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Following Your Child’s Lead to Improve Motivation Promote Skill Development

May 2, 2014

By Dr. Debra Leach, EdD,BCBA

Do you feel like you are constantly battling with your child to get an interaction going? Does your child avoid your attempts at engaging in an activity? If so, it may be that you would benefit from learning how to follow your child’s lead. Often times, parents and teachers act in much more directive ways than responsive ways. Meaning, they are continually giving directions and asking questions and basically asking children to stop what they are doing and comply with such requests.

The fact of the matter is that some children have difficulty shifting their attention from one thing to another. Thus, it will help your child if you learn how to follow your child’s lead by initiating an interaction with something your child is already attending to.

Following the child’s lead is a behavioral strategy utilized in ABA teaching programs such as Incidental Teaching and Pivotal Response Treatments. The strategy requires that you attempt to interact and engage with your child with the very thing that your child is attending to at the time. For example, if your child is playing in the sandbox at the park join your child in the sandbox and begin by commenting on what the child is doing.

You can say, “You are digging a big hole!” and wait for a response. If no response, you can either use prompting/fading procedures or make a different initiation such as, “Can I have a shovel too?” The key is that you are not going to ask your child to get out of the sandbox and go down the slide with a peer if your child is engaged in digging.

When you follow your child’s lead to promote interactions, your child is likely to feel less threatened. It is true that your child may still try to avoid interacting with you especially in the beginning because your child may not be used to you joining in. However, you will have much less avoidance behaviors and more opportunities for successful interactions if you are not dealing with the fact that your child has difficulty shifting attention and difficulty with interacting.

Also, your child may be much more motivated to interact and communicate with you if you are following your child’s lead because you are attending to something in which your child obviously has an interest.

As your child develops more advanced communication and social interaction skills and begins to display abilities to shift attention, you can begin to make more and more initiations that do not involve following your child’s lead. However, if your child displays a great deal of avoidance behaviors when you attempt to interact it is important to follow the lead of your child as often as possible.

For further assistance with following your child’s lead, parents and teachers can consult with a board certified behavior analyst (BCBA). BCBA’s can provide hands-on training and support to help parents and teachers learn how to following your child’s lead effectively as well as a variety of other effective teaching strategies.


Father playing with his little girl at home Father playing with his little girl at home