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

In Floortime, growth occurs whenever someone interacts with a child in a way that promotes her development along the “developmental ladder” of milestones provided by Greenspan and Wielder’s DIR Framework of social, emotional, thinking and relating skills. In other words, the DIR Model provides the path, and Floortime is what you do with your child to promote your child’s development. There are a variety of strategies that you can use, depending upon the situation in which you may want to do some Floortime. For instance, a parent might take the opportunity to turn a trip to the grocery store into a meaningful Floortime experience. A father might go in the backyard with his son and take the opportunity to turn that into some Floortime.

Parents and Caregivers can do special Floortime sessions of about 20 minutes or so, as often as possible throughout the day. (This can be unreasonable for many, so we emphasize learning to “make or take” opportunities to maximize your benefit and minimize disruption of the rest of family life). A Teacher might do it individually with a child or in a group. Or, you might be taking your child to a professional for Floortime sessions.

Following the Child’s Lead

Whatever the situation, Floortime features “following the child’s lead” in some way or another, while at the same time challenging the child in some way that encourages him to try harder to relate. Ideally, Floortime interactions should be joyful and highly interesting – but they don’t have to be. Floortime should always feature close and mindful engagement where there are as many meaningful interactive turns (or circles of communication).

Floortime™” sessions focus on having caregivers follow the child’s lead to encourage the child’s initiative and purposeful behavior, deepening their engagement and building reciprocal emotional communication, lengthening mutual attention, and developing symbolic capacities. The length of the sessions will depend on how long it takes the child to “warm up” and become fully engaged as well as how long it takes the child to create and expand on new gestures and/or ideas.” From the Interdisciplinary Council on Developmental and Learning Disorders’ website: Read more at ICDL.com…

Floortime techniques are designed to provide experiences that help restore natural pathways of development. The techniques used in Floortime are meant to help a child “move up the developmental ladder,” ‘building solid foundations’ by helping the child achieve milestones for growth (found in the DIR framework of stages, goals and objectives). This is why goals in Floortime programs work from the bottom up, developing the critical foundations that develop early on in healthy development, and building on those along pathways based on those of typical development. The interventionist, or Floortimer, can be a parent or a professional, meets the child at her level and helps them develop foundations for more complex skills. The DIR model helps us shape the child’s development upward along the hierarchy of “developmental milestones” identified in the DIR model. Floortime has the potential for helping individuals develop relationship skills and the ability to relate more warmly and at a deeper level of engagement. We’ve found it to be a powerful method for teaching relatedness, thinking and communicating skills. We especially like it for its ease of use with natural language teaching techniques, dramatic play as well as natural routines.

Floortime can be done in very spontaneous teachable moments that come up throughout the day between parent and child, or it can be done in a little more formal “Floortime session” where the parent sets herself up to interact in a focused and therapeutic way with specific goals for growth in mind. Or, Floortime can be a formal intervention performed in a therapist’s office or in an in-home Floortime therapy program. In an in-home program such as the ones that we do, the Therapist both works directly with the child to develop and refine the techniques and intervention, but to coach the parent as well. The over-riding goal is to restore the parent/child relationship as the primary means of growth for the child.

All of the tactics focus on some aspect of the child’s lead, even if the context in which the Floortime occurs is in a context where adult-lead is expected – such as in the grocery store, or even, during an emotional conflict in which the parent must set limits or deny the wants of the child. It is during back and forth “transactions” in play or other interactive situations that learning, change and improvement take place. The transactions, or “circles of communication” are where things happen. The “Floortimer” (the term often used in the DIR/Floortime professional and parent community) helps the child engage in interaction of some sort, almost always by following some aspect of the child’s ideas, emotions or intentions. This is called, “Following the Child’s Lead.”

Following the child’s lead is common to most counseling and developmentally-based therapies, and is by no means new. Pivotal Response Therapy, a behaviorally-based approach, also strongly advocates “child-lead.” We consider DIR/Floortime to be a Child-Led/Developmental Therapy (C-LDT), and Pivotal Response to be a Child-Led/Behavioral Therapy (C-LBT). The difference is the model of development the individual tactics and techniques come from. Importantly, the DIR model comes from the field of Infant Mental Health and Developmental Psychopathology. The tradition in those fields is to develop models of development based on observations of typical and atypical parent-child relationships and the mechanisms for how skills for interpersonal relating are actually transmitted and learned between generations. This is different from ABA models that are based on increasing or decreasing behaviors thought to be useful for communicating, but not based on any model of typical development or typical mechanisms for learning relating. The use of “child-lead” is to provide “reinforcement” for “motivation” to learn. Behaviorists untrained in the mechanisms for learning dynamic relating skills such as those identified in relationship-focused therapies are unlikely to have the same goals for treatment.

Floortime tactics and techniques are often combined and they are always individualized to fit the person with whom we are helping learn. Some of the techniques are designed to deal with obstacles to relating, learning and development. These could be related to sensory and other neurologically-based information processing issues; difficulties regulating emotions and arousal; difficulties with managing attention or coordinating responses, etc. A core tenet of the DIR model is the “Affect Diathesis Hypothesis,” or the observation that disorders of relating and communicating such as autism stem from a neurological difficulty in connecting a person’s “affect” or intention – to a “motor plan,” or a series of logical steps to carry it out. Other techniques are designed to encourage “discovery” of skills (through trying different things) and creative responding.

Where the Power of Floortime comes from
It’s all about “Affect!”

Learn to follow your child’s affect. By “affect,” we refer to what your child intends to do at any given moment: a combination of desire, goal, interest, feeling for, thought about, etc. Greenspan and Weider maintain that affect mobilizes and organizes the mind’s energy. It forms an intention and a motivation to pursue it. Affect further focuses attention and interest. Interest decides where attention goes, finds things that are interesting, and decides what is memorable and what is not. A strong affect comes from heavy involvement of the emotional brain. The emotional brain decides what is interesting and what is not, where to focus and what to remember and what to forget.

Affective Display: In psychology, “affect” often refers to the outward display of one’s internal feelings, usually through facial expression and gesture, posture and body language, non-verbal gestures, tone of voice and other “signs” of emotion that people reveal to others. A person’s display of their affect is a reference point that others can use to try to “read their intentions” and with that, anticipate their likely responses to our behavior.

The affective displays of our Floortime play partner – the child, provide us with information we need in order to “tune in” or “attune” to his interests, goals, intentions and feelings. Sometimes, this is the only information we have because our play partner might have difficulties with, or obstacles to relating and communicating with conventional language.

Figuring out the lead or affect (i.e., child’s intention) can be quite daunting, as the signals many children give out about their intentions are unclear or misleading. Further, the child’s actions or play as they currently exist may have no natural room or role for a partner.

A good Floortimer spends enough time observing how the child typically plays and responds, looking for patterns. Patterns flow in sequence, and by anticipating the next action somehow (e.g., by handing him the next Lego or train; by pointing to something the child reaches for and asking, “is this it?;” by “voicing his intentions” when they do something, ex., “Oh, you want juice” [and making sure to get a cup before he gets a chance]…), you communicate your attunement – your deeper understanding and engagement with him.

In this article, we cover some tactics and techniques that are useful when you’re not sure how to begin and interaction, or when the child you’re working experiences anxiety or behavioral patterns that make relating difficult.

Strong positive affect is an optimal state for learning

Affect provides the desire and the intentions and goals of our behavior, and the world provides opportunities for learning ways to solve problems. We’ve learned much of what we know about the world by encountering challenges and problems to solve in the pursuit of our affects. People learn what they need to learn in order to pursue their goals.

Although we use the words, “challenge” and “problems to solve,” we are really talking about stretching the child’s skills. We help her meet challenges and solve her problems in ways that grow her self-confidence. We help her develop emotional resilience in the face of difficulty and negative feelings such as frustration or disappointment, by helping her share her experiences with safe and empathic partners.

An example of this optimal state is when a toddler becomes excited when her mother blows bubbles. They go out on the grass and Mom blows bubbles. Being a toddler, her affective display is big: uninhibited and un-masked. She giggles and tries to jump. She waves her arms in the air.

At the moment, she’s having some pretty strong positive feelings towards Mom. Because of that, Mom becomes a very important focus in the world. This gives Mom opportunities to teach her child how her [Mom's] affective displays predict her behavior. She slows down and exaggerates her movements. She makes a big deal out of blowing her cheeks up with hair. She pauses for just a second so that she and her daughter can catch each other’s eyes and exchange a little anticipatory smile and giggle. Mom announces softly (you can hear pin drop) “… Here..we…gooooo. Then she blows. She yells “Yayyyy, bubbles.”

Now, our little girl has to use some skills she just learned how to do: turning around without falling down, squatting and standing up, jumping a little, etc… And she has to use these skills in combinations and ways that are still challenging to her. But these challenges are now part of the fun. She probably wouldn’t do as much of this on her own if it weren’t for such an exciting situation. And if she happens to overcome an obstacle in this optimal state and to invent a new behavior in the process, she is much more likely to remember how she did it.

Similarly, if an older child is really into basketball, there is pretty good chance that he’ll experience enjoyable and optimal states of arousal ideal for learning. Playing basketball with him could make for an excellent Floortime opportunity. For instance, we can present challenges to his logical thinking: Maybe the ball will be flat, and the problem of what to do then comes up (e.g., find the pump and pump it up; get a soccer ball and use that…); what games will be fun? (e.g., H-O-R-S-E v. One-on-one); what will you do if I block your favorite shot? Etc.

The Child provides the Affect – You Help with the Motor Plan

In Floortime, you follow the child’s “affective lead” whenever you can. The child’s affect is your pointer. Your job is to try and interpret what that intention is and to help the child accomplish them. Helping the child accomplish an intention involves helping her through the steps involved. An important underpinning of the DIR model is that a core deficit in special needs children has to do with difficulties they encounter connecting ‘an affect to a motor plan.’ (See, Affect Diatheses Model).

In other words, difficulty with any part of the chain of thinking and action steps involved in pursuing an intention or a goal can cause breakdown. Some children have difficulty forming intentions and goals. Others develop strong intentions and goals but have difficulty managing and organizing the steps. Others experience sensory, self-regulatory, psychological, communicative or emotional challenges that make pursuing intentions difficult. Difficulties can distort motivation, impede learning, and cause anxiety in the face of novelty or uncertainty.

So one of the best strategies for a Floortimer is to sit back and figure out what the child’s goal is, and to find some way to be helpful. Being helpful shows understanding and empathy. You help the child perform or organize the steps and you help with communication. You help support reciprocity by figuring out ways to make yourself a part of the goal (e.g., the child can’t reach a toy – you help her figure out to get on the bed and then reach for the toy; you help her get up and down; you smile with her when she gets the toy and you model, “I go it!” which she repeats voluntarily).