© David Sponder, L.E.P., BCBA, Floortime C3c
Executive Director, Sponderworks Children’s Services

Focus on Authenticity

Whenever possible, learning should take place when and where people would or could be together naturally.

  • Authenticity means that treatment supports the family’s natural lifestyle rather than the other way around.

Many families are told that their role is to support the therapy instead.  They may be asked or even required to parent in ways that feel unnatural to them, or that involve learning a lot of jargon.

Therapies also occur at times during the day or evening that prevent my family member from being together naturally.  The way things are now, therapy activities are very different than my normal family routines.  I can do one or the other, but not both – and I have the rest of my family to think about.

I’m told that she “…doesn’t behave like that during therapy!”  I’m afraid for the Therapist to leave because my child behaves completely differently with me.   I can’t afford to stop working or taking care of my home and my other children to do therapy like my Therapist.

Families create authentic products all the time.  Whenever anyone does something that they would normally do as part of  life, they create something. 

  • Making plans results in the authentic product of – having plans.
  • Cleaning the room results in a clean room.  
  • Sharing a story together results in - something we like doing together.  
  • Going grocery shopping produces the authentic product of getting the groceries we needed

Mastery is theReinforcer

Authentic products include opportunities for experiencing the joy of sharing experiences with others; the creation of objects, projects or new ideas that provide meaningful and inherently motivating consequences (e.g., positive feelings; objects or performances that the Student creates along with others that yield a sense of pride, a sense of increased competence, confidence and mastery, and a sense of a shared, positive experience, etc.).We know that the most enduring source of motivation is an expectation of being able to do it – whatever it is that one wants to do.

All of us have some area, or perhaps many areas where we feel pretty good about our abilities.  In these areas, we tend to have the most confidence, interest, and ability to get what we want out them.

We also have areas where we lack confidence in our abilities.  In these areas, it’s more difficult to find motivation to get started or stay with them.

  • One possible answer to a motivation problem is to offer something else – something valuable enough to the person that he or she would be willing to work or sacrifice another type of reward in order to obtain it.
  • Another possible answer to a motivation problem is to follow the person’s lead, and somehow incorporate his or her natural interests in whatever you do together.
  • An entirely different way of looking at motivation is to look at it as coming from these sources:
    • Durable motivation comes trying to do things that are difficult, and yet results were obtained from one’s own, persistent effortA naturally motivated person usually…
      • anticipates that effort will produce positive results
      • expects that trying involves error as well as some negative feelings such as disappointment or frustration that are manageable
      • believes that persistence and the availability of help and support will pay off
    • The word “resilient” is another way of describing naturally motivated people, because natural motivation is impossible without resilience.A resilient person is someone that …
      • responds to failures, setbacks, and other types of breakdowns by trying harder or trying differently
      • has a way of dealing with inevitable negative feelings and is confident he or she can manage them
      • works interdependently and independently in equally healthy and appropriate ways

Meaning as Motivation

With the right type of guidance, our loved ones can find that sharing social and emotional experiences with others is at least equal to or preferable to obtaining tangible objects, activities or extrinsic rewards, or engaging in solitary activity.  Good guidance means that things are arranged so that inherently motivating consequences are achieved “immediately enough.

Students have different capacities for understanding long-term goals, steps towards goals, deferred gratification, etc.  For instance, some students may be able to stay motivated and understand that what they create today will not be ready for them to use or enjoy until another time. Other students will have to go through a series of learning steps before they are ready to say, cook something and put it in the refrigerator for consumption at a later time. Those students may need to have a more immediate emotional payoff (cooking activities choose quick recipes that allow consumption sooner, such as making cookies or mixing juice).

The journey towards this goal will necessarily involve building personal qualities such as resilience, perseverance, as well as willingness and ability to benefit from guidance and the examples of others.  Deriving satisfaction from sharing experiences can be very difficult for some and not “immediate enough” to remain motivating for long.  Adult Guides strive to provide “an emotional scaffold” (the kind of help necessary) that allows for a sense of discovery, challenge, and success – whatever that represents for the Student at the moment.Instead of “lowering the bar,” “watering things down,” or simply skipping activities that in their typical form are too complex, we include the Students in normal activities.Guides can do this by careful assignment of Roles and Role Responsibilities.  Guides naturally perform the more complex or risky parts of the task and reserve appropriate challenges that can be found in the task for the Student.

Therefore, Guides first look to providing adequate support or “scaffolding” so that the Student can perform a meaningful role in a normal task.  All learning opportunities and skill teaching occurs in the context of a whole task – rather than doing isolated parts of tasks, contrived exercises or drills out of context.

When Motivation (Lack of Resilience) is a problem

Motivation can be a problem when there is too little of it in everyday life or, when motivation for other things interferes somehow with daily life.

Positive Reinforcers and Positive Reinforcement

The most common suggestion for motivation problems is to use a process called  “positive reinforcement.”   The word “positive” in “positive reinforcement” doesn’t mean that it is necessarily good…

In this manner of speaking, “positive” really means that whatever it is, it is now added to the environment or to the consequences of behavior.  Whatever is added should have the effect of making a desired behavior more likely to happen.  A “positive reinforcer” is simply something you add that will make some behavior more likely to happen.

“Positive Reinforcers” are those things that we add to “the environment,” to provide motivation that a person cannot yet attain from internal sources or from events occurring naturally in the environment.

There is nothing wrong with using positive reinforcement as a temporary compensation for a lack of motivation, but it is never a good idea to use it in place of natural forms of reinforcement – those that can be found in the environments where the skills are needed.

We therefore exercise caution in using positive reinforcement because we are aware that:

  • The misuse of positive reinforcement techniques can lead to dependence on external and unnatural forms of reinforcement and ultimately – burnout.
  • The primary use of positive reinforcement puts the focus on “getting the right answer” and earning rewards, rather than finding the reward in discovering an answer
  • When success with positive reinforcement deprives a person of opportunities to become resilient – in other words, opportunities to try and to learn from making mistakes

Following the Child’s Lead

In some very important ways – we always follow the persons lead.  As parents, caring adults and other forms of Guides, we have to be attuned to those we care about.  We may have rules and expectations and we’re trying to be consistent, but we always must pay attention to the person – not just the behaviors.  Following a person’s interests and natural motivations can provide rich opportunities for learning and sharing moments in ways that are very meaningful to them.  Following someone’s lead can help them feel appreciated and understood by us.  This creates opportunities to bond in ways that not only can provide powerful motivation, but also a depth of personal bond perhaps not possible in any other way.

We therefore exercise caution in following the child’s lead because we are aware that:

  • It represents an attempt to use the person’s favorite things or activities as incentives.  By making access to one’s favorite things now dependent upon doing things he or she didn’t have to do before, the person might view this as confrontational – as actually taking something away.  Further, when it is done this way, the child typically “accesses” his “reinforcer” alone.  Being able to engage in the activity is associated with being able to do it alone.  Being alone may be the best part, or it may be strongly connected to what is really rewarding in such a scenario.
  • Follow the child’s lead means an absence of challenge and a presence of static, stagnation.  In order to be included in all aspects of citizenry, one should be not only flexible, but able to take part in things that interest others.

We may start by strongly following your lead – but we cannot remain there.  Instead, we might choose to follow your lead, but we will also add regular breakdowns and therefore opportunities to solve problems and think dynamically.  We will challenge you with variations and new wrinkles that require you to share control and to expect change rather than predictability.

Guided Participation

Guided Participation is the natural way of parenting for our species.  But it can also break down.  A history of lack of motivation and successful avoidance can make guiding or even participating in natural family routines and community activities together daunting if not impossible right now.  Guided participation or mindful parenting is a way that you can teach just about any type of skill within the context of a natural activity.

Being a Guide

Being the “Guide” is a role that you perform in a guided participation teaching moment.  Guides are just people that have the ability and the motivation to teach someone else something.   If they are good Guides, they teach a person how to learn by teaching not just the skills, but the “tools for learning.”   These tools have to do with learning how to think and adapt in dynamic (changing) life settings and to manage uncertainty.

Parents, Teachers, and other more experienced persons that cared for us engaged us in many different activities of life.  We learned from watching them and doing things with them.  Importantly, we learned that it was important to watch them.  We learned by watching them even when they weren’t trying to teach us something. And we didn’t just observe what they did, we started to form concepts of how and why they did what they were doing.

From that initial teaching of how lo learn, we learned to learn even more from watching everyone else.  Because we learned how to learn, we continue to learn from not only from our own trials, errors and successes, but also by watching what works or doesn’t work  for others.

Ultimately, what is most important is restoring your ability to use Guided Participation whenever and wherever you want.  In your role as Guide, the choice for dealing with problems with motivation is up to you.  Any of the above strategies can and do work in the right circumstances and hopefully for the right reasons.  We want you to be able to choose or refuse to use positive reinforcement or child lead.  We hope to able to help you learn how to make the decision.

Guided Participation Teaching

There are several characteristics of Guided Participation type teaching that are different than those of conventional “didactic,” “directive” or “direct” instruction.

Primary and Supporting Elements of Guided Participation Teaching

Starting with the Goal of Inter-dependence

A program focused on increasing potential Quality of Life will have to include a primary emphasis on teaching Students to be inter-dependent and to work interdependently with others.  In most programs, there is an over-emphasis on independence.  That ignores that fact that at home, in real-life jobs and in our community and social lives, we do more things together with other people (interdependently) than we do independently.

An over-focus on independence can backfire for several reasons.

  • First, the Student may balk at the responsibility for doing the entire task.  The Student may be quite capable and willing to do some part of the task but not others.  If the Guide is willing to share the task in some way, the Student is less likely to resist and more likely to try.
  • Students often lead very lonely lives. Over-emphasis on doing things alone also sets up the lonely Student to look for social engagement in inappropriate ways or at inappropriate times.  When a Student works together with someone else, he or she has a structured way to engage in social engagement, and less of a need to seek attention by misbehaving.
  • Interacting with others requires learning to adjust, to be flexible, to work with other people’s goals, ideas, and actions.  Sometimes it is harder to work with someone else than to do it alone.
  • Many Students with disorders of relating and communicating may avoid the uncertainty and the demands involved in doing things other people.  Over-emphasis on independence can actually deprive a person opportunities to learn to work with others

Interdependence involves people taking on “roles” and “role actions” that interact with the roles and role actions of other people.  When teaching with the goal of interdependence in mind, Guides set up a ctivities in ways that require Students to depend on others in order to perform their own role.

For instance, one person might perform the Role of ‘Collator,’ his partner might be the ‘Stapler,’ and the other partner could be the “Hole Puncher.”  They could work in ‘assembly line’ fashion.  That involves working in synchrony – no one can go ahead of the other.  The Role might involve adjusting to the speeding up or slowing down of the line.  The Collator might assemble a packet that can be stapled, but is too thick for the hole punch.  This would be something the other two would have to adjust to in some way.In other words, each person has some sort of effect on the others.  They have to pay attention to what they are doing as well as to what the others are doing, and they have to make the necessary adjustments to keep going along smoothly.

Each partner regulates the actions of the others when they perform their role.  When people regulate each other in reciprocal ways, it’s called “co-regulation.”  Participation in any mutual activity requires this.

Assignments that call for things to be done, “independently” don’t require co-regulation, so Students can go all the way through school without learning to engage in co-regulated activities with others.  But co-regulation is required more often at home and at work, and inability to engage in interdependence can become a huge obstacle to a person’s potential for a quality life.

Roles and Role Actions in Guided Participation Teaching

Guide Roles in Guided Participation Teaching

A Guide is a person that takes responsibility for teaching.  The roles of the Guide in guided participation teaching are as follows:

  • The Guide chooses how the members of the group will work together – how the interdependence versus independence will work.  For instance partners might perform complementary roles and role actions that feature partners doing different things, but working hand-in-hand in a coordinated way.  The Guide may choose to set up an activity where everyone is to do the same thing in succession, or simultaneously, or when the opportunity arises.
  • The Guide choose roles and role responsibilities for the members participating in a task or activity
  • The Guide regulates the level of challenge in an ongoing and dynamic way, so there is enough challenge to provide opportunities for discovery and learning
    • The Guide employs guiding techniques that foster opportunities for the Student to engage in active learning and to be successful
    • The Guide allows for therapeutic amounts of failure for the student so that he or she becomes more resilient
    • The Guide makes sure the Student has both the tools and the responsibility for finding solutions

Student or Learner Roles in Guided Participation Teaching

A “Student,” “Learner,”  or “Apprentice” (the terms are interchangeable and a matter of preference) is a person that takes responsibility for learning.  The roles of the Learner in guided participation teaching are as follows:

  • The Learner must make some sort of emotional commitment and devote mindful attention to the teaching moment.
  •  The Learner accepts his or her as Learner.  The Learner accepts and trusts that the Guide is helpful and qualified to assist.  The Learner is able to use the Guide as an important resource.
    • This means allowing the Guide to lead and assist without resisting the Guide’s efforts.  Because the Guide has been attuned in the past, the Learner shows fewer defensive postures.
    • This means that the Learner’s attention and emotional position is one of openness to new information and accepting of reasonable demands.  The Learner trusts that the Guide supports him or her emotionally as well as with the physical and cognitive demands involved
    • This means that the Learner’s mental energy is focused mainly on problem solving and maintaining the social-interactive system, and not on attempts to control, withdraw or escape

Role Actions in Guided Participation Teaching

Each role has a set of actions that goes with it.  There are some that are permanent parts of the role, such as those described above.

The rest of the role definition and role actions comes from what you’re doing together.  I don’t want to overuse the word “task” because people associate tasks with chores and work assignments.

I prefer to use the words “System” or “Teaching Frame” to describe how Guided Participation occurs throughout the day and throughout life.

  • A “system” is created whenever one object interacts with another.
  • A “system” can be momentary or enduring.
  • A “system” the objects, the people involved, and their actions.
  • A “Teaching Frame” is any system where a Guide and a teaching opportunity emerges
  • Guides learn to “make opportunities” by tweaking naturally occurring systems in ways that make thinking or problem-solving necessary
  • Guides learn to “take opportunities” when they see opportunities arise spontaneously in systems

Guides assign the roles as well as define what role actions will be required.  Guides look for Roles and corresponding Role Actions that require the exercise of a relationship skill or other type of skill.  Guides tailor the Apprentice’s role responsibilities and role actions so that they are: CHALLENGING ENOUGH TO BUILD RESILIENCE AND SELF ESTEEM and NOT TOO CHALLENGING AS TO BE OVERWHELMING

If Mastery is the Reinforcer, than the Guide insures that the Apprentice has the right role, the right responsibilities, the right challenge and the right amount of help to be successful and to come away motivated to try again.  The Guide can’t do too much, because that would deprive the Apprentice the “feeling of accomplishment” that is the real reward.  And the Guide must provide help or “scaffolding” so that negative feelings are kept in a tolerable range.

Role Responsibilities

Performing a “Role” means being responsible for performing a certain function.  Every social interaction involves role responsibilities.  For instance, if I go to a concert, the “Performer’s” role is to play the music, and my role, “Audience member,” involves the responsibility to take my seat and be quiet.  In Guided Participation teaching, we try to set up activities that require more active participation than the above example, but this brings up an important point.  Role responsibility is a better way of thinking of the actions involved, because ‘responsibility’ has something to do with the attitude and behavior that also goes along with performing the role.

Gradual Transfer of Responsibility

As the Apprentice participates and acquires skills, he or she can take on more of the responsibilities – more aspects of the task.  Guides transfer responsibilities to the Apprentice as he or she demonstrates the capacity to take them on.

Guides metaphorically begin “lowering the scaffold.”  They provide less help and allow for the Apprentice to take more responsibility.  Ideally, participation and the sense of competence and mastery the challenges afford are motivation enough, and you hear the Student saying, “I wanna do it!”  This is a good sign the Apprentice is ready to take on more responsibility.  Also, lowering the scaffold and transferring responsibility often involves giving less information, help and reminding.

Guided Participation Teaching: Supporting Techniques

Providing Opportunities for Discovery and Learning through Enhancing and Exaggerating

First, Guides provide enhancement or exaggeration of natural things (stimuli) that in turn provide the best opportunity for “the Student” to discover what needs to be done.

Guides help the Student discover opportunities and needs for responding, without having to be explicitly told or directed what to do.   Rather than relying on others to give directions, scripts or procedures to memorize, or prompts, or relying on static references such as schedules and fixed routines, Students are put into roles or positions that require them to make specific discoveries and adaptations.

Example: An Apprentice is supposed to remember to wash his hands upon leaving the bathroom. Standing outside and listening, the Guide knows that the Apprentice forgot to do that, and as he attempted to leave the bathroom, she stopped him.  Instead of saying something direct that would require a response such as, “Go back and wash your hands,” the Teacher/Guide attempts to draw the Student’s attention to the problem not the solution.

The problem is that the Student forgot to wash his hands. The solution is to go back and wash them.  To avoid having to come out and say it directly, give a command, ask a question or prompt the Apprentice, the Guide might gasp loudly as an exaggeration of the slight gasp that would probably happen in a typical social situation.

The Apprentice is a little “hard of hearing;” a little “tone-deaf; ” and definitely not “aware enough” of the subtle signs going on now – the kind that are always there, but that this Apprentice consistently fails to notice.

This Apprentice is likely to miss slight, “natural volume” gestures such as a gasp, at least at first.  He’s not yet learned to be attuned to and therefore vigilant for that gesture, or for gestures like it.   In other words, this Apprentice would likely miss an opportunity to notice a pretty commonly available nonverbal signal.   This failure to recognize signals of momentary breakdown (the gasp as the “signal of the breakdown;” the failure to wash hands and the Guide’s stopping the action from going on further as “the breakdown” and the Student remembering and going back to wash his hands as the “repair” of this little system).

By “turning up the volume” of the natural cue, say by gasping loudly and perhaps accompanying the gasp with bigger, more noticeable (i.e. “high volume“) visual cues: posture and physical gesture  (shoulders up; hands to face).  Action cues, such as looking back and forth between the Apprentice ‘s hands and the sink might provide additional reference points that allows him to figure out what to do – how to “repair the momentary breakdown” in this little system of interaction.  These kinds of strategies provide maximal opportunity for the Student to respond to a naturally occurring social reference (point of relevant information – in this case, another person gasping slightly in indignation over the Student not washing his hands).

The Apprentice is now in a position to have to figure out what to do. The Guide provides time, space and protection from overwhelming distraction, as well as models of behavior, corrective feedback, expansion opportunities and challenges, etc., in order to ensure that the experience ends up as “challenging enough” and at the same time “doable.” The experience has to be “challenging enough” or it won’t result in any increase in the Student’s internal sense of competence and confidence. Signs of competence and confidence are perseverance and resilience (bouncing back; tolerating negative outcomes while at the same time maintaining motivation and productivity). Signs that increasing feelings of competence and confidence are acting as motivators are that you see the Student embracing rather than avoiding the challenge.

Learning experiences come from participation in normal things.  A lot of “normal things” can seem off limits for Students with limited abilities
Preference for Whole-Task/In-Context activities

In Guided Participation teaching, learning experiences are supposed to come from participating in normal daily living.   But a lot of “normal things” can seem off limits for Students with limited abilities.  This is where the concept of scaffolding comes in.

Instead of “lowering the bar,” “watering things down,” or simply skipping activities that in their typical form are too complex, we include the Students in normal activities.  Guides can do this by careful assignment of Roles and Role Responsibilities.  Guides naturally perform the more complex or risky parts of the task (this forms the scaffold – the Guide does what the Student cannot yet do) and they reserve appropriate challenges that can be found within the task for the Student.


Following the “whole task” orientation, few normal activities are off-limits.  Guides just have to find a role and a set of role responsibilities within a task that are appropriate for the Student.  The Guide may assume all other responsibilities.In keeping with the “in-context” orientation, Guides also provide help.  They try to provide “as little help as they can get away with.”  But they don’t “lower the bar.”First, let’s consider why we call it “scaffolding.”  Normal activities can be over the Student’s head or inaccessible if the expectation is independentperformance.   The Guide would have to water down the task or only teach small parts of it to get independent performance, and certain tasks, such as those that involve danger (cooking), might not be attempted at all.  That’s “lowering the bar.”Now think of a Painter and a tall building.  The Painter cannot reach the top.  The Painter doesn’t lower the building.  The Painter builds a scaffold underneath her so that she can reach the top.  The Painter builds a scaffold high enough to make up the difference between her height (her ability) and the height of the building (the task; the challenges involved).

Declarative Language

Second, Guides tend to use “declarativelanguage that facilitates “experience sharing” and “interdependence.”  This becomes a vital element in the way Guides scaffold within a Teaching Frame.

Declarative language is the language of “experience-sharing.”  It consists of statements, comments and observations; offering points of view and telling stories.  It involves creating images and thoughts in other people’s minds, and it helps a person form mental images and thoughts when they hear others use it.  Language experts estimated that 80% of our social interactions consist of declarative language and gestures.

Declarative v. Imperative Language

Imperative Language is the language of task-oriented, instrument interaction.  “Instrumental social interactions” are focused on accomplishing a goal or meeting a need, whereas “experience-sharing” interactions often have no other purpose than to enjoy being together with others.  “Imperative” language is meant to obtain “responses” such as when giving directions, asking questions or prompting, etc.  That’s why the word “imperative” implies “command,” because people in imperial positions give orders.  Functions of language that have the root “mand” in them tend to be imperative:  “demand;” “command;” “reprimand.”

Therefore, a key component skill Guides learn in order to do Guided Participation teaching is to use a predominance of declarative, “experience-sharing” language, that encourages the Learner to think, and; to use less imperative language, that merely encourages Learners to respond or comply.

Read more about using Declarative Language in “Giving the Child the Problem – not the Solution.”

The Roles ofCompensation” v. “Remediation

  • Compensationhas to do with efforts to make up for or cover up a deficit.
    • Some compensations or compensatory strategies are absolutely necessary and beneficial
    • Others are not necessary and may even be harmful in the long run.
  • Remediationrefers to the efforts to overcome a deficit.
    • Remediation is usually better than compensation because it represents an improvement – usually a permanent improvement
    • Remediation is costly in terms of time and effort.

There is no thing, no strategy, no tool or aspect of life that falls automatically into one of those two categories.  What may be better off taught as a compensation for one may be better to teach as a remediation to another.

Here’s just a few of the compensations I use:

    • I wear eyeglasses because I can’t read without them.  I could go for a fix or a remediation such as Lasik surgery, but it isn’t really worth the risk.
    • I keep my addresses and phone numbers on my phone.  I could work hard to remember everything in my head, but it isn’t worth the effort.
    • I make lists and outlines to organize myself and remember things.  I keep a calendar.  I don’t do well when I have to keep all that stuff in my head.  I probably could with considerable time and effort – but I have better things to do.  My writing would be even worse without the outlines.
    • I tend to rely on my wife’s ability to remember where I left things.  I tend to ask her where things are before I go looking.  I could learn (remediation) to organize my stuff so that I can find it easier.
    • I rely on prompting to wash my car.  I could learn (remediation) to put “car wash” into my calendar – or I could just try harder to remember it.
    • I rely on coffee to wake up in the morning.  There’s nothing I can do about that.

Guiding involves an assessment of why skills are important to learn.  Generally, we would err on the side of remediation.  As you can see from the examples of my life, there are potential problems with my reliance on asking and prompting.  I probably should learn my way out of those.  but the other things – on balance – are beneficial.   I had to learn how to use my compensations and compensatory strategies – so in those cases – remediation led to compensation.

In other cases, compensation – say a “visual schedule” might help me temporarily be responsible for time and transitions and to do well at it.  A “visual schedule” is a very common compensation for a deficit in memory or in the skills of sequencing and remembering things in sequence.  But if the visual schedule is not part of a long term remediation plan: to teach a person how to anticipate and prepare for changes by paying attention to developments and reference points in the environment, than the visual schedule can end up being a “harmful compensation” in the long run.   That is, instead of learning the dynamic thinking tools of paying attention to change and making continuous adjustments, the person can remain “autistically unaware” of changes going on in the background and subsequently over-reliant on a static schedule to fit in as a citizen.

Tolerance of Negative Outcomes: One of the most important areas of relationship skill one can develop has to do with the capacity to regulate difficult emotions.  Emotional regulation includes the ability to tolerate and manage feelings in an organized way (without loss of control).  Emotional regulation also includes the ability to rely on relationships with one’s self and others as means of tolerating and dealing with difficult emotions.

The Guide understands that the way to learn to manage difficult feelings is to have opportunities to deal with them.  As it is the regular course and responsibility to assign roles, role actions and the right level of challenge, it is important to provide opportunities to learn from emotional challenges.  The Guide makes sure that trials, failures, and efforts to repair are within the Learner’s capacity – but from thereon in, the Guide does not take undue measures to remove the possibility of negative outcomes and negative feelings.

Guides are allowed to give all kinds of moral and technical support.  Guides protect the Learner from overwhelming experiences.  But Guides allow Learners to feel and learn how to manage difficult feelings.

This is in many ways the opposite of what some us professionals and parents were taught.  We might think that success means an absence of tantrums, resistance or avoidance behaviors.  Those behaviors may represent some pretty ugly, tough, messy moments, but they are part of an important process of learning to deal with them.

Allowing manageable, therapeutic amounts of uncertainty, risk, and error, which could bring on manageable amounts of frustration, disappointment, or anger, is an important and necessary part of Guided Participation teaching.  In terms of relationship skills, these moments can facilitate sharing, interdependence and relating as the most viable tools for getting through difficult moments.  And when one has more confidence that he or she, perhaps with the help of friends, can handle difficult moments, one becomes more “resilient.”

Resilience: Things don’t go perfectly and we shouldn’t expect them to.  Yet a lot of educational and behavioral programming is designed to avoid causing negative feelings in Students.  Students also exert effort to avoid negative feelings.

That bears repeating and clarifying.  Students exert effort to avoid negative feelings.   On paper, we usually look at a Student’s escape or avoidance behaviors as avoiding demands: demands to accept and work on assignments; demands to follow rules and directions; demands to defer gratification, etc… all of which are and should be part of anyenvironment.  But the overt actions that Students take in order to avoid these things are really about avoiding the feelings that accompany them or that the Student anticipates will accompany them.

For instance, the Student might anticipate frustration or boredom with an assignment or task.  Perhaps it isn’t frustration or boredom the person seeks to avoid; it is the feeling that he or she gets whenever denied something he or she wants, or the feelings that occur when the individual has to wait or defer gratification.  Either way, the Student avoids feeling bad, and does not have the maturity to understand that feeling good might actually result from making an effort, or that feeling good will come later, once the hard part is over.

Instead we want Students to have a “can do,” “mastery orientation,” rather than a defensive, avoidant or withdrawn posture towards uncertainty and risk of failure.

How do we teach “resilience?”  Well, how we learn to be resilient has been the subject of study in the field of mental health for years.  We learn to be resilient when we:

  • Experience a novel challenge.  The challenge comes from some sort of a breakdownof a system (e.g., I’m eating and I drop my fork; I’m talking to someone and the give me a funny look, I ask you for something and you turn me down…)
    • The challenge must be new in order to learn something new
    • The challenge must seem realistic to me and worth the effort.  I make this judgment based on my personal history and experience in similar situations.
  • Exert efforts to repair the system; to repair the “breakdown.”
    • I rely on a combination of my independent skills (the things I can do by myself) and my interdependent skills (how I use relationship skills as ways of getting help, advice, teaching – or encouragement and moral support.
  • Take away something positive.  I might experience hard won success.  I might try and fail, but still derive satisfaction out of trying.  I might learn other things that are more important than finding a solution to the immediate problem at hand.
    • The process teaches me what works and what doesn’t work.  Because this is discovery learning and learning requires active efforts on my part – what I learn from these situations tends to last longer and generalize faster than when someone “teaches me lessons” by giving me instructions and prompts every step of the way.

Finally, Guides have to be sensitive and dynamically attuned by making changes when necessary and being flexible.  This allows the Learner to take away something positive.  This “take-away” is usually a boost in confidence; increased feelings of competence and self-esteem, and a subsequent willingness to try and to be open to new experiences.

Novelty, Breakdown, and Repair and Self-Efficacy

It is very important that one’s relationship with one’s self is shaped and continually changed by our experiences in the world.  One’s concept of one’s self is based on the feedback he or she gets from wanting and trying to do things and from sharing experiences with others.

It is also very important to remember that we learn our concepts of ourselves in the same way that we learn anything meaningful – through the developmental process of ‘breakdown’ and ‘repair.’  We will talk much more about the critical nature of “breakdown and repair” and how it is the engine that drives natural motivation and growth.  But for our purposes here, we look mainly at how experiences make one willing or unwilling to ‘work with life.’

Typically developing individuals are experimenters with life.  They try many things with various degrees of intention and accident.  They explore the object and physical world, as well as the world of other people and animals.  It may seem astonishing at first – but the vast majority of our actions do not work – at first.  In social relationships and interaction, we spend most of our time adjusting to our partner’s needs for understanding, imagining, taking perspective, explaining and clarifying, etc. in order to share meaning and experience with others.  It’s the little, but regular occurrence of these breakdowns that alerts us to them and the needs to repair.  Because making repairs is a frequently occurring event in any typical dynamical system such as social interaction – we get thousands upon thousands of opportunities to see what works and what doesn’t work.

Different kinds of Breakdowns (I mean, Opportunities for Repair  – Learning Opportunities)

  • Breakdown in the Physical World: Physical objects break down, decay, get ruined, used up, etc.  When physical objects break down, we might choose to “operate on them” in some way or another.  We might attempt to fix or change the object.  We might choose to add to or remove some part or all of it. We might use the object differently.We learn how objects work by trying different things with them.  In the early years, children experiment eagerly with new objects.  Moving outwards from the inside, they first learn to recognize what internal body signals and feelings mean.  They then learn to recognize smells and tastes and touches and learn to locate objects in space with their eyes and ears.  Given adequate sensory and motor equipment, children move on to more direct physical actions on objects and more observations.  From the beginning, every new object; every new detail, every new thing noticed causes a breakdown in prior knowledge.  New observations; the results of old actions on new things or new actions on old things become the stuff of interaction and experimentation with objects.Many objects are static.  They operate in the same way each time, unless they are damaged or altered.  In the early years, children don’t know as much about objects, so they tend to explore the object world more directly.  The more experience they acquire and the more they learn from watching how objects work when others use them, the less they require “hands-on” experience.   Typically developed individuals tend to pay less attention to static objects and focus on changes occurring in the environment.  This leads to a sense of being “on top” of things, because we learn to recognize patterns in the object [and person] world that help us predict, expect and prepare for things.  This is why we appear to think and respond as fast as we do (think of how quickly partners exchange responses in a conversation).  We “anticipate” a lot of what happens.People with neurodevelopmental disorders process information slowly and coordinate responses slowly.  They may have difficulty keeping track of the meaning of information if it ‘comes in’ too quickly, too much, or there are too many points to keep track of.  This can cause some individuals to retreat into actions with their own bodies or with objects.  Paying attention to change means regular experience with changes in objects.  There is curiosity and experiment, rather than repeated actions, especially when old actions no longer work.If for some reason, a person experiences frustration and failure without enough reward, they will tend to constrict their interactions with the object world.  They will use objects in static ways (the same way all the time), fail to make changes when changes, adaptations of knowledge or other “repairs” are required, and over time, will have a less developed repertoire of object-based skills and knowledge.
  • Breakdown in Knowing: When the unexpected happens, there is a temporary breakdown in knowing.  We usually then take steps to figure out what is going on and what to do or not do.  This is the process of “repair,” which as we are seeing – is equivalent to “learning.”Importantly, Guided Participation uses “programmed breakdowns” as an integral element of teaching.Instead of telling or showing someone how to do something, Guides often present a problem – intentionally “breaking” the Student’s current knowledge system [a little].  In a Guided Participation “opportunity,” the Student confronts the problem and tries to find a solution.  The Guide is always there to make sure that the “opportunity” is doable for the Student and the repair process rewarding enough.  The Guide offers help (scaffolding).  The main difference is that the Student takes responsibility for the repair in the breakdown of knowledge.  The Student looks for information, help, or whatever he or she needs to “reference” (a source of knowledge or information to make use of) in order to solve the problem.The process of learning involves discovering new actions or thinking them up.  Some actions will work and some won’t.  But instead of passively being shown or given the answer to imitate, the Student learns how to learn, to…
    • recognize when there is a change
    • recognize if the change requires some action or repair; recognize whether the change is a breakdown
    • take steps to repair the system so that it can continue

So instead of being the passive recipient of “lessons” or drills, the Student becomes used to breakdown, and begins to respond by taking responsibility for acting; taking responsibility for repair.

  • Social Interaction Breakdown:  Social interaction breakdowns are not only common, they are necessary.  Outside of well-rehearsed routines ( a potentially harmful compensatory teaching strategy) where nothing ever changes, any form of novelty will cause some kind of a breakdown.  The breakdown can be as simple as not knowing exactly what will happen next.  Most interactions incur multiple breakdowns without any single breakdown being fatal (terminating; punishing) to the interaction or even unpleasant.
    • Behaviors such as looking and listening represent social repair strategies that we use when we don’t know what will happen next in an interaction.  So in an ongoing conversation, there could be dozens if not hundreds of opportunities to not know what someone will say or do next. This requires that interactive partners adjust their thinking, attention and actions constantly to fit the moment.  Anything unexpected that occurs, by definition causes a breakdown.  And since social interaction often is valued for its new products, each of the new and unexpected actions of a partner requires some sort of noticing at the very least, and thinking and responding as well from others.  To keep interaction going, partners must also recognize breakdowns as signals that someone should do something.  We welcome and look forward to social breakdowns and repair when we feel confident.  Generally, partners think and respond within a certain range of expected ways, based on culture, rules and context for instance.  Behaviors outside this range of expected behavior are viewed as odd or disruptive.
    • Social interactive partners also value feeling good during interaction.  The more skills we develop to manage breakdowns, the more confident we are in social interaction and the more social interaction will work for all of the participants.  We can avoid social situations where we do not have the skills we think are necessary to manage novelty, breakdown and repair.

One way of avoiding demands of social breakdown and repair is to keep the world static – to try to close down otherwise open social systems.  Instead of looking forward to the novelty and new products of spontaneous social interaction, one could avoid the rather considerable emotional, cognitive and linguistic demands spontaneity involves by relying too heavily on fixed routines, schedules, scripts, rules and procedures.

Is persistence and responsibility all that are necessary?

Not at all.  A critical element is the ability to tolerate a certain amount of frustration and failure that can be expected from the endeavor.  Guides make sure that the amount of frustration in Guided Participation experiences is never too much to be discouraging.  But Guides allow negative outcomes to occur and the resultant negative feelings they might evoke in the Student.

One cannot be resilient and not be able to handle some amount of frustration, disappointment, shame and failure.  In a Guided Participation experience, the Guide provides help and protection from overwhelmingly negative outcomes, but allows in calibrated amounts of normal failure experience in order to build resilience in the Student.  This is a critical difference between Guided Participation and other forms of teaching that rely on reducing the size of steps and rote learning processes.

The reason for reliance upon structure and rote learning has to do with the Teacher’s or Parent’s aversion to the Student’s reactions to stress.  The point of education is to eliminate stress and get on with teaching.  The classroom is made static to avoid the unexpected.  Rewards and rote repetition replace the natural feedback from discovery because Guides do not believe the Student can handle the responsibility for repair.  Instead of responsibility for repair, the Student has only the responsibility to produce a learned response when it is needed.


So what does this mean in a School Program Focused on Quality of Life?

A school program properly focused on Quality of Life and the learning of intelligence tools rather than just “skills” would feature:

  • Less reliance upon making a dynamic world (changing, spontaneous) into a static world (overly structured or routinized – in a way that can’t be found easily elsewhere; overly scheduled; too much reliance on memorizing rules and scripts; too much reliance on unchanging routines and rote learning).
  • More reliance upon teaching how to learn.  We learn whenever we attempt to repair a breakdown.  As mentioned, we get lots of opportunities to try.  We see what works and doesn’t work, and we continue to do what works.  We figure out what works by combining our experience with our knowledge.Importantly, we acquire a lot of our knowledge by observing what others do and by drawing conclusions from our observations of the world.  We learn from examples and context and many more other points of information that have something to guide our efforts to repair.  We look for information that will help us accomplish personal goals and solve problems.
  • Less reliance on drills and other forms of passive learning.  Opportunities for learning in real life rarely present themselves as organized or programmed “lessons.”  The normal occurrence of change and breakdown in the environment provides more than enough opportunities to learn most things.Drills, rote exercises and teaching primarily by having the Student imitate do not lead to discovery, or to the same high quality motivation that comes from opportunities to make repairs and be successful.  These forms of teaching also are not replicated much in the world outside of school.
  • More reliance upon creating opportunities to learn: As explained above, the highest quality learning comes from confronting normal breakdown and taking responsibility for repair.  The trial and error and reliance upon references teaches one how to learn.  The joy in overcoming an obstacle provides higher quality motivation than do rewards for doing out-of-context or meaningless activities.
  • Allowing experiences with breakdown and repair that build resilience, persistence, and that free up interest and curiosity:  Perhaps the biggest overall benefit is the increased resilience Students show when they no longer retreat or wait passively when they experience breakdowns in their knowledge.  They take responsibility when an object or procedure isn’t working or when a conversation breaks down.  They have learned that breakdowns merely signal a need to do something.  Because they were given opportunities and just enough help to be successful – they become persistent in their efforts.
  • Fostering Interdependence of a Healthy Reliance on Relationships to Solve Problems:  We are always in a relationship.  If the relationship at the moment does not involve someone else – it involves the relationship we have with our self.  At the root of all behavior is our knowledge of and our relationship with ourselves.  Personal experiences can build, or erode, self-confidence.  They can build or erode a person’s sense of personal competence and resilience.  A school program focused on increasing the Student’s quality of life will necessarily involve strengthening the Student’s resilience and sense of self-competence.What matters is how the individual’s concepts of him or herself lean towards interest, curiosity and an overall expansive, approach-based relationship with the world – or not.  The opposite of that is a self-concept that expects overwhelming negative outcomes, where decisions are made and behaviors are focused on avoiding uncertainty.  This is a constricted, withdrawn relationship with the world.  Chronic withdrawal and avoidance has cascading effects.  First, it can lead to real, but unfounded fears and avoidance of the experiences that are necessary to feel good and prosper.  By avoiding growth experiences, the person becomes more and more inflexible and resistant to change.  Persistent avoidance leads to more missed opportunities and additional delays in development.

Questions that help to define the Resilient Self

Just like all concepts – concepts of self are learned by solving problems – making repairs.  Throughout the lifespan, one confronts challenges that add further answers and definition to questions such as…

Do I know myself?  Can I rely on myself?

Do I know my strengths and limitations?

Do I know what I can tolerate and what I cannot?

Do I know how to handle it when people want more of me than I can give?

What boundaries do I have for myself and others (e.g., behavior that I’m proud of or that I will do v. behavior that I don’t feel comfortable doing)?

Questions that define relationships with others:

Do they understand?  Do they care?

Do I belong?  If so, what is my Role?

Can they help me?  Is it their responsibility to help me?  Where does my responsibility end and theirs begin?

Can I trust them?  Do they have my best interests in mind?

Do I understand what they want?  Do I understand my responsibilities?

Are the demands they make fair?


Citizenship as a Measure of One’s Quality of Life

In the next section, we will talk about the concept of “Citizenship.”  Citizenship defines or “sets the ceiling” on the quality of one’s life.  Citizenship represents whether a person’s life is balanced towards opportunity v. restriction.

Citizenship:  All of the above elements of Guided Participation teaching allow participation in normal things – hence, more potential for Quality of Life.  The ultimate measure of citizenship is whether or not the person is easy to be around.  They do what they can to manage their own needs and think of the needs of others.  They allow and welcome help and teaching, and get more pleasure out of cooperating than disrupting.  By doing these things, they citizen prevents his or her needs from overwhelming partners and causing painful or distressing breakdowns in the relationships between partners.

“Citizenship” is the polar opposite of “alienation.”

We look at the concept of citizenship in concentric circles emanating outwards from the self and towards the community (Self → Relationship→ Family→ Group [friends, school, job, peers]→ Community).  Successful citizenship means not only opportunities for inclusion, but to become a wanted and needed member of a group.  Where one is not a citizen, one is excluded and alien.

  • Being a Citizen of One’s SelfThe Sense of- and Responsibilities for- One’s Self:  The first aspect of citizenship has to do with taking care of one’s body and health.  Responsibilities of “citizenship of one’s self” overlap into areas of self-help, personal hygiene, diet and exercise, accessing and consuming healthcare that have mainly to do with one’s body.   Responsibilities also overlap into emotional areas, such as regulation of stimulation, mood; how one manages free time or boredom; one’s behavioral bias regarding action v. passivity towards the environment; boundaries of behavior, personal space and control, and a sense of right and wrong, among many similar aspects of personal emotional regulation.Citizenship in the Relationship: Good citizens of relationships make themselves easy and enjoyable to be around.  They take their fair share of the responsibility (a “fuzzy” line, based on each participant’s [relationship skill] capacities), for making the relationship work from moment to moment.  Good citizens of relationships take their fair share of the responsibility for “repairing” breakdowns that are a normal and expected part of every social interaction and relationship.Good citizens of relationships are flexible enough.  They respect boundaries for themselves and others, but they also listen, cooperate, adapt, contribute and care about how their partners feel.   They take their fair share of the responsibility for the compromising and sacrificing that relationships require.  Therefore, good citizens of relationships can manage their needs so as not to overwhelm their partners or become the focus of the relationship.  They avoid doing things that they know bother others.
  • Being a Citizenship of One’s Family:  Here again, as in all categories of citizenship, the ultimate measure is how easy or difficult it is to be around the person.  It takes the same relationship skill-sets that all close relationships require, as described above.  Therefore, we’re talking about a distinction more than a difference here, but the distinction is important for Educators.Families do what families do at home.  To be a good citizen of the family, the Student must be able to be included and contribute meaningfully to the normal routines of family life – or at least make it possible for family life to accommodate one’s needs without their undue sacrifice.Ideally, the Student functions as a good companion, helper, and contributor to keeping the household and family going.  The contribution may be as small as to make it easier for family members to care for the Student, or as large as the Student assuming age-appropriate responsibilities around the house.Good citizens take their fair shareof the total responsibility of the home and family.  They are as helpful and cooperative as they can be, and they respond well to guidance and help.  Families value emotional and behavioral flexibility higher than they do academic skills, so a school program should feature many opportunities to partner with others and practice flexibility.School tasks that feature organizing and maintaining the environment are analogous to family routines.  With a “whole task” approach that offers as much scaffolding as necessary, Guides don’t have to avoid many normal routines such as organizing drawers, inventory, keeping records, setting things up and putting things away, normal clean-up, operating machines and computers with due care, etc.Importantly, school programs should feature non-preferred tasks, therapeutic levels and opportunities to learn how to handle uncertainty, opportunities to have and to work through negative emotions and tolerate frustration – to build emotional resilience.  A Student’s poor capacity to regulate and tolerate negative feelings can cause regular harmful breakdowns and restrictions in family life, so an IEP focused on Quality of Life would reflect this focus on building emotional resilience.Family and School environments are different in key respects.  One of the main differences is the availability of structure and attention.  Providing structure and attention requires energy and time, and families have limited resources of both.  It is not feasible or appropriate to recommend making family life resemble school.  While some structural supports typically found in schools such as schedules, communication systems are appropriate at home.
  • Being a Citizenship of the Group: Groups can only work when there is enough balance and enough resources to meet the needs of the group’s members.  Good citizens of groups make themselves welcome by helping, or at least allowing the group to strive towards the group’s goals – whatever those may be at any given moment.Good citizens of groups do what they can to meet their own needs and not to make their needs disruptive or overwhelming to the group.  They can change and be flexible when needed.  They contribute something besides their own needs.  Good citizens of groups may not be interested or active in their participation at any given moment, but when they are not participating they are doing something that allows the rest of the group to pursue their goals.
  • Being a Citizen at School: The emotional and relationship skill sets required to be a good citizen of a group apply to school.  The main difference is that school environments feature “standardization” and structure (regular routines, rules, expectations, people: static) to some degree, depending how similar or different the current classroom is from a typical, Regular Education classroom for a Student of the same chronological age.  Therefore, an important measure of school citizenship has to do with how many modifications and compensations does the Student require from the environment in order to participate to a meaningful degree?Good citizens are OK with expected, necessary and spontaneous changes and manageable amounts of uncertainty.  The classroom or group does not have to make so many changes and accommodations to fit any of its citizens so that it is no longer recognizable or enjoyable to the others.  They do not require others to make undue sacrifices.  Good citizens of classrooms can work independently when that is required, as well as interdependently when that is required.
  • Being a Citizen at Work: Most work environments [at the very least] involve accepting and completing work assignments in a timely manner, as well as getting along with others – the same as in school.  At work however, no longer is there an emphasis on completing worksheets, completing chapters, answering the questions and taking tests – all unreliable measures of work readiness.  More common in work environments are projects that feature people performing various complimentary and/or similar roles, working together on mutual projects.  Groups share goals and aspirations – something called a “group ego” or “wego.[1]”  Being a Team Player is important.Skill and talent are not enough.  This is a very important statement of fact and deserves more attention from Educators and Parents.Skills are of no use if they cannot or do not contribute to the wego.  Education plans for many individuals reflect the needs for standardization in school districts.  School districts have to issue diplomas and report cards that mean something.  They insure that Students demonstrated mastery of the skills the diploma or report card certifies.A big problem is that most Students demonstrate most of their competencies on tests or paperwork assignments under conditions that do not resemble the world of work at all.  These conditions include a Teacher that is there to impart skills and to help master skills, textbooks, worksheets and tests where Students learn by reading, discussing and then answering questions from the book.  They demonstrate mastery of skills by taking tests, submitting answers to questions, writing reports or completing worksheets.Good schools try to provide better preparation for the workplace by featuring projects, assignment to work teams, presentation of real-life problems to solve, and more “hands-on” learning experiences.  But there is still a common over-reliance on textbooks as they can concentrate the most amount of information in one place, with little cost in the way of materials or Teacher planning time, and they offer very convenient means of measuring mastery of the contents of the book.  It can be difficult to measure the numerous subjective elements involved in projects.  Given these difficulties, and during a time when our schools are involved in high-stakes testing, the odds are against most Students getting an education that also stresses the social, emotional, and behavioral competencies required in the workplace.  The hope and assumption of regular education is that teaching those skills are the responsibility of parents, and parents send Students to school that are getting a quality emotional education at home.The norms for school preparation for the workplace, as described above, may be good preparation for college or university success, where many of the same elements remain: Professors to impart skills, textbooks, worksheets and tests where Students learn by reading and demonstrate their skills in written or oral form (essays, dissertations, procedures demonstrated on paper, plans and designs for things, discussion, etc.), and much learning out of context of real problems.  This is why many college graduates, despite apparently large skill sets, can and do often have difficulty adapting to the world of work.  Good college and university programs also feature as much hands-on, real-life work experiences as possible, including internship.
  • Citizenship in the Community: Good citizens can go where they want to go and can enjoy community life without undue anxiety or dejection.  They may require help and supervision to access the community, but their cooperative behavior and ability to manage reasonable amounts of uncertainty make it possible to join a variety of groups and Caregivers into public places.To prepare for citizenship in the community, Students require access and practice.  The emphasis of this preparation should be how the Student can use relationships to manage challenges in the community, rather than to acquire all of the skills needed for total independence.  At the very least, Students should be able to accompany small groups under adult supervision, without their needs overwhelming or interfering with what the group wants to do.  This requires flexibility (especially when the outing into the community does not include highly preferred activities or schedules and exigencies change without notice), cooperation with group  and community rules (including staying with the group and remaining with supervision), making one’s needs and preferences known in appropriate ways, accepting help and guidance, etc.Citizenship in the community (similar to citizenship in the family) is often not well understood or addressed sufficiently in school programs.  Educational personnel may not be aware of the extreme accommodations or challenges the family faces when taking their child into the community.   In fact, they may not be able to take their child into the community due to the child’s overwhelming needs and obstacles.
  • Citizenship through the Stages of Life: Integral to GP teaching is transfer of responsibility.  The person accepts responsibilities appropriate to the person’s skill set and availability of help (scaffolding).Citizenship changes along with the person. Guided Participation teaching does not avoid the possible pain of remediation.  Negative outcomes – when properly scaffolded, provide opportunities to develop resilience.Teaching also does not seek to lower the bar.  This happens when we avoid normal age-appropriate experiences in favor of familiar, contrived activities.  It happens when we focus only on what Students can already do successfully and when we bring about success artificially with an emphasis on rote learning and reward or motivation systems not found in typical environments.  It happens when we use what we think are clever scripts or schedules or supports that do not take into account normal amounts of change in the environment and the subsequent need for the Student to keep track of these changes.

[1]     From Ego to “We-Go”: Neurobiology and Questions for Psychoanalysis: Commentary on Papers by Trevarthen, Gallese, and Ammaniti & Trentini ; Psychoanalytic Dialogues: The International Journal of Relational Perspectives; Volume 19, Issue 5, 2009, Pages 556 – 564