In my work I often focus on engaging children who are initially difficult to engage (often as a result of biologically based challenges such as motor, sensory, visual, and/or auditory processing difficulties). The child may be self-absorbed or withdrawn or focused on a particular activity or object (watching a Barney video, running around the kitchen island, lining up objects, opening and closing doors, picking pieces of yarn in the carpet, etc.) to the exclusion of engagement with the people in his or her life. As a DIR®/Floortime™ practitioner, I (and others with a developmental philosophy) approach this by seeking ways to connect with the child that follow his lead and are in sync with his unique ways of hearing, seeing, touching, smelling, and/or moving and that will not cause him to underreact or overreact and be overwhelmed and pull away. A practitioner with a behavioral philosophy approaches this from a different perspective, gaining compliance, often referred to as “gaining instructional control”. The focus is on having the child associate the parent or practitioner as a provider of reinforcers in order to gain compliance with directions or requests. As I explain below I see a focus on compliance as limiting and often counter-productive in interactions with children.
Opposing philosophies or approaches are also played out in everyday interactions with children in families and in school settings. In schools teachers adopt different methods of engaging children in learning and in guiding their behavior that are influenced by educational philosophies (which may be their own or that of the educational program or school) and/or personal and professional history and experiences. Some teachers, schools, and programs focus on things like “running a tight ship”, children following the directions and completing the assigned work, checking off goals and objectives, or higher scores on standardized tests rather than deeply engaging learners in content, considering different points of view, posing questions, making sense of the ideas or concepts, problem-solving, divergent thinking and creativity, and a love of learning. The latter is often referred to as "engaged learning". The teacher whose focus is on engaging learners is also a teacher who values connection and forges genuine and joyful learning relationships with children. A narrow focus on compliance limits opportunities to genuinely connect with children and also limits children’s learning horizons.
When it comes to guiding children’s behavior in everyday situations like needing a child to brush their teeth; put on their coat, hat, and mittens to go outside; or follow the rules in the school lunchroom parents and teachers can choose between demanding compliance or supporting their child’s cooperation through connection. For example, a parent who connects with their child might engage with their child over choosing toys or different types of bubble bath for the bathtub instead of demanding compliance with the routine, using threats when the child refuses or fails to comply, or resorting to rewards or bribery. Not only is the connection approach likely to be more successful in facilitating the child’s cooperation, the very interactions between the parent and child to get ready for the bath, choose tub toys or bubble bath, run the bath, get dried and dressed for bed offer countless opportunities for learning. As parent and child connect and engage in this bath time routine the parent is supporting the child’s abilities to read and respond to the emotional cues of others, engage in long chains of back and forth interaction, modulate emotions, problem solve, engage in imaginative play, etc.! Likewise in a classroom the teacher whose focus is on connection rather than compliance, directly involves the children in discussions and formulation of classroom rules and uses problems that arise between children or between a child and adult as opportunities for supporting social problem-solving as well as social skills and higher levels of reasoning and thinking. These connection-focused interactions also build the foundations for self-regulation (involving the ability to plan, set goals, regulate emotions, inhibit impulses, delay gratification, independently problem-solve) a critical underlying foundation for development and learning.
Over-reliance on demanding compliance can be counter-productive in multiple ways. Over time, excessive, and especially, coercive demands for compliance are detrimental to the parent-child relationship. Often the result is exacerbation of a difficult temperament and problematic child behavior as well as negative interactions between parent and child. Demanding compliance can also undermine children’s formation of self-concept and self-identity, self-esteem, development of autonomy, and initiative taking. This is problematic for all children but even more so for children with developmental disabilities who are at much higher risk for developing learned helplessness and passivity. In the broader picture, as discussed above, emphasis on compliance instead of connection undermines the development of self-regulation and healthy foundations for relating, communicating, and thinking.
While I recognize the use of reinforcers, a schedule of reinforcement, or a reward system is an improvement over simply demanding compliance, making threats, using punishment, and coercive or negative interactions between children and adults and can see a limited place for this in some situations, support for a philosophy that embraces connection is a far better long-term alternative. A focus on reinforcers and simply changing a behavior in order to address problem behaviors such as aggression, non-compliance, tantrums, moodiness, impulsivity, etc. does not in and of itself build the foundations for self-regulation. Self-regulation enables children to manage their emotions, understand what’s appropriate and inappropriate, and respect the needs of others. Compliance-based philosophies when used in classroom settings can also undermine academic and pre-academic learning by limiting children’s potential for higher level, creative thinking and in-depth learning within a subject or topic. Parents, teachers, and therapists, who embrace connection over compliance, are best able to provide the vital opportunities for building healthy foundations for development, learning, and relationships.