As adults, we should all know what our own ‘comfort zone’ is. We, as human beings, most of us at least, often seek to stay in our comfort zone. But what is our comfort zone really? While the details for each person differ, the principles are universal: experiences/things we enjoy, that are familiar, that we perform well, etc. These all feed into defining each of our comfort zones. While this is relevant for adults, it’s even more relevant to understand this for children, especially those with special needs. Children have comfort zones too. And while we, as adults sometimes push ourselves out of our comfort zones, or our jobs or relationships sometimes forces out of them, for children with sensitivities and 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, when learning and having experiences inside our comfort zone with small challenges, which encourage us to expand our comfort zone, we can encourage more rapid learning and better long term retention. This process is possible because learning within our comfort zone triggers our parasympathetic nervous system, rest and digest. 

If we know that to learn and create new wiring in the brain one needs to be activating their parasympathetic nervous system while learning, then why is it that we push children, especially those with special needs to operate outside their comfort zone, moving them into 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 and choose?  Clinically and neurologically, we see the former method shuts down true learning while the latter encourages it.     

Fortunately, not all therapeutic and educational interventions do that. Behavioral interventions, which unapologetically say things like “it’s going to get worse before it gets better” (referring to a child’s initial negative reactions to therapy) are based on forcing children outside their comfort zones.  Often, 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.  In most schools and all behavioral programs, their real goal is compliance, not actual learning. These types of approaches, like ABA, have been determined to be ineffective after analyzing the outcomes of almost 4,000 children receiving ABA services for autism.  They are no longer recommended to treat ASD by the Department of Defense and Tricare (a US Military Health Insurance Company). Especially for children, this type of education/therapy which pushes individuals outside of their comfort zone has a long-term negative impact on one’s interest in learning and their ability to do so.

This evidence does not mean we don’t challenge children and let them do whatever 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 does mean is that we cannot force a child to do that. Using an intervention like The Greenspan Floortime Approach® means 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 emotionally and sensorily. The activities and objects they choose may 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 or don’t understand, are things outside their comfort zone. It’s not that we can’t have the expectations of attention, receptiveness, and learning, but what is the environment and the medium in which we can encourage this?   Starting to work with a child inside their comfort zone, within their preferred activities and enjoyable experiences is a necessary first step to harness one’s interest in learning, and their ability to absorb and retain information.

To Learn at a neurological level must be an active process. It’s not something we can be passively involved in or something someone can tell us to do. We have to choose to do it, we have to want to do it, if it’s going to be lasting. What does this mean practically? It means that we need to challenge children to grow and expand and become their best selves. However, in doing so, we start with the basics, and not simply teaching them based on our age expected goals. We first start encouraging their learning within nurturing meaningful relationships by having fun. Having fun with a caregiver is where children’s comfort zones begin. This is also part of our comfort zone. If we don’t have a supportive and nurturing relationship, then 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, i.e. work within their comfort zone, then a mutual trust and respect develops and a meaningful nurturing relationship. Only then can we begin to challenge and expand. This means we do not just let the child’s comfort zone remain static. It means we push the boundaries of the comfort zone. We playfully and gradually challenge the child to do something that is a subtilty 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 and different leading to the expansion of their comfort zone from within their comfort zone. Doing this correctly 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. If we do this within a meaningful relationship around an activity that they’re choosing to participate in, then we are likely operating within their comfort zone.  If they want to be tickled, tossed in the air, or they want the toy off the shelf, but they must gesturally communicate to help us do it for them, then we are still within their comfort zone. We are simply challenging them to expand their comfort zone by incorporating things that encourage them to interact/communicate and think/adapt/problem-solve/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 of this because we’ve been forced outside our comfort zone so often. As a result, we try to force children outside their comfort zones because it was done to us. Unfortunately, we may be doing this out of our own frustrations and our own history of exposure to ineffective teaching techniques, while also rationalizing that “we experienced it and we’re fine!”. 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 and pass on our ‘traumas’.