Human beings often seek to stay in their comfort zone, most of us at least. What makes a comfort zone? While the details differ for each person, the principles are universal: experiences/things we enjoy, familiarity, things we perform well at, etc. While this is relevant for adults, it’s even more relevant for children, especially with special needs. Children have comfort zones too. As adults, we sometimes push ourselves out of our comfort zones (or jobs/relationships sometimes force us out of them). For children with special needs, we’re constantly pushing them outside their comfort zones, especially from an educational and social standpoint.
Joseph LaDoux, a neuroscience professor at New York University, has found that being pushed outside of our comfort zones, triggers our sympathetic nervous system, our fight/flight response, and has a lasting negative impact on our learning process. However, learning and having experiences inside our comfort zone with small challenges, encourages us to expand our comfort zone. We can then encourage more rapid learning and long-term retention. This is possible because learning within our comfort zone triggers our parasympathetic nervous system, rest and digest.
If we know that one needs to be activating their parasympathetic nervous system while learning to create new wiring in our brains, then why is it that we push children, especially those with special needs to operate outside their comfort zone, moving them to a state of fight or flight? We all want children to grow, learn new things, and strengthen their areas of weakness, but what is the cost of adults pushing children to do that? Why don’t we find ways to internally motivate children to overcome challenges within loving, nurturing relationships and activities they prefer/choose? Clinically and neurologically, we see the former method shuts down true learning while the latter encourages it.
Behavioral interventions, which unapologetically say things like “it’s going to get worse before it gets better”, are based on forcing children outside their comfort zones where at the beginning of treatment many children experience increased tantrums and meltdowns. You have to push them to do things they don’t want to do in order for them to learn, and their real goal is compliance, not learning. These types of approaches like ABA have been determined to be ineffective and not recommended by the Department of Defense and Tricare (a US Military Health Insurance Company) after analyzing the outcomes of almost 4,000 children receiving ABA services for autism. This type of learning pushes individuals outside of their comfort zone and can have a negative, long-term impact on one’s interest in learning.
This does not mean we just let children do what they want. It does not mean that we don’t challenge children to grow, expand, and become the best version of themselves. However, what it means is that we cannot force a child to do that. Using an intervention like The Greenspan Floortime Approach® is not just following the child’s lead, as many therapists mistakenly believe, The Greenspan Floortime Approach® incorporates challenges and expansions. To successfully do this, we have to start from a place of enjoyment and success. This means starting in the child’s comfort zone.
If the child likes to bounce, run, spin, and/or swing, then it is within these activities we challenge and expand, because that is their comfort zone. That is their ‘regulatory zone’, as we call it in The Greenspan Floortime Approach®. This is when they are calm, focused, and processing in an emotional and sensory manner. Activities and objects they choose are going to be part of their comfort zone. However, asking them to sit down and perform ‘our task’, or asking them to perform an educational activity they’re not interested in, are things outside their comfort zone. It’s not that we can’t have the same expectations of attention, receptiveness, and learning, but what is the environment and medium in which we can encourage this? Starting to work with a child inside their comfort zone, within their preferred activities and experiences is a necessary first step to harness one’s interest in learning.
Learning at a neurological level is an active process. It’s not something we can be passively involved in or something we can be told to do. We have to choose and want to do it. What does this mean practically? It means that we need to challenge children to grow, expand and become their best selves. However, we need to start with the basics, and not simply teach our goals. We start by nurturing meaningful relationships and having fun. If we don’t have that relationship, we must focus on building it before any real learning can take place.
Once we have established that we are there to support the child’s needs and work within their comfort zone, a meaningful, nurturing relationship develops. Then we can push the boundaries of the comfort zone. We expand, we challenge the child to do something that is subtly different and difficult. When the child climbs up the ladder for the first time in search of their favorite toy (that we put up there), they’ve done something new, expanding their comfort zone from within their comfort zone. Doing this well requires additional understanding of The Greenspan Floortime Approach®.
When we encourage a child to communicate by requesting something or answering a question, we are challenging them and sometimes expanding that challenge. We do this within a meaningful relationship around an activity that they’re choosing to participate in. If they want to be tickled, tossed in the air, or they want the toy off the shelf, those are still their comfort zones. We are simply challenging them to expand their comfort zone by incorporating things that encourage them to think/adapt/create. We’re doing this within their comfort zone, within their activity, within their meaningful, trusting, respectful relationships.
We as adults sometimes have trouble conceiving this because we’ve been forced outside our comfort zone so often. As a result, we try to force children outside their comfort zones. Unfortunately, we may be doing this out of our own frustrations and history of exposure to ineffective teaching techniques. Instead of exposing your child, or a child you work with, to the same toxic maladaptive teaching techniques that you were exposed to, let’s turn to science. Let’s figure out what children need in order to most effectively learn, not simply teach them how we were taught.