Connection First, Compliance Later: The Key to Developmental Progress

articles Jun 08, 2023

(Photo 96150314 © Tatyana Tomsickova |

Young children with developmental delays often start educational and therapy interventions at an early age.

It's natural for toddlers and pre-schoolers to respond differently to these interventions. Some children eagerly embrace the activities presented by their parents and educators, showing curiosity and delight. On the other hand, some children may exhibit an independent nature, preferring to explore their environment on their terms and resist participating in structured tasks.

As parents and educators, we commonly feel frustrated and guilty when our children don't show interest in activities that we believe are essential for their development. If you can relate to this situation, this blog is for you.

The secret lies in establishing a solid connection with your child before expecting compliance.

In this blog post, I will share practical tips on building a relationship with your child, even if your child prefers playing alone or has his "own agenda". By fostering a strong relationship with your child, you will gradually expand their interests and encourage their willingness to participate in various activities.

So, let's dive in and explore these strategies together!

The Power of Connection
Before expecting our children to let us join their games or engage in activities, we need to connect with them. Building a connection takes time and patience but is an essential foundation for their development. Focusing on connecting first lays the groundwork for a solid and nurturing relationship with your child.

Approaching Your Child with Genuine Interest and Joining In
When interacting with your child, it's essential to approach them without any specific agenda. Instead, be genuinely open to learning from your child and value their activities. Show a sincere interest in what they are doing.

Young children naturally enjoy exploring their senses, so it's crucial to understand the value of physical, exploratory, and sensory play. Your child may find joy in activities like running, swinging, jumping, feeling different textures, playing with musical toys, observing spinning toys, or dropping objects to hear the sounds they make. Young children are like little scientists exploring what their bodies can do and discovering the world around them.

For instance, if your child is rolling balls on the floor, sit beside them and observe what aspects they enjoy the most. It could be the rolling motion, the sound the balls make, or the sensation of throwing. Then, join in by rolling a ball alongside them and carefully observing their reaction. Remember, this is not a teaching moment but an opportunity to connect, so use minimal language and focus on what truly captures their interest: rolling a ball.

Respecting Your Child's Boundaries
Some children may not want you to participate in their game, and that's okay. If they indicate that they prefer to play alone, respect their boundaries. You can try again later, approach it differently, or look for another activity where you can connect. The key is gently connecting with your child at different times throughout the day. By doing so, you communicate to your child that you value and validate their actions.

Expanding the Fun: Broadening Your Child's Play
As you spend more time joining your child in different activities and observing they are comfortable with your presence (you might even notice them initiating interaction, such as hand leading, inviting you to play!), you can gradually introduce new elements to their games.

For example, if your child loves rolling balls on the floor, you can incorporate other ball-related games into your playtime. Consider introducing activities like a ball slide, creating a homemade shape sorter where they can put balls in, or a toy that involves hammering balls. Remember that some children may prefer sticking to what they are familiar with, so be patient and follow their lead.

When introducing a new toy or activity, focus on sparking curiosity rather than trying to "teach" something specific. Demonstrate the new game and try to make it enjoyable, allowing your child time to observe without feeling pressured to participate immediately. The ultimate goal is for your child to enjoy playtime and develop a sense of curiosity and interest in exploring new things.

Why Expand on Their Game? Fostering Growth Through Playful Exploration
For some children with developmental delays, it's natural to prefer staying within their comfort zone. However, it's important to encourage them to step outside and try new activities that will contribute to their growth and development. That being said, it's crucial to respect their preferences and gradually introduce new experiences, making sure they feel comfortable at every step.

At this stage, your primary focus is to foster play and ensure your child genuinely enjoys interacting with you and others.


As an early intervention specialist, when I meet new children, I prioritise building a relationship with them during the initial visits. I aim to create an environment where they learn that "playing with Silvia is fun!"

I recently worked with a little boy who initially showed no interest in me or the toys I brought at the home visits. However, by initially solely focusing on building a connection with him over several visits, I was delighted to see a breakthrough. When I went to his house for our fourth play session, he got really excited. He jumped up, ran quickly to the play corner, and sat there with a big smile, all ready to play with me. The time invested in connecting with him genuinely paid off. When I visit him now, he is always curious about "Silvia's bag" and eagerly anticipates the toys I bring along.
Once you establish a strong connection with your child, you'll see them more receptive to the new activities you introduce.

Here's a simple graphic that illustrates the steps to connect with your child during play:

(Click here to download this poster)

The Importance of Compliance and Learning
Some parents argue that focusing solely on connection is not enough and that it's important that children learn to follow instructions and comply. I couldn't agree more! Compliance and learning are crucial aspects of a child's development. You will be able to help your child learn these skills over time as they acquire new cognitive, social, and language abilities.

My Personal Journey: Embracing Connection and Nurturing Growth
During my son's early years, I experienced the same frustration of being unable to engage him in educational and therapy activities fully. As an early intervention specialist, I had many activities in mind to support his development. However, he had his unique interests and was more captivated by exploring the garden, the playground, books, and musical toys, and he showed no interest in the activities I presented to him.

I felt frustrated and guilty, believing I wasn't doing enough to help him then. In hindsight, I wish I could have reassured my younger self to relax, embrace the present moment, and simply join him in play.

When he started attending an early intervention class, I found some relief in knowing that educational activities were taking place there. I shifted my focus towards building a close relationship with him and enjoying our time together. As he grew, he gradually became more curious about the world around him.

His early passion for flipping through baby books became a love for reading. And his interest in music led him, years later, to join the school choir and take piano lessons.

Connecting with my son and joining his world allowed his natural development to unfold. Looking back, I realise that it was through connecting that he flourished into the person he is today.

As my son grew older, we gradually encouraged him to follow instructions, cooperate, and take on responsibilities both at home and school. Now that he is 13, he often has to work to earn certain privileges! It's crucial to strike a balance between fostering connection and teaching compliance.

By establishing a strong connection early on, children are more likely to be receptive to learning and following instructions as they grow.


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