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

Formal versus Informal Sessions

Doing a “Floortime session” implies more than just an impromptu chance to engage your child. However, we believe that developing the skills you need to take opportunities when they come up spontaneously in life is best, because you end up doing more of it and, Floortime usually adds to the quality of an experience anyway. It is better to do many short but intense moments of Floortime every day, than to do long sessions only a few times per week. This is true of any method.

But a session is different. A Floortime session is marked by the Floortimer’s willingness and availability to follow the child’s “affect” (motivations, intentions) and to respond very sensitively to her interests.

Throughout the session, your primary goal is to help the child accomplish what he wants to do (his intention, or “affect”). However, your job isn’t to make things easier. Your job still includes adding challenges. The challenges come from the different types of demands for social engagement and interaction and for social problem-solving (solving problems along with others) that you make on the child.

A good session can leave you both excited and tired at the same time. Floortime is meant to be intensive and challenging for a child, so while sessions of 20 minutes or longer are best, your child may only be able to handle a few minutes at a time in the beginning.

In a longer session there might be more opportunities to lengthen, broaden and deepen your engagement with each other. You’ve set aside some time and space for it and can give the interaction with your child your full attention. A session of about 20 minutes or longer can provide a chance to really develop ideas and themes for play or focused activity of some sort.

The goal(s) of a session should be obvious to casual observers. They should be able to tell what the challenges are and what the skills the child is working on – just by observing the activities. There should be a relatively high frequency of opportunities to practice the same skill (or a variation of it) seen in the session. This is by design. The purpose of the session is to provide those opportunities, so the frequency in which they occur in a session should be much higher (intensive) than would occur in normal life.

Your Choice of a Time for a Floortime Session: “Making and Taking Opportunities”

Many families find the idea of dedicating what amounts to hours of Floortime every day to be a reason not to rely on the technique. This doesn’t have to be the case.

It’s about Making and Taking Opportunities

Many parents would love to spend as much time as possible doing whatever they can. But the reality is that many parents have other children, a spouse, a job and a life that needs to go on as well. While focused sessions are an ideal, learning to take advantage of Floortime moments – little opportunities where you can choose to do something a little differently to provide a challenge or discovery in an ordinary thing, or; a moment to share an experience more fully by slowing down and making sure to join your child’s attention for a minute or two, might be a more viable choice.

How do I do that? How could I take regular household routines we do anyway and turn them into Floortime?

Parents should work with a Floortime professional, or receive some sort of training and ongoing feedback – at least at first, and periodically thereafter. As Floortime professionals, we’ve not only undergone training and extensive supervision where we learn from each other how to apply the techniques in many different ways; we’ve had to solve similar problems of adapting the methods many times as well. Parents with children with very significant challenges or in complex cases, it might be best to work with a Floortime clinic or a collaborative of professionals that are able and willing to understand the approach.

It’s more a matter of accumulating a set of techniques that work for you in a broad variety of situations than it is a matter of having certain materials or blocks of time. The Floortime professional helps you understand what goals to work on; helps you to figure out how your child responds best, and then goes over your routine with you so that you can work out some tactics to try.

Note: At Sponderworks, we do not believe that you have to choose one method to apply to every situation. Whereas Floortime is a powerful and evidence-based method, there are also other relationship-based approaches or special education approaches that might fit a given routine or situation better. We generally don’t recommend Floortime when the emphasis is simply on following directions or complying with rules and routines in a static way. Floortime is not ideal for learning specific behaviors or procedures quickly as it relies on a “discovery approach” where the child finds his own way to adapt. If there is only one way to do a task, perhaps another approach is best. However, there is never anything that keeps you from taking your child’s individual differences into account and remaining emotionally attuned to her. All methods should be applied with those primary components of Floortime.

Making and Taking Opportunities

If you develop the right skills, you can tweak a routine activity so that it becomes an opportunity for Floortime (making an opportunity where there wasn’t one before), or you might take advantage of a spontaneous moment and try to get the most out of it. A Floortime session can be a dedicated session of ‘x number of minutes’ or an extended one with hours of different activities – perhaps provided by a professional or at a school. Or the Floortime program can be carried out in a series of short but powerful interactions that occur whenever natural opportunities come up throughout the day.

  • You “make” opportunities when you set up a session specifically to do some Floortime, or when you do a natural activity in which you’ve planned certain tweaks that you expect will provide the right challenges and episodes of continuous back-and-forth interaction.
  • You “take” opportunities at any moment where you realize that you can do something unexpected or challenging. You can get a lot out of the basic, but perhaps otherwise boring routines that go on each day. “Taking opportunities” can be difficult at first, as you have remember what you’re working on at all times and you also have to be able to recognize situations in which you can promote the types of thinking and responding that you’re working on.

Ideally, Floortime sessions should be fun. Blowing bubbles on the grass provided a consistent string of optimal feelings and moments of potent motivation. You do whatever you can to arrange opportunities to have fun. You make sure that there are things available to do that you already know are fun or that you think would be fun – if you can.

You also try to make other things fun that may not normally be fun – such as taking a bath or getting dressed or sweeping the floor. This may increase your child’s “affects” by injecting more emotion into what might normally be boring or repetitive. For instance, when dressing your two-year-old, you can place the sock on his hand. Now you’ve created a fun problem to solve. He has to use his hands in a new way. He’s never taken a sock off of his hand. He also has to figure out a way to get Dad to get serious and help him do it right. This is but one of any number of examples that can be found anywhere.

But please don’t feel that you have to or should make life always fun. That’s not doing your child much of a favor. Sometimes, it won’t be fun. There aren’t any fun choices. There are no more cookies.

Negative feelings can provide Positive Opportunities

You shouldn’t be afraid of negative feelings. Life provides inevitable frustration, disappointment, sadness and anger, and antipathy. We learn to look at breakdowns not as failures, but as opportunities to learn emotional resilience and coping skills.

If you have to learn how to deal with feeling bad, it is best that you learn how to do it when surrounded by people that love you and care about you. You will be better off in life if you learn to find comfort and soothing and help in tough times rather than trying to solve all of your problems alone or avoid them.

Therefore, negative feelings provide different types of opportunities. In Floortime, it is very important that you show the child that you understand, or at least, that you are making every effort to try. You help the child find ways to express it.

Importantly, you show your child that you can handle his negative feelings. While you do not share his urgency, you understand and have respect for the fact that his feelings are a struggle for him at the moment. The difficult moment allows you to help him learn that bad feelings are a safe part of life when you are sympathetic, but not out of control. You are empathic and concerned, not aloof or dismissive, and you are not in a rush to get rid of the feeling.

Making a lot of effort or urgent efforts to take the negative feelings away or bury the evidence of them communicates the wrong message – THIS IS AS BAD AS YOU THINK THIS IS!!!

Sure, she feels that if she doesn’t get her Popsicle immediately, it will be a total catastrophe – the end of the world. Her behavior and her feelings are all urgent. But an emotionally equivalent response is not what she needs. That would confirm her immature, ‘getting my Popsicle right now is a matter of life and death’ worldview. At these moments, it is the adult’s responsibility to care but to help the child put things into perspective and to move on.

You keep things from getting worse by being empathetic and not adding any further provocation, and provide comforting if that’s your child’s wish (your child might want space and time instead). And then, you reinforce any effort your child makes to move on. You don’t always stand around waiting. You might move on yourself (declarative action).