auditory-processing difficulties that made it hard for him to interpret sounds. His parents’ words were lost on him, and even their enthusiastic hurrays, their soothing murmurs, their sounds of warning were difficult for him to comprehend. He also had motor-planning problems, which made it hard for him to negotiate sequences. Not only did Andrew face challenges coordinating sequences of movement, but interpreting sequences of sound or movement was equally challenging for him. When his parents used a series of gestures accompanied by sounds he couldn’t understand to tell him to come downstairs for dinner or put away his toys, Andrew literally did not understand them. Their communication was confusing intrusion. He loved his parents and craved their affection, hence his advances to them. Yet no sooner did he advance, than they began making these confusing (and slightly overwhelming) sounds and gestures, and he felt the need to retreat.

After his evaluation, one of Andrew’s therapists showed his parents how to work around his challenges to help him gradually extend the length of contact. The therapist instructed them to keep their gestures going, but not to overload Andrew. When he came over for a hug, they should smile warmly and hug him back. When he broke away, they should keep smiling and say simply, “More hug,” then offer another or go over to Andrew and gently use hands, sounds, and facial expressions to offer an embrace.

Andrew’s parents practiced these instructions, and during the next few months Andrew began coming for a hug, running away, then coming quickly back. “More hug” had become a game, one that Andrew could control and clearly enjoyed. By giving his parents a cocky a little smile he could get them to open their arms and say, “More hug”; then he would run into their arms.

The therapist then suggested extending the game. “Try to go from three circles of communication to ten. After Andrew hugs you, say, ‘Leg hug,’ and point to your leg. See if he will want to give your leg a hug. When he’s comfortable with that, perhaps your arms will want a hug. See how long you can keep the communication going. Perhaps he will point to his leg for a hug, or smile and say, ‘No!’ Either way, circles are being opened and closed.”

Over the next few months Andrew and his parents extended the “more hug” game to arms and legs, knees and feet. They were closing eight, nine, ten circles at one time. All the while, Andrew’s parents were working together to keep their vocalizations and gestures energetic and clear. Instead of saying, “Andrew, come downstairs for dinner, please,” they said, “Andrew, let’s eat!” Instead of saying, “Do you want cheese on your sandwich?” they pointed to the cheese and said, “Oh boy, look, cheese!” They also tried to keep the backup to their words—facial expressions and gestures—as animated as possible.

Andrew responded readily to his parents’ new vocabulary. Over the next six months he initiated more contact with them, sat in their laps for quiet hugging games, and respond to their simple gestures with gestures of his own. He was routinely closing 10 or 12 circles in a row with deeper engagement, more pleasure, and longer chains of gestures. He also began to imitate more of his parents’ sounds, using more variety. Not only was Andrew moving toward complex gestural communication, but he was also developing the skills that would lead toward richer speech.

Lucy, at three, was a far more difficult child than was Andrew. Willful and energetic, she was hard for her parents to control. She, too, ran aimlessly from object to object, but instead of quietly examining things, she tore into them with a frenzy, often leaving a trail of broken items. Lacking speech, she made loud sounds as she ran, ignoring her parents’ entreaties to come and cuddle. Lucy could engage in limited communication with her parents. She would take object from their hand; she would point to things she wanted; she would pound the door or television set or refrigerator to indicate her desires. But once she had what she wanted she would be off again, a whirlwind of agitated movement.

Lucy was diagnosed as having attention deficit disorder and a language disorder. An occupational therapist who focused on Lucy’s individual differences explained to Lucy’s parents that their daughter’s continual movement in part stemmed from an underreactivity to sensory input. Because her body craved stimulation, she was on a continual mission to find it. Running, touching, squeezing, and fondling were all ways of satisfying her body’s need for tactile and proprioceptive stimulation. The therapist suggested that Lucy’s parents build these kinds of sensations into their interactions by playing games that involved jumping, running, touching, wrestling, and moving in space. This approach would help Lucy experience appropriate levels of sensation

The therapist also encouraged Lucy’s parents to try and lengthen Lucy’s contacts with them. “When she bangs on the door to go outside, don’t just open the door,” said the therapist, “pretend you don’t understand so that she has to show you more of what she wants. Try to stretch the communication from three circles to ten.”

So each time Lucy banged on the door to go outside, her parents played as if they did not understand. They looked at her as if to say, “Huh? What do you want?” She would bang the door again, and they would push on the door as if that was what she wanted. She would bang even harder. Still her parents feigned ignorance. Finally, Lucy would take their hands and place them on the doorknob. “Oh,” her parents would say, “you want me to open the door?” Lucy would jump up and down, but still her parents would delay her, perhaps fiddling with the latch until once more Lucy would move their hands to the knob and try to turn them in the right direction.

At first these exercises were intensely frustrating for everyone. Lucy seemed ready to lose control, and her parents hated making her so uncomfortable. But they could see that the strategy was working; each time they did it Lucy closed eight or ten circles in a row. They began applying the strategy to other encounters. When Lucy wanted a particular toy or a particular cookie, they pretended not to understand, offering her the wrong one or pretending not to know how to open the box, until Lucy had closed seven, or eight, or nine circles in communicating her desire. Her parents were always warm and supportive and had a gleam in their eye while negotiating with her. And they made their communications very animated. They communicated their love for Lucy while pushing her to work a little harder.

Several months later, Lucy was routinely communicating with her parents in these lengthier conversations. At the same time, her parents were continually chatting with her about the activity at hand. “You want a cookie? Okay. Oh, not that cookie? Which cookie? Oh, the chocolate chip cookie…” Occasionally Lucy imitated the sounds she heard her parents making. “Ooh-ooh,” she might say, replicating the sound of “cookie.” By giving Lucy so much interreactive emotional experience with communication, her parents were laying the groundwork for speech. Their persistence in stretching circles of communication was helping her master the forth milestone and also become more focused and attentive.

Stage 4 Do’s and Dont’s

  • Do engage in long chains of interaction around all your child ’s interests
  • Do make a point of exploring a range of feelings: pleasure, excitement, curiosity, closeness, anger, defiance, and limit setting.
  • Do challenge your child to experience different feelings in the same play session so she can make various feelings part of who she is.
  • Do let your child know what you expect in terms of behavior, much as a corner policeman directs traffic. Use expressive facial expressions, body postures and vocal tones.
  • Do challenge your child to solve more and more complex problems, like finding you in a hide-and-seek game.
  • Do challenge your child to use her gestures to show you what she wants.
  • Don’t label your child as good or bad.
  • Don’t focus only on playing with blocks, puzzles, or cause-and-effect toys.
  • Don’t become preoccupied with teaching your child about discipline and controlling her behavior.

Learning How to Solve Problems

Challenge your child to interact with you to solve problems- not only those that she wants to figure out on her own, but also those that you present to her. Exchange many gestures as the two of you problem-solve, including sounds or words and actions such as pulling each other in various directions.

Games to help your child master Capacity 4:

The Working-Together Game

Note your child ’s natural interest in various toys, such as dolls, stuffed animals, trucks, balls, etc., and create a problem involving a favorite toy that she needs your help to solve. For example, you might have a favorite teddy bear “run away” and “climb” to a high shelf. Your child will have to raise her arms to reach, and gesture for you to pick her up to extend her reach, and you will gladly comply. Such a simple game will involve opening and closing many circles of communication while solving a problem at the same time.

Copycat Game

Copy your child ’s sounds and gestures, and see if you can entice her to mirror all of your funny faces, sounds, movements and dance steps. Eventually, add words to the game and then use the words in a purposeful manner to help her meet a need, for example, by saying “Juice” or “Open!”

Is capacity 4 hard for you and your child? Go back and practice capacities 1, 2, and 3. The better you get at stages 1, 2, and 3, the easier it will be to move up the developmental ladder to stage 4!