©David Sponder, Licensed Educational Psychologist
Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA)
DIR/Floortime Intermediate

Are there limits on the child’s behavior in Floortime?

Absolutely. We don’t allow physically aggressive behavior or property destruction. We will do what we have to do to make sure the child is not allowed to hurt himself or others or to destroy of his surroundings. Dealing with challenging behavior is a very broad subject and not within the scope of this article (please refer to Parenting Children with Challenging Behavior).

Before we get to the point of a crisis, we learn as much as we can about how the child’s individual differences affect her ability to handle any given situation (e.g., sensory or perceptual sensitivities, anxieties, difficulties with processing , filtering or regulating in certain situations, etc.). We identify critical areas to address first, perhaps where issues have already reached acute or critical levels of difficulty.

From the knowledge of the child’s individual strengths and needs, we look for “optimal challenge” in any given situation. To achieve “optimal” challenge, you protect the child from experiences she can’t handle – if you can. If you can’t, you try to protect or support or “scaffold” her within the situation. This is something you do frequently, because most experiences of family living are beyond young children’s abilities. For example, a parent takes her 2 and 4 year old children to the grocery store and the bank. While there, she tries to teach them about the store and get them involved. Even if she doesn’t, they usually learn something when they go. But there is no expectation that the children are along so that they can go to the grocery store and the bank independently anytime soon. That isn’t the point.

The point is that providing an optimal challenge is a balance between putting too much responsibility on the child or allowing situations to become something she can’t handle, and overly accommodating and providing so few challenges that development stagnates. Expecting an infant to tolerate a 3 hour movie theater experience or for some 2-year-olds to sit in a restaurant seat without anything special to occupy them sets up both child and parent for undue stress and setting their relationship back. That’s too much. Avoiding most places or keeping a child restricted to the home because her behavior is so difficult outside her comfort zone is a serious problem and a threat to everyone’s quality of life. Families can’t afford to get stuck in that trap.

The “Good Enough” Floortimer

Pediatrician, Psychoanalyst and one of the founding fathers of attachment theory, Donald Winnicott, coined the term, the “Good Enough Mother.” He maintained that it was not only impossible, but not even really good for a child to have a perfect mother. The perfect mother would make sure the child never struggles or experiences setbacks or negative feelings. She would arrange her child’s life so that it would be a string of unbroken successes.

Of course, this would rob a child of opportunities to become resilient and to learn to deal with inevitable negative feelings. “Therapeutic failure” occurs when a person experiences a setback that results in strengthening their resolve and/or forcing them to learn and adapt. We do what we can to prevent “unfair failure” or “damaging failure” where the child suffers failure from situations that are too far over his head.

The “Good Enough Floortimer” may not rush to rescue a child in the midst of therapeutic failure. While the process may be messy and maybe even a little difficult to watch, the struggle is where the growth occurs and the resiliency and self-confidence come from. We balance this restraint with empathy and a willingness to pitch in with just enough help to let her reach her goals.

“Following the Child’s Lead” instead of “Being led by the child:” Be an Ally, Not a Foe

We want children to drop their defenses, not raise and reinforce them. We approach aggressive or dangerous behavior as an ally, not a foe.

It would be a mistake to assume that being an ally means agreeing with the child’s wishes or point of view, or capitulating to the child’s demands. That is not at all what is meant by child-lead.

“Following the child’s lead” and “being led by the child” are different. Being led by the child means, “The child controls you.” You drop or lower your expectations in order to avoid messiness (or perhaps real damage – some children’s behavior can be very dangerous), and the child learns more in conflict situations about how to manipulate you than she does learning how to cope with reality.

“Following the child’s lead” on the other hand means attuning to the child’s struggle. You work hard to connect to his subjective experience and then you do the best you can to convey to him know that you understand what he wants or how he feels. But you may also have to send clear messages that how he is going about getting what he wants at the moment won’t work.

“Following the child’s lead” means letting the child express herself freely, but limiting or even restraining dangerous behavior. It means being sensitive to what she can handle at the moment. She might not be ready to discuss the facts or engage in compromise or any other form of stepwise thinking. Being able to recognize the child’s hyper-arousal and overload, and helping her calm to a point where she can become coherent and emotionally available is child leading. You don’t pressure the child to participate in problem solving or resolution too soon. If she’s become highly upset, she can’t think while she’s already drinking out of an emotional fire-hose. Sometimes, just soothing/reassuring tones, or perhaps some sensory input or sensory relief (removing noisome stimuli) are all that you can and should do. You’re the “Good enough” Floortimer.

Summary: Value in Floortime Moments

The value in a Floortime moment is in the quality of the child’s engagement. The engagement must be active. It isn’t Floortime when you merely entertain a child or make him laugh. It isn’t Floortime when you can “get her to do things.” The child is always taking an active role and doing the work of learning. The child has to meet challenges we provide while he is on the way to pursuing his intentions. It is the quality of the effort he makes in that moment that is Floortime. It is also how the child musters up whatever thinking and relating and communicating and coordinating abilities he has to get there and how resilient he is in the face of challenges and frustrations.