Partnering with Your Child

This guest blog post was written by former RDI® consultant Barbara Avila. 

What Does It Mean to Partner With Your Child?

Today, I am talking about the importance of partnering with your child. For some parents, it may come naturally, for others, it may feel challenging at first. I encourage you to partner with your child at least 10 times per day, everyday. It will get easier and you can start out small and always build on your successes in length of time you are partnering or ways in which you partner.

Developmentally, It is amazing how much children do in typical development that we do not talk about much. We seem to only talk about the end results of development. We even call them milestones. Think about a baby sitting up for the first time. Did she do that without partnering with a guide holding her hands to pull her from lying down to sitting a dozen or more times before doing it on her own? How about walking. Did she just go from sitting up to walking without an occasional hand held for steading? Then there are those mini-moments as we grow, that we learn through our parents’ physical guidance to stir, cut, move, swing, or turn. We celebrate the achievements of the task, but what about the process of partnering that got us there?

The Importance of Partnering

For individuals with autism, independence can be strong and social engagement for learning and growing may be weaker. if an infant seems to enjoy being alone, we allow him to swing alone in his swing. We then marvel at the child’s manipulation of toys without needing assistance from us. We are thrilled to see her watching videos and learning the alphabet without direct intervention and partnering for learning. However, this means that the child is not getting practice with the exchange of information between two people. He is not learning that physical touch can be helpful and meaningful. She does not feel the guidance that can be modulated for her learning (not too much but allowing her to be as independent as possible). There may be occasions or areas of development that a child does use the physical partnering effectively, such as motor development. But for toy exploration, imitation of parental actions that lead to imaginary play, and more, we often see very little partnering occurring for natural learning in autism.

Related: Family Adventures

Putting Partnering in Action

Interestingly, most of my work is to help parents simply create opportunities for a skill to be generalized or become meaningful in a variety of contexts. We often do not need to teach a specific skill but need to teach when to use it and why. Partnering is one of those. We do not need to teach your child to take a spoon you are offering and stir a bowl of cookie dough with you, for example. Our goal is to create opportunities for your child to use his ability to take action in partnerships with you to learn and grow to new heights of learning and engagement.

Definition of a Partnership:

A partnership is one where both parties have authentic roles in a meaningful task, activity, or project. A partnership can be a quick situation of opening a door together to a longer engagement of wiping down a table together or engaging in play.

Sample Ways to Partner With Your Child:

  1. Take laundry out of the dryer together and put into the washer
  2. Stir something together
  3. Make a bed together
  4. Play a game
  5. Read a book by taking turns or by having your child turn the pages
  6. Push, pull, manipulate play dough together
  7. Sweep a patio, deck, kitchen floor together (both hands on broom or one has the dust pan)
  8. Sing together (both singing at same time or one and then the other)
  9. Play pat a cake type games
  10. Move, dance, walk together in unison or taking turns
  11. Explore and find objects to gather into one container

Make it Manageable for Learning to Happen

Remember that our goal is for your child to learn new things from you, his guide. If you create an opportunity for partnering and it becomes boring, you are not going to be teaching anything new. If it is too overly exciting or stimulating or difficult, you also will not be teaching anything new (except maybe that s/he does not want to partner with you). So make sure your partnership remains manageable. Offer changes to keep it light, fun, yet challenging. It is always okay to offer light teasing, if it is meaningful for your child. It can even be therapeutic for your child to see when things are not as they seem. Challenges that are right on the child’s edge of competency is going to keep his engagement and interest.

Too boring = disengagement.

Too difficult or overstimulating = disengagement.

Make it Physical

Be sure to have your child’s active participation in your partnership with her body involved. Require her to use her hands to carry something or push something or manipulate something. When your child’s body is engaged in a partnership with you, her mind will be too.

Be Authentic

Think about your partnership and its authenticity. If you are setting things up so that your child can reach everything needed, she does not need you. She won’t partner with you through the small challenges you provide. If you decide to hand your child something to put in something else, be sure to position yourself authentically so that your child needs to partner with you for success.

Related: Resolutions and Kids Need Support to Thrive

Be Mindful

When you partner with your child, be sure to check in with yourself first. Partnering with anyone takes mindfulness. If your head is not in the game, neither will your child’s. Take a moment just prior to inviting your child into a partnership, to take a deep breath and choose to be in the moment with him or her. This will enable you think during your interaction versus being triggered by behaviors and distractions.

Turn Frustration into Fascination

If your child or you become agitated during partnering. Ask yourself “why?” Are you in the right frame of mind to be partnering with your child? Is your child hungry? Tired? Needing more direction? Needing more independence? These are all great questions that if you are asking them and willing to ponder them, you will know the answer of how to change or alter course.

Document the Opportunities you Provide

In some way that is meaningful for you, document the partnering opportunities you are offering to your child. If you are able to video the partnering, this is a great way to not only document for progress monitoring, but it also will help you review what worked and did not work. If you would like to partner more frequently, consider a simple tally mark on your family calendar or a note on the fridge. But do take the time to document. You will be so proud of yourself and your child when you see the progress can be seen in black and white.

Happy mindful partnering!

Barbara Avila, M.S.

Barbara is proud to have known and worked with people with autism of all ages since 1985. She has designed Synergy Autism Center to be a place of collaborative practice for and on behalf of individuals and families with autism. Barbara holds her Bachelors degree in psychology and Masters degree in developmental disabilities. She is extremely active in the autism community including being on the board of the Autism Society of Oregon. Utilizing applied behavior analysis, activity based intervention, family systems interventions, Relationship Development Intervention®, Structured TEACCH, and more, she has worked in group homes, schools (both private and public), therapy centers, families’ homes, places of employment, and throughout the community.


  1. Pauline quinn

    Good morning Barbara, my 17 year old son has just need diagnosed with ASD and ADHD, he is very hard to communicate with me, and insists he does not have autism, any advice please thank you Pauline

  2. Cecile Wison

    Hi, Barbara.
    I read this post before I went to talk with my almost 22-year-old son. It helped me to be less anxious and reminded me not to direct him what to do but to just provide a statement and give him a chance to respond. His birthday is coming up and, while tidying up in the kitchen, I found four coupons for a local ice cream cake company. Ice cream cakes are his favourite birthday cakes. He showed him the four coupons and just said, “I found these while I was cleaning up” and handed them to him, giving him time to respond. A conversation of about 10 minutes grew out of this. I felt happy that we were able to have an exchange and talk about the upcoming week and what we might do. He was unstressed and communicative. Your suggestions helped to put in the frame of mind and the RDI idea of using statements, not questions, helped make this communication possible. Thank-you.
    What I would like to know is, do you have any suggestions for gently guiding him to take a bath of his own accord? He never does so when he is home; it usually doesn’t happen till I have nagged him for several days and I would rather not do that. But it has been over a week since he has had a bath and it has been hot and humid out. I know that personal hygiene is a common problem with ASDs.

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