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


Floortime was developed from research by Stanley Greenspan, M.D. (Child Psychiatrist) and Serena Weider, Ph.D. (Clinical Psychologist), in collaboration with leading experts in the fields of Psychiatry, Pediatrics and Infant Development/Infant Mental Health. Dr. Greenspan outlined a framework for evaluating the development of all children that was later to become the “DIR Model:”

  • Developmental
  • Individual Differences
  • Relationship-Based

In the early 1980′s, Drs. Stanley Greenspan and Serena Weider Ph.D., in a working group that included T. Berry Brazelton (Pediatrician), Julius Richmond, M.D. (Surgeon General), Selma Fraiberg (Psychiatrist) and others at the Clinical Infant Development Program at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) developed a framework for understanding typical and atypical patterns of development in infants and young children. The work of this team included clinical observations of thousands of infants and infant/parent dyads as well as a review of more than 40 years of prior research in infant and child development. These researchers examined all types of children and caregivers, and children/caregiver combinations (dyads), using the then new technology of videotape. They examined children and families that represented typical development, children experiencing developmental and mental health disorders, as well as children experiencing sub-optimum empathetic care (e.g., children in orphanages or foster care; children in neglect, abuse or trauma conditions, etc.).

Building on the consensus of research thus far, the DIR model is based on a set of assumptions common to the science of infant/child development:

  • In order for healthy development to occur, a child must be involved in a committed relationship with an “invested, “empathetic” and “attuned” caregiver consistent and sensitively responsive
  • The development of the infant’s brain relies upon and occurs in the context of emotionally meaningful transactions (interactions) with caregivers
  • Caregivers shape the infant’s neurological development in every respect – from the conditioning of basic rhythms of life (e.g., sleep, hunger), to facilitating emotional capacities for arousal, calming and mood regulation, to learning to perceive and make meaning of their own experience
  • Emotions organize thought and behavior. They coordinate how one mobilizes attention and motivation to learn and remember. Therefore, the most critical skills learned in all of development, but especially early on – are emotional skills
  • Children develop along “developmental pathways” that are both typical and predictable (based on norms observed in typical development), as well as unique (individual variations and atypicality).
    • Developmental disorders such as autism represent deviations from typical development, not an entirely different course of development.
  • We expect a child’s growth patterns to proceed in “stages” of uneven fits and starts, sometimes plateauing for a while, and usually progressing in quantum-type leaps to different types or classes of behavior. Growth therefore, is not just a process of amassing skills; it is about acquiring “pivotal” emotional skills that allow a person to learn more complex and qualitatively different types of skills.  We now know what these pivotal skills (“developmental locomotives”) are, and how to teach them to children with disorders of relating and communicating.Patterns of non-linear development are characteristic of all biological systems, from trees to people.  In the kind of non-linear development we expect from a biological system such as the growth and development of a child, leaps occur that are “not proportional to the cause.”  That is, we usually cannot identify or define any single event that alone causes the change. Rather, it is the accumulation of events or factors that precede it that accounts for quantum leaps (think of the “the straw” [a single factor or event] breaking a camel’s back [the camel’s body is the system]).  The differences between one biological system or another (typically or atypically developing), have to do with the overall complexity and organization of the system.  But all systems share patterns of growth that feature periods of uneven growth marked by quantum leaps rather than smooth, linear progression.

Greenspan and Weider focused on [emotional] skills previously thought unattainable in individuals with autism, such as the capacity to engage in warm, reciprocal and truly responsive relating; capacities for abstract thinking, empathy and perspective taking, and spontaneous and flexible behavior.  They identified critical emotional foundational skills and stages or patterns of their growth that are readily observable in typical development and that are required for a child to move from one stage of relating and communicating to the next.  They called them, “Functional Emotional Developmental” “milestones” or “capacities.” These skills enable a person to manage their feelings, thoughts and movements for the purposes of relating and communicating.

Floortime represents a body of techniques useful in promoting the critical and foundational emotional and relationship skills identified in the DIR Model

Progress in DIR/Floortime in terms of the degree in which the child’s development moves towards a more normal course of development overall, as measured along the progressive milestones of emotional development outlined in the DIR model.

Like any behavioral intervention, DIR/Floortime works by way of focused interaction with a child that encourages the development of specific skills or related sets of skills. In the case of Floortime, the DIR model provides a hierarchy of those skills that lead to ever-increasing capacities for relating and communicating.

The DIR Model

The initial collaboration group went on to found two organizations, Zero-to-Three: The National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families, and the Interdisciplinary Council on Developmental and Learning Disorders or ICDL.

From the ICDL Website: http://www.icdl.com/about/overview/index.shtml

The DIR® Model …is a comprehensive framework which enables clinicians, parents and educators to construct a program tailored to the child’s unique challenges and strengths. Central to the DIR® Model is the role of the child’s natural emotions and interests which has been shown to be essential for learning interactions that enable the different parts of the mind and brain to work together and build successively higher levels of social, emotional, and intellectual capacities. It often includes, in addition to Floortime, various problem-solving exercises and typically involves a team approach with speech therapy, occupational therapy, educational programs, mental health (developmental-psychological) intervention and, where appropriate, augmentative and biomedical intervention.

D is for “Developmental”

The Developmental part of the Model describes the building blocks of this foundation. “Developmental,” in the case of the DIR model, really refers to six “Functional Emotional Developmental Milestones,” that are readily observable in typical development and that are critical for typical and robust development of relationship, thinking, problem-solving and communication skills. This approach to development and intervention is consistent with principles of developmental psychopathology (a philosophy that is fundamental to our work as well). Recall that developmental psychology studies patterns and courses of typical development as well as atypical development and attempts to identify the mechanisms that affect development negatively or positively. Greenspan and Weider’s Functional Developmental Milestones form around essentially an emotional axis based on the belief and the neurological fact that emotions function like central circuit boards that recruit and manage information from and to all other parts of the brain. Emotional “capacities” include everything from neuronal development of the brain’s emotional circuitry to overtly observable behaviors related to self- and other regulation. Further, emotional development and behavioral skills related to managing emotions constitute the most fundamental functions of the brain and behavior. Emotional skills, according to DIR theory, organize the brain. Consistent with DIR, Floortime intervention involves helping children to develop the emotional capacities to…

  • be calm and curious at the same time
  • engage and relate to others
  • initiate and respond to all types of communication, beginning with and critically including nonverbal, emotional and social gestures
  • engage in shared social problem-solving
  • think and play creatively
  • think logically and realistically
I is for “Individual Differences”

The Individual differences part of the DIR Model describes the unique biologically-based ways each child takes in, regulates, responds to, and comprehends sensations such as sound, touch, and the planning and sequencing of actions and ideas. Some children, for example, are very hyper-responsive to touch and sound, while others are under-reactive, and still others seek out these sensations.  The term “Biological Challenges” refers to neurological, sensory or other issues that interfere with one’s ability to grow and learn. In the DIR model, the Floortimer is always aware of the things that are challenging for the child and how they affect her. This is a large part of being “attuned.”

R is for “Relationship-based”

The Relationship-based part of the Model describes how we tailor our interactions to maximize the child’s potential for making progress.  Your increased awareness of your child’s individual differences and developmental capacities helps you be even more responsive and able to help your child succeed. Following her lead communicates to her that you “get it” and because there’s less reason to defend and withdraw, there’s more opportunities for relating and sharing each other’s [subjective] experience.

“Floortime” is the compendium of techniques that a trained person or “Floortimer” uses to…

…broaden the range of his processing (noticing, perceiving and making meaning of things and events in the world) and motor capacities (coordinating and planning actions; thinking and rethinking steps as needed).  The Floortimer wants to challenge the child to employ underused or avoided “processing” and “motor” capacities” by helping him “pull them all together” to pursue and realize his ideas.

…share her emotional experiences with others. Floortime addresses the themes of life: closeness and dependency; assertiveness, initiative, and curiosity; aggression and limit-setting: and pleasure and excitement. Floortime is useful to help a child deal with situations or types of interactions that she typically neglects or avoids

…broaden the thematic and/or emotional range of their interactions with people and in their personal exploration of the world. Floortime seeks to broaden the child’s interests, especially interest and affinity for people, as well as to reduce the anxiety that many individuals experience when they face novelty, uncertainty or social demands.

(adapted from www.ICDL.com)

As a “Floortimer” you seek to…

…tailor your interactions to the child’s individual differences in auditory processing, visual-spatial processing, motor planning and sequencing, and sensory modulation. Therapeutic interactions simultaneously attempt to mobilize the six functional developmental levels (attention, engagement, gestures, and complex, preverbal problem-solving, using ideas, and connecting ideas for thinking). (Younger children or children with developmental challenges will master the later levels as they develop.)

…work from a profile of the child’s individual differences (based on observation, history and some experimenting) so that you can strengthen weak areas of development, and utilize strengths to help overcome obstacles. A good assessment of the child’s capacities for processes sing and motor planning helps with goal development and making the most of sessions. For instance, you might be extra soothing for the sensory/over-reactive child and/or extra compelling and animated for the sensory/under-reactive child.