© David Sponder, L.E.P., BCBA, RDI CC, Floortime C2
Executive Director, Sponderworks Children’s Services

Citizenship represents whether a person’s life is balanced towards opportunity v. restriction.   Citizenship defines or “sets the ceiling” on the quality of one’s life.

We refer to “citizenship” as meaningful and successful participation in normal things – hence, more potential for Quality of Life.  The ultimate measure of citizenship is whether or not the person is welcomed - 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, the 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 health-care 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.  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 share of 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.

Interdependence is a key ingredient of successful citizenship.  While families are naturally interdependent – preferring to do most things together, schools are for the most part are over-focused on independence.  Practically every goal in a Student’s IEP measures skills by the degree of independence in which the Student can perform them.  This emphasis on independence is not only for self-care skills, which are supposed to be performed independently, but also on all manner of academic and vocational skills.

As a result, many skills are taught with prompting and fading (systematic reduction of prompts) techniques.  This can set up not only an unnatural, but problematic paradigm.  The loneliest children in the world – those that do not have a viable set of peers that can meet their social and emotion needs outside of school – are now expected to do almost everything independently.  Home programs designed by professionals often reflect this preternatural emphasis on independence – teaching Students skills of independent play rather than interdependent play, or on language skills that focus much more on requesting, following and giving directions, answering and asking questions and so forth – that really don’t promote higher levels of intimacy and experience-sharing.

The problem with the paradigm is that it often requires artifical motivational schemes.  Problems also arise when teaching is the only social contact a Student has.  When the adult wants to reduce “prompting,” the Student experiences this as a less social contact, and may “act up” in order to frustrate forced exile into independence.

And perhaps the most egregious practice is where Students that lack social-relating skills are “rewarded” with time alone on computers or to engage in some other solitary activity.  Over a young lifetime – overfocus on independence and rewarding with solitary activities widens the gap between the Student and everyone else.

  • 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.”  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.