Pairing (aka rapport building/connecting with your child)

What do you think the first thing is that I do when I meet a new client?

To the child I am a complete stranger, a blank canvas if you will.

I know that to create a willing learner; a child who WANTS to not only spend time with me but also respond to multiple demands I am going to have to work hard to earn their trust.

I need to invest the time to teach them that I am awesome! I want that child to be running into my therapy room excited to see me!

When I get to this stage I know that I am in a good position to start teaching.

The second I notice that learner looking for ways to escape from me – alarm bells ring, that’s a red flag that means I need to pull back on the demands and focus more on pairing.


If you are in my ‘Parenting With Science’ face book group then you’ll have seen this word crop up A LOT.

So, what is it exactly?

…. the process of building or maintaining rapport with a client. When 2 things are put together; a preferred thing and a neutral thing, reinforcing properties of the preferred thing ‘rub off’ on the neutral thing which over time then turns into something that’s reinforcing.

Ok – what the…?!

In plain terms – think of times when you have to do something you don’t really want to do, such as cleaning the house or writing up a report. The first thing you might do when cleaning the house is put on your favourite music or make a cup of coffee to drink whilst typing up that report.

I need to do the same with my clients – I need to pair myself (the neutral thing) with all their preferred items (e.g. bubbles, tickles etc).

I need to be ‘the giver of all good things’. Think; Santa, Mary Poppins and a Granny all rolled into one super human being!

I don’t place any demands on the child at this point – I’m simply there to make their life better and make playing with things more fun because of my participation.

This can be tough with some children with autism who have very limited interests and high rates of self-stimulatory behaviour but it is SO worth investing the time to teach these kids that people bring value.

Pairing is child-led and unlike babysitting it’s up to me to think creatively how I can make their life better.  It’s very helpful to clear everything away so it’s just me, the child and 1 toy/activity – this way I have less distractions to compete with.

For example, if a child wants to watch you tube vidoes on an ipad how can you make this a more fun activity? If it’s a younger child I might ask them to sit on my lap whilst they watch the video so that I can give them cuddles at the same time. If it’s an older child I might narrate what’s going on or sing along.

The best types of items/toys to pair with are those that have parts (e.g. Mr Potato head, marble run, puzzles etc) or those that you can control and that disappear (e.g. edibles, bubbles, tickles).

I look out for smiles, eye contact, approaching me etc as signs that pairing is going well.

Whilst pairing is essential to do with my clients it’s also just as important to schedule in some pairing time with my own kids. This doesn’t mean you need to spend lots of money taking them out to the cinema for example, simply ask them what they would like to do.

My son has recently got into Monopoly….(silent groan…) and asked if I could play with him yesterday. My immediate thoughts were ‘I have to start dinner soon and there’s a basket of unfolded laundry I need to sort and the dog needs fed etc etc’ but I said yes and prioritised some time with him.

Investing in pairing usually makes life so much easier when it comes to placing demands on your child. Try it! I bet you’ll notice that they will readily respond more to everyday demands when you’ve spent some time with them.

Here are few tips and tricks to remember while pairing:

> Follow the child’s motivation

> Show them new items/ways to play making your interactions more fun because of your participation

> Have items they enjoy with you

> Engage with the child and activity (no checking your phone on the sly!)

> Limit demands

> Have fun!

This sounds easy right?! But for many of us who may have more than one child, who work, whose hubby works etc it can be tough to find the time to focus on pairing.

My challenge to you is to find just 10-15 mins a day to focus on pairing with your child – it doesn’t need to be a big expensive day trip to the zoo, it can be simply asking your child what they would like to do and zoom in and do that.

Put your phone away and ignore the messy home – just pair 🙂

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