Co-regulation: The Bridge to Communication

This post was published on SAIconnections blog. You can read the original post here.

“I have something to share with the class!” Viji said excitedly at our Wednesday group session.

All of us waited expectantly to hear it.

“Vishal’s language is developing by leaps and bounds!”

“What exactly do you mean, Viji?’ I asked.

“I’m hearing him use phrases and expressions in Tamil, that I’ve never taught him”, she said.

“It’s as if language is naturally emerging.”

The whole group cheered. This was a massive victory for all of us.

However, this new development did not ‘surprise’ me. I have heard this from other parents too. It’s the power of co regulation that helps every team of parent and child achieve this.

Have you watched a mother or a father play peek-a-boo with their little child?


This game is played in all cultures around the world. There is an unspoken understanding between the parent and child. A feedback loop is in place. There is anticipation and fun involved in this process.

The connection is so powerful that it is palpable. This connection is what we try to establish through co regulation.

So, what exactly is co regulation?

Related: Co-Regulation: A Brief Introduction

Co regulation is the simple back-and-forth interaction between the guide (parent or teacher) and apprentice (child or adult).

Both have a clear role in the interaction. The guide establishes a pattern. The child understands the underlying pattern. Then the guide introduces just-noticeable differences which the child observes and takes in his stride. This develops competence, resilience and intrinsic motivation to understand ongoing interactions. Over a period of time, we witness an overall understanding of social situations.

Co regulation is the simplest form or the prototype of communication.

Here’s a video that will help you understand how co regulation works

Both, the guide (me) and apprentice (the child) have an active role in the drumming activity.

I’m deploying a regulatory ‘chant’. The child is well engaged. He understands his role.

Did you notice how he understands the variations, the just-noticeable differences? The mental challenge is about how he can perform his role if the drum is out of reach. I share my thought process by demonstrating how I would solve the problem. The child picks it up and applies it. Over a period of time, this child has developed resilience and motivation in interactions and is doing fabulously for himself today.

Working on many diverse frameworks over a period of time leads to beautiful, natural interactions.

Let’s briefly run through the foundations of communication:

1. Communication is about reciprocity

We see mother demonstrating, and then the youngster taking over. Reciprocity in action and observation is at play here.

Note how calm the teenager is. This stems from the several co regulatory frameworks that have been formed between mother and son.

2. Communication is about mindfulness

The teenager is not being merely imitative here. The mother applies the butter on every piece before putting them in the pan. Her son observes this and is also mindful enough to realize that there is another way of doing it. He applies butter and then puts it on the pan before going on to the next piece.

Also, he is aware through out of ‘how much is enough’. He is aware of how much butter to apply and when to turn each piece over.

3. The basis of communication is emotional sharing

The mother and son are connected. They share gazes and emotions. Towards the end, the boy is proud of having accomplished something and he makes it clear that he doesn’t want to share the garlic bread!

4. A large part of the communication is non-vocal

You see mother and son communicating here, not so much by words but by dynamic gaze. The connection is apparent and can be felt.

5. Motivation is at the base of communication

In this case the child is motivated to be with his mother. He displays a high level of competence, which feeds into his motivation. Of course, he wants the garlic bread too.

This back and forth interaction in a meaningful framework is known as guided participation.

Once the foundations of co regulation are in place, meaningful language can be built.

Here’s the crux: no matter where the child is on the spectrum, co regulation has changed the lives of children and families. Across the board, if the child is already vocal, conversation starts flowing naturally with thought and meaning. With those who are non vocal, I see communicative intent increasing. I also see the desire to communicate and interact.

Related: Messiness=Healthy Infant Development

Here are 3 things that you can do to start working on co regulation immediately:

1. Slow down

Do not be in a rush to repeat instructions. Ask a question or make a comment and wait. Your child has heard you. Give him a chance to respond.

“A child on the spectrum may take more time to respond to a question or comment”, says Parul Kumtha, principal architect at NN Architects and Planners. “The more you allow a child his own space, the more confident he becomes and the better he communicates. Consequently, the time gap between a child with autism and a neuro-typical one reduces substantially.”

Take a 2-minute baseline video to watch the interaction between your child and you.

Note how many times you repeat instructions. You will be surprised!

Please be aware that your child understands what you say, even though he may look ‘inattentive’.

2. Use declarative language

Use experience-sharing language. Reduce the barrage of instructions.

For instance, if you and your child are looking at a book of animals and you see an elephant, say something like, “Wow! Look at that magnificent trunk.”

Look at your child and wait. Does he say something? Does he point at something? Does he smile at you with a look of recognition in his eyes?

This experience-sharing is the base for language to be built on.

3. Use facial expressions and emotions

Here’s something else that I see in 97 percent of assessments that I carry out. The parent and the child are not looking at each other. The parent is mostly talking – but s/he is not pausing to look at the child.

Pause, look at your child, share emotions, and see what happens. Be animated, use facial expressions and gestures.

Try this for a week. Do share your experiences with me. I will also gladly answer your questions if you have any.

Well-known Speech Language Pathologist, Ms. Asha Kumar, also has shared some of her thoughts for your benefit.

“When the intent to communicate is in place, the focus is on getting the appropriate mode of communication. In addition to natural or learned gestures, the use of a technical device such as AVAZ can become the child’s voice. The crucial aspect which most often gets missed in training is that the device is the ‘speech of the person using it’.”

My dear friend, that is exactly the topic for the next article on Communication.

Once communicative intent is in place, how do we help those who are non-vocal?

I will give you answers shortly. Stay tuned…

Kamini Lakhani is a, RDI program consultant and the Director of SAI School (ABA Center) and SAI Connections (RDI Center). She has over 19 years of experience working with individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders and currently serves as the director of our RDI Professional Training Center in Mumbai. She is the Director of SAI School (ABA Center) and SAI Connections (RDI Center) 


  1. Paula Tea

    Hi there, I’m an RDI mom thank you for sharing this information. It’s reminds all the lesson I have learned for over the pass 3 years.
    thank you.

  2. Ritu Mahajan

    Really good video. Mom and Child really good interaction, participation and motivation.

  3. Nancy -88 yr old slp

    Have encouraged the child to reach to me to take my turn by offering my shoulder for a tap reminder oak of anticipation( what next? (With out words) Might model that shoulder tap at earlier stage.

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