Friday 4 February 2011

The communicative dance: co-regulation

Our training session at school this week focused on co-regulation, as this is the first step in the communicative dance and the basis for all human communication.
If our pupils can’t co-regulate then they are going to have serious difficulties with social interaction and coping with uncertainty.
In order to be able to communicate verbally, children have to understand that there is a to and fro or a back and forth in an interaction.  This to and fro begins at birth, as soon as parents start to interact with their babies.  Parents interact with simple language but more importantly initially, with non-verbal communication – facial expression, gesture, prosody, touch, closeness.  This interaction is the start of a lifelong dance.
Why the analogy of a dance?  Well, whatever dance you are doing, be it the quick step, the jive, the paso doble or the waltz, what you are doing is establishing a rhythm with your partner whilst working towards a common goal.  Your objective, whether you are going to win the dance contest or just dancing for fun, is to stay together, to make sure that when your partner makes a move, you execute the corresponding move that enables your dance to be fluid.
A dance is about one partner taking an action and the other partner’s action being contingent on, but not controlled by, that action.
When we dance together, we co-regulate with our partner’s movements.  To do this, we have to have an awareness of what the other partner is doing – we have to monitor their actions to ensure our next action is going to fit in. 
When we have a conversation with someone else, we follow a similar model.   It is a to and fro interaction where the response is contingent on (but not controlled by) the initial comment.  Subsequent comments are contingent on the preceding comment…and so on.
Another analogy that has helped me to understand what co-regulation ‘looks like’ is that of rolling a ball back and forth.  There is a joint objective – ‘keep the ball in play’ – and each of the participants has to monitor the actions of the other in order to be ready to receive or send the ball.  If the ball accidentally goes off track, one of the participants will retrieve it – thus repairing the breakdown in the interaction.  Again, think of this as a metaphor for a conversation.  If the conversation goes off track (e.g. a disagreement starts or there is a misunderstanding) then participants (when interacting in a constructive manner) will try to find common ground in order to address the disagreement or misunderstanding, thus repairing the breakdown.
Babies start to learn about co-regulation right from birth: the baby cries, the parent responds with a soothing touch and/or gentle rocking.  Typically developing children master co-regulation at about 9 months of age, and this gives them the foundation for self-regulation. 

Remember the clip with the typically developing child, the Down’s Syndrome child and the child with autism?  Each of these children had a very distinct response to the emotional reaction of the adult when the robot was introduced.  The Down’s child and the typically developing child read the expression of fear on the adult’s face, determined that the robot was a threat and acted accordingly.   If the adults had remained calm in that situation, the same children would likely have started to explore and play with the robot.  This is because as babies and young children we are able to use the emotional reaction embodied in the non-verbal communication of adults to reassure ourselves or alert us to danger.  We are borrowing the thinking or emotional reaction of another to soothe/alert ourselves.
I’ll show you what I mean by using another clip that I used in a previous blogpost.

The typical child’s response to the upset of the tower tumbling at the wrong time is to echo the ‘uh oh’ of her father and to give it another try.  In contrast, the child with autism is not able to use the emotional response of the adult to help himself – in fact, he is completely oblivious to the adult’s reaction and possibly to the presence of the adult.  He continues to be upset and is unable to repair the tower.
There are myriads of activities that have a co-regulatory element because co-regulation is the basis of all human communication.  In school training today, I asked the staff to come up with some activities that could be used to work on the objective of establishing co-regulation.
Activities included making a pizza and planting pot plants together.  In fact, if you are doing anything with someone else, there will be a co-regulatory element to it.  When we first started using RDI, we spent a lot of time walking across a room together.  Philip would need to look to me to monitor the pace of my movement across the room.  He may also need to monitor how I was walking – large steps, small steps, backwards, forwards, sideways.  We began by holding hands so that he also had the sensory input of staying together and doing something jointly.  Once he understood the pattern of what we were doing, I was able to remove the scaffold of the hand hold.
 When the child begins to co-regulate, you can start to add variations.  Variations keep the child’s interest but they also give a communicative message of “We are walking together but now we are doing it in different ways.  We are within the same overall pattern (walking from A to B) but we are able to do it differently.  There is change and uncertainty in this (remember – difficulties coping with change and uncertainty are at the heart of autism)….but actually that’s what makes it fun!”
So I might stop part way through my walking.  If Philip was monitoring in order to co-regulate with me, he would stop too.  Then I might walk backwards.  Then I might walk like an ape and add some sounds in too (I’m glad I don’t have to share video footage of this!!).  Or we would fall into bean bags at the end of the walk.  You can do all sorts of fun stuff with variations….and the message your child is coming to understand is “I am managing change and uncertainty.  Change and uncertainty are fun!”
Human beings seem to be hardwired to want to make discoveries and to master new information and challenges.  This quest for novel information and input is what drives child development in the early years.  Parents and caregivers instinctively respond to this by making sure that the potential discoveries are at the right level for the child.
What RDI does for children with autism is to ensure that the level of challenge (the change and uncertainty) is just within the child’s zone of competence.  If the challenge is too big, the child is likely to withdraw or become anxious and upset.  As the child becomes more competent with variations, the challenges can be increased.
Here is a clip of some simple co-regulatory activity.

This clip takes a little while to warm up as the pair are getting settled, so bear with it.  The good stuff starts around 1 min 45 secs when Mum says ‘Uh oh!’ as the child starts to put food in his mouth.  Her objective is to enable the child to co-regulate the putting of food into his mouth, so she is letting him know with the ‘uh oh’ that there is a problem (i.e., they are not doing it together).
The boy references Mum as soon as she says ‘Uh oh’ and he co-regulates with her from there onwards.
This family are not speaking English – but the language isn’t important, it’s the non-verbal communication that tells you what’s going on.
You’ll notice that Mum introduces lots of simple variations – she uses different prosody (communicative noises), different pacing (faster, slower), and different ways of picking up the food (e.g. the ‘grabber hand’ at 2.41).
At 3.44 he eats out of synch and Mum says ‘Uh oh’ again.  Her son immediately references her and repairs his mistake by taking the food out of his mouth and holding it in the middle of the table, like Mum.
The clip is about 10 mins long but I had seen enough by 4 mins to show me how Mum was enabling her child to co-regulate.
Again, we see here that we develop the first steps for being able to understand and relate to our world by building a relationship with our parents or carers.


  1. Love your Blog!! :) Nice post!! Co regulation is crucial to our kids with give them that second chance of a firm foundation!!


  2. Great post Zoe - an lovely explanation of co-regulation!

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