DIR Stage 4 At a Glance: Social Problem Solving

This post is part of a series, taking a quick look at each developmental capacity, according to the work of Stanley Greenspan and Serena Wieder in their DIR/Floortime framework.  As a child grows, they add new skills to what they learned in the previous stages.  You can find the list of related posts here.

After you and your child have learned how to be comfortable, alert, engaged and interactive, stage 4 is about three things:  comfortably interacting back and forth for long periods of time and many turns, expanding the emotions they express and share, and thinking together to accomplish a goal.  Learning and thinking together becomes possible as the child is more comfortable interacting with others.  At stage 3, we had to work to keep a child engaged with us longer than a few turns.  By the end of stage 4, the child can stay engaged for 30-40 nonverbal or verbal interactions in a row – they’re getting hard to count! Now we can begin to solve problems together.

Let’s consider how children usually learn.  They have many opportunities to develop new skills through observation, trial and error, imitation, and apprenticeship.  All children can learn and do more when they are supported by a learning partner – a parent, a teacher, or a friend.  Practicing with others leads to the ability to do things independently.  But other learning takes place too – how to listen, to observe, how to compromise and how to collaborate.  They also see how others respond to challenges, and what people do when they are experiencing strong emotions like joy or frustration.  So what we want to do is help our children do things together with us.

We can support development at this stage through play and everyday interactions, including anything we do as a family – chores or hobbies – anything you do that offers an opportunity to play or work together.

You are still working from the child’s interests, but it’s important to think about where interests come from.  We can only get interested in the things we have seen, so it’s a good idea to think about modeling new activities and experiences.


Keep the Conversation Going

  • Position yourself in front of the child
  • Be animated in your emotions – tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures.  Be playful and supportive.
  • Continue to use nonverbal communication as part or all of your back-and-forth interactions – for example, while throwing a ball back and forth, use feints, gestures, facial expressions to express readiness or fun, or signal a change in what you will do
  • Limit questions and instructions; comment instead
  • Follow the child’s lead and join them, persist in your pursuit

Help your Child Think.

  • Wait, wait, wait… You will learn how long you can wait before you lose them, but waiting allows the child to think and choose what to do.
  • Stretch out interactions by playing “dumb.”
  • Treat what the child does as intentional and purposeful.  Help the child do what they want to do.  Join perseverative play, and see if you can make slight changes.
  • Do not interrupt or change the subject as long as it is interactive
  • Insist on a response
  • Create problems and obstructions. Use strategies such as “getting stuck”, you need help to fix something or you don’t know what to do next.
  • Do not try to turn what you are doing into a teaching experience (as you interact and leave openings for your child to observe and respond, learning naturally occurs)
  • Play with other children may begin to be more successful now, so set up opportunities with siblings or family friends with activities that your child enjoys.  Other children don’t compensate as much as adults do, providing more opportunities for your child to adapt to the ideas of others.

Gently introduce imaginative pretend play, and the emotions that go with problem solving.

  • Watch for opportunities to imagine everyday pretend scenarios with your child, such as playing house, cooking and eating, taking trips, taking care of farm or zoo animals – best if connected to the child’s experiences and understanding.
  • Enter into “pretend world” to solve problems (e.g. doll is dropped – is he hurt?)
  • Model a bigger range of emotions for your child to think about during pretend play – for example, feed a hungry baby, comfort a lost child, bandage a hurt elbow, chase away a hungry lion, and so on…
  • At this early stage of play, it might be helpful to keep toy props to a minimum.

When your child is a successful play partner, you will see him or her:

  • initiating and responding to nonverbal communication
  • imitating actions through play
  • following one-step directions
  • recognizing cause and effect
  • beginning to recognize the emotions of others by reading words, facial expressions, and gestures
  • staying engaged even when he is feeling upset or excited
  • initiate an interaction with a goal in mind, and use back and forth interaction to solve the problem of getting that goal achieved – for example, get the end of the hose, get your help to turn on the water, spray his brother and run – and then enjoy the reactions together!
If you have been counting communication circles (verbal or nonverbal responses to a partner), by the end of this level it will become hard to keep track. Over time at this level, you will find you don’t have to work so hard to keep an interaction going, and your child will be seeking you out for some fun!
As a child works through this stage, they will become better at managing emotional outbursts, because they are better connected with others.
Keep in mind that all these aspects of development are a process, and are rooted in the learning and growth that occurred in the previous levels.  At any given time or day a child will move back and forth through stages, depending on how they are feeling and on the demands they are coping with in that moment (as we all do!) so it’s important to start where a child is at.  For information about earlier stages, check our overview here.

For more detailed information and examples of doing DIR/Floortime with your child, visit Affect Autism, including a particularly helpful post about challenges at level 4.