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Intensive Interaction: an approach to support children with learning differences

Relatively soon after I started working at Cherry Garden School, in approximately 2009, we had an INSET day with a focus on Intensive Interaction.  Dave Hewitt OBE (then just plain old Dave) came to deliver the training and tell us about the approach he and his team developed in the 1980s whilst he was Principal of a school for children with complex support needs.  I was instantly struck by the simplicity of the approach and it was at this point that I began to think more about how working with children with additional support needs, and the need for a sound understanding of typical development in very young children, go hand in hand.

The concept is based on the interactions that typically take place between a mother or father and a baby in the first 12 months of a child’s life.  New parents don’t often attend training on how to interact with their new arrival, it is something that comes very naturally and invariably isn’t even considered as something special.  If a baby gives eye contact, we naturally smile and attempt to prolong the engagement.  If a baby makes a cooing sound, we make that sound back.  If they then respond further, we continue to copy their sounds in an effort to establish turn taking.  These simple, and usually unconsidered actions from a parent/carer, are hugely important building blocks for future, more formal, methods of communication.  If you consider the expectations for an ‘adult’ conversation, they are based on the same principles as those we start learning in the first few months of our lives: we look at a person when we’re talking to them, preferably making eye contact; we listen and respond once the other person has finished talking;  we show engagement in what is being said; and we use facial expressions and gestures to embellish our spoken word.

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The thinking behind the Intensive Interaction approach is that children with particular additional support needs may well have missed some of these key milestones in the development of their communication skills.  Some children might be very withdrawn and show little interest in other people.  To the child, other people may not seem useful or interesting.  It is the role of the communication partner to become as interesting, engaging and useful as possible. To do this, it is necessary to draw on the natural skills that the vast majority of us possess and to communicate with the child on a level that is appropriate to them.  Just as with a young baby, this often starts with adjusting your proximity to the child and mimicking some of their sounds or gestures.  The intention here is to grasp a child’s attention.  I particularly like the analogy of becoming the perfect ‘cause and effect’ toy.  We need to consider how we can become the most interesting ‘object’ in the room. 

In my experience, Intensive Interaction can be an amazing tool to use, and at Cherry Garden School, we would often film a ‘session’ at the start of the school year and then again in January.  The difference in the child in the second video was invariably significant.  The child would show more interest in the adult and their faces would be so much more animated and happier.  The beauty of the approach is that it can take place anywhere, and the only required resource is yourself.  Often the best interactions can take place at the times you would least expect to see ‘learning’, for example whilst getting changed in the bathroom (changing times are a particularly great time to observe interactions between a parent/carer and baby – the positioning allows for amazing eye contact and playfulness).

It is important to say that Intensive Interaction isn’t for every child.  Children who are wrongly considered to have profound learning differences because of a significant physical need can find the approach patronising.  Other children may dislike having their sounds and actions imitated, although from my experience of working with children with complex additional support needs, this is very rare.  The other point to note is that newer staff members can sometimes find it challenging to remove their inhibitions and be truly playful and childlike with a pupil in a classroom environment.  This invariably passes with time, especially when they see the new responses and interest they are gaining from the child in question. 

To summarise, I would highly recommend that any nursery/school practitioners who are working with children with significant learning differences take the time to consider using this approach.  I would also advocate staff members spending as much time as possible considering developmental milestones that young children typically meet and in which order.  To have this knowledge can be very powerful and can support educators in finding gaps in learning as well as setting appropriate next steps.  The Cherry Garden Branch Maps for CLL and Mathematical Development may prove useful in this regard, and are free to download hereThe first 12 months are covered in Branches 1-3.

For more information on Intensive Interaction, you can visit their website


Stephen Kilgour
Stephen Kilgour worked at Cherry Garden School, an outstanding special school in London for children with severe and complex learning needs, for 11 years, 7 of those as Deputy Head Teacher.  He is now an SEND Advisor and Outreach Teacher at Tapestry. He lives in Newcastle with his wife and two young children and is very capable of watching any form of sport on TV - in the evenings and at weekends he can often be found doing just that!



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