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

Dynamic Intelligence (DI)

Dynamic intelligence is a term used by Gutstein and Sheely to describe a set of skills necessary for fluid and spontaneous social interaction. It is a little simpler than similar notions of ‘social intelligence’[1] or ‘interpersonal neurobiology’[2] in that it refers mainly to the tools of social and emotional referencing and responding. Dynamic Intelligence (DI) is most required in truly spontaneous social interaction where there is no preplanned agenda to talk about or task to perform.  These interactions are purely for partners to share their subjective, personal and unique experiences with others.

The main purpose of the skills that make up what we call dynamic intelligence is to be able to survive in social situations that are unplanned, spontaneous, and subjective.

These skills are emotional. They are controlled by emotional parts of the brain, which are not available to consciousness in the same way that language and logical thinking are.  These parts of the brain work much faster than [symbolic] thinking and language. They are designed for quick ‘reading’ of another animal’s patterns of behavior which yield a quick judgment of the other animal’s intentions (e.g., a dog growls – a pattern of behavior we read quickly as the animal’s intention or likelihood to be aggressive if approached). Emotional appraisal and emotional decision-making is at work beneath conscious awareness all the time, and much of it cannot be accessed through awareness at all. “Conscious thinking” (or “Consciousness awareness) on the other hand, is done by the complex, thick and comparatively slow wiring of the cerebral cortex. That part of the brain is very good for nuanced and detailed appraisal and complex judgment, but takes too much time compared to the emotional brain and the kinds of quick, survival-oriented decisions it needs to make.

Traditional methods have focused on teaching emotional, dynamic intelligence skills by way of conscious, cognitive and language memory with rules, scripts, and prompting. These methods are useful for situations that have regularity and can work in relatively simple – right or wrong situations that are not high-stakes.  Games that involve rules and turns are often used as compensations for kids who get lost in the free-form playground or social situation.  Kids can be loaded up with scripts for participation in regular type (but instrumental and shallow) interactions such as greetings, asking questions, seeking or giving information, answering questions, etc. The problem is that these only work in situations where everyone else is “on-script” as well, and there is little variation.

We won’t try to rely on rules for teaching for a very important reason: that’s not how the emotional brain learns. A child’s emotional brain is activated by putting him in = situations where he has to read emotional signals in order to know what to do. We don’t even want to attach words to these emotions now – we want him to act on the signals your emotional brain sends to his emotional brain through non-verbal behavior.

Rules and scripts slow down reaction time, make a person more involved with his own thinking than he already is (which means he’ll have even a harder time paying attention to what others are doing), and appear to others as aloof, disconnected, or possibly robotic.  There is difficulty getting rid of prompt dependence because the signals people send to keep each other updated on how they feel and what they mean are mostly non-verbal.

Relationship-based methods emphasize teaching emotion-sharing, experience-sharing and unplanned interactions. If the emotional brain is what needs the education, then we have to teach in the way the emotional brain – not the cognitive, aware brain, learns.


One of the most important features of dynamic intelligence is “intention-reading.” Intention reading goes beyond knowing what other people know (theory of mind).  Intention reading or “behavioral anticipation” works on a sense of the other person’s future, likely behaviors. The reference points can be almost endless, but they usually involve knowledge of people’s prior experience, how that affects their thinking, feelings and behavioral proclivities, and current context and motivations.

Intention-reading is of course, a very complex process and admittedly – in the course of human interaction, not only replete with error – but error is expected. We do it constantly though, and the ability to learn it and be reinforced by it is an integral part of our uniquely human social and emotional equipment. Fortunately, our reading of other’s intentions is continually modified and shaped by what we see unfold in context over time.

If a person’s reading of other’s intentions does not change in light of ongoing events, they will have problems “staying current” or “staying in sync” with fluid social discourse. Difficulties staying current with the dynamics of ongoing events can be dues to developmental or neurological processing issues, as in Autism Spectrum disorders, or, they can be due to emotional blocks due to trauma or attachment-related issues.

Clearly though, the vast majority of human intention reading skills are learned and refined through experience and feedback over a lifetime. We learn to recognize social and emotional patterns in others that give us a sense of their intentions. Knowing other people’s intentions helps you a lot with predicting or anticipating what others will do. The child has to recognize how other people’s goals and internal knowledge and subjective states (feelings; perceptions; beliefs) relate to their behaviors.

Social and emotional referencing are essential skills in DI.  References, being simply sources of information, are found inside and outside of yourself.  You reference your own feelings, memories and knowledge all the time.  You even reference your own actions and thoughts whenever they get complex enough.

But of course that’s not all you’re supposed to do.  You can’t just reference yourself.  That would make you… well, autistic.

  • You have to track what is going on around you.  You have to remember what happened and how people felt in situations in order to predict how they will act or what they’ll say. For further reading on how “tracking and monitoring” skills lead to dynamic intelligence, and the lack of them lead to disorders of relating and communicating… click here)
  • Externally, there are environmental patterns and sequences that provide cues to next steps and appropriate adaptations.  The alarm clock tells you to wake up.  The calendar tells you its Friday.  Mom turned the water on so I know it’s bath time.

Children with PDDs and ASDs have not been paying attention (tracking) as they should the hundreds of sequences of actions going on around them every day.  This is one big reason why they knows so little about the signs and signals of next steps that would help them function without so much prompting.

Characteristic to the teaching process is the notion of breakdown and repairThis comes from Ed Tronick’s research and writings on how we learn emotional and social skills.  He developed his “Mutual Regulation Model,” which is based on systems theory and demonstrated in numerous experiments with infants using the “Still-Face” paradigm.

Dynamic interaction is expected to be imperfect, but always striving towards better.  We don’t know everything we need to know in order to respond perfectly to every situation – that’s impossible.

What we know is how to engage in repair.  We notice our mistakes and make logical experiments in repair.  We learn from the process of breakdown and repair and we become more coordinated with familiarity (hopefully).

Dynamic Appraisal

This has to do with the assessment of meaningful emotional and social events. Appraisal can range from fairly static to dynamic. Static appraisal amounts to a preconception of what is going on, but no further (dynamic/continually updated) assessment of ongoing changes. This form of appraisal is relatively impervious to reality.

Dynamic appraisal is essential to dynamic intelligence, or the skills needed to engage in fluid and dynamic social interaction.  It involves the continuous processes of monitoring changes and new events in the social/emotional environment (e.g. what is going on with you at the moment – what you need) and making necessary adjustments to maintain the coordination of interaction.

Dynamic appraisal includes the “frequent enough” searching for emotionally relevant information, which can include seeking references from the emotional and social signals communicated by others, as well as integrating these events with one’s own affect (internal states, goals, expressive verbal and non-verbal communication).

Dynamic appraisal is the ongoing search for meaningful emotional events (emotional signals constantly emanating from others).  It requires an ongoing search for input.

Dynamic responding

Dynamic responding” is a necessary and complementary process.  It has to do with continual adaptations to appraised events.  These are adjustments in perception (evaluation, re-evaluation) as well as action – with the emphasis on actions one takes to maintain coordinated interacting.

Separating the concepts into dynamic appraisal and dynamic adjustment helps parents understand that referencing is only half of the equation.  This can explain why a child can sometimes demonstrate that he knows the meaning of other’s emotional/social communications, but may not make the necessary changes in his actions.

Referencing, What it is and why it is necessary?

People reference to resolve some uncertainty they have.  Since dynamic social interaction is fluid and not totally predictable, people must follow it along as it changes, making minor but continual adjustments throughout.

The most frequent uncertainty is whether or not the partner is paying attention – so one references the other’s attentional state on an ongoing basis.

Another frequent uncertainty is the partner’s understanding.  People work to get their partners to understand their experience and vise versa.  They check frequently to monitor partners’ understanding and make reparatory actions such as clarifying, elaborating, etc.

The other important consideration is the partner’s emotional reactions to one’s behavior.  This is related to the tracking of others’ behaviors, and by inference – their intentions.

How to get Your Child to Reference You

You must create some “productive” form of uncertainty.  You must create changes that your child notices as different from the regular pattern of interacting or performing a task.   So the bottom line is that you somehow have to “violate his expectations.”  You look at the patterns in your life and you make calculated changes to get his attention and to force him to adapt.  The R-C-R concept explains this in more detail.

For more ways to elicit referencing and non-verbal communication, please refer to: Tips on Facilitating Better Nonverbal Performance.

[1]     Goleman, D.; 2007; Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships; Bantam

[2]     Siegel, D, Hartzell, M; 2004; Parenting From the Inside Out; Tarcher