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What is Intensive Interaction?

Updated: Feb 20

Early engagement is incredibly important for developing communication and social skills. One approach that is widely used and recognised to have a really positive impact is Intensive Interaction. Here we will explore what the foundations of this approach and how it can be used to support children at a very early level of communication.

What is Intensive Interaction?

Intensive Interaction is an approach to helping children and adults who are in the early stages of developing communication and social skills. It involves mirroring or copying a person’s actions, sounds and facial expressions. Intensive interaction allows for a two-way form of communication; the child can begin to look and start copying the adult.

The shared attention between the two people is approached in a play-based way. It’s all about having fun, but helping to develop communication skills and increasing the attention span for children, as they can then begin to engage with people for longer and sustained periods of time.

Who is Intensive Interaction For?

Intensive interaction can be used for many people to help with their communication. It’s particularly used in schools for autistic children and children with PMLD (Profound and Multiple Learning Disability) to help with their social communication. However, these aren’t the only people who can benefit from interventions of this kind. People with socially isolating behaviours and people with dementia can really benefit from Intensive Interaction. People can also use it to help with specific social skills. More generally, it’s used for people who struggle to communicate with language alone.

It can also be useful if a child or adult is highly social in many ways, but still needs to develop social skills in:

  • Using and understanding eye contact and facial expressions.

  • Taking turns in sequences of social behaviour.

  • Developing use of vocalisations.

The method is typically used in SEND settings, and is a common practice for educators. However, this doesn’t mean that it’s exclusive; anyone can learn to use Intensive Interaction. If you’re a parent or home educator, you can also learn to implement it. Let’s discuss a little more about the ways you can use this communication method.

How do I Use Intensive Interaction?

You can follow these simple steps to start a session with a child:

  1. The first step is to get comfortable in your environment; make sure that you’re at eye level with the child, or close enough so that the child can see you.

  2. Introduce yourself to the child. You may use your own touch cue or symbol to represent this.

  3. Wait and see what the child does. Start by mirroring any gestures, facial expressions or vocalisation.

  4. Continue this for the next few minutes, seeing if you can notice any differences or changes in the way that the child is communicating with you.

  5. Let the child take the lead. If a child walks away or shows you that they want to stop, let this happen. A child might begin to look away if they are disengaged, or they might sign to you that they are finished. Other children might benefit from looking with their eyes at ‘yes’ or ‘no’ symbols, after you have asked if they would like to stop, which you can create here.

  6. You can introduce other objects in Intensive Interaction; using mirrors can be a great way for children to see their own facial expressions.

After each session, it can be a good idea to write down what the child interacted with and how they engaged with you. This is a great way to keep track of their development and can be used to support individual aims in EHC (Educational, Health and Care) plans.

Useful Tips

Have Patience

This is a really important aspect to Intensive Interaction; ensure that you have patience with a child; not expecting instant results is key to success. Some children can take more time to trust adults, and you may not see children instantly mirroring or engaging with you on your first session. Your sessions shouldn’t feel rushed, so have patience and take your time.

Follow the Lead of the Child

This part of Intensive Interaction is arguably the most important; you should let the child take the lead in these sessions. Mirror what the child is doing and let them set the pace. If the child wants to stop the session, that’s okay, too.

Eyes on the Details

You should make sure that you have a keen eye for detail when running these sessions; play close attention to the child’s facial expressions, gestures and movements so that you can mirror them in the same way that the child is communicating with you.

Have Planned and Spontaneous Sessions

Your Intensive Interaction sessions don’t just have to be planned, they can be in the moment, too. If you find yourself with a child that wants to engage with you, take up the opportunity to engage with them. It’s also a good idea to try and find time throughout the day to have planned Intensive Interaction sessions; this can help children get used to communicating with you on a daily basis. I personally like having some building toys during my planned sessions as it opens up opportunity for so much communication and creativity.

Consider your Environment

An important factor to consider is the surrounding environment; some children may work better in a quiet space where they can concentrate on you alone. If you’re using light toys in your Intensive Interaction sessions, you can find a darker room to work in. Other children may be able to work in a louder room, so a corner of a classroom can be ideal for those children.

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