Teaching through connection not trauma: How to set tiny goals for children’s participation in any activity

by Adina Levy

In my podcast episode – Don’t Teach Kids through Trauma – Teach through Connection (13 min listen) – I share a story (a very personal one!) of a kid being very reluctant to participate in swimming lessons, and two approaches to getting them to participate.

Pathway 1: The traumatic one (don’t do this) – Disregard the child’s concerns, coerce them to join in, force them to hang out in an uncomfortable, new situation with an un-familiar teacher, shame their emotions, and potentially cause a lifetime of negative emotions and traumatic reponses to similar situations.

Pathway 2: The connection one (do this!) – Honour the child’s concerns, recognise their emotional and physical responses to this new, challenging situation, allow & advocate for them to gradually build relationship and trust with the new person, be patient for them to build confidence and move forward in their own time.

So how do we do this gradual, building connection approach?

One way is to have TINY goals for the child.


For therapists or teachers working with neurodivergent kids, this can look like:

  • Notice where the child is at – see what they are comfortable with in any given moment (ask them if you can)
  • Always start from a position of doing ‘learning’ and goal progress around the child’s interests and preferences!
  • Keep emotional connection & relationship-building as the most important goal, and explicitly share this with families and others in the child’s support team
  • Allowing them to participate by being present in a room, doing something of interest
  • Encourage them to join in for a very short amount of time, e.g. 5 minutes rather than 30 minutes
  • Taking a small part in a task that is most interesting for the child, rather than expecting them to join in in a way that ‘most’ kids might (e.g. if playing a board game, perhaps the child’s role is counting out the steps to move, but not rolling the dice and moving the piece)

These are just some examples, you’ll need to personalise that to each child’s individual needs and challenges. Where are they at in that exact moment? And what is that next tiny step that is going to help them move towards trust and connection.

This allows you to celebrate the wins and be present, and you will be able to notice the improvements.

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