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

Floortime is a mindful and focused form of parenting, as well as an intensive therapeutic method to advance your child’s capacities for thinking, communicating, and relating warmly and reciprocally with others.

From the ICDL:

“Floortime™ is a specific technique to both follow the child’s natural emotional interests (lead) and at the same time help the child move towards greater and greater mastery of the social, emotional and intellectual capacities. With young children these playful interactions may occur on the “floor”, but go on to include conversations and interactions in other places. Floortime is a way of being together wherever you are.

The DIR®/Floortime™ Model is a comprehensive framework which enables clinicians, parents and educators to construct a program tailored to the child’s unique challenges and strengths. 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. The DIR®/Floortime™ Model emphasizes the critical role of parents and other family members because of the importance of their emotional relationships with the child.”

From the ICDL:  Guidelines for a Comprehensive Approach (guidance in putting together a DIR/Floortime program).

In other words, the DIR model provides the framework of milestones, goals and objectives for growth, and you use Floortime methods (strategies, tactics, techniques, etc.) to help your child develop certain foundational abilities.

Floortime is not casual play. It is play with systematic and ongoing assessment of the child’s individual differences and function within key relationships: with specific goals, purposes and strategies, and ways to measure progress that come from the DIR milestones. The Floortimer works from a set of goals and objectives from the DIR model for developing specific relationship and communication skills. The Floortimer embeds “challenges” that are within the child’s ability to master learning objectives. These challenges create “opportunities for solving problems” that require the child to develop a specific skill or skill set. It is in the process of solving these problems and meeting those challenges that the child learns to think, relate and communicate.

The Floortime session provides multiple opportunities (challenges) to practice a given skill. The Floortimer’s actions provide maximal opportunities for relating and communicating. It should be obvious to observers what skill the child is working on because we can see how the Floortimer presents challenges to a specific skill or skill set.

We start with wherever the child is at in terms of her current mastery of the DIR “milestones” or foundations for development, and then we find a way to relate to her somehow.  The DIR milestones provide a systematic progression of skills that guide the work.

We choose specific skills from the DIR that we think are important for the child to master and set out goals in which to measure progress. “Floortime moments,” whether they occur spontaneously or in a Floortime Session, become opportunities to help her master the skills “targeted” by the goals.

Relating to others can be very demanding for some children so you try to challenge them in types of interactions they might normally avoid. For instance, a child might prefer to play alone. He might find that when he doesn’t have to share control or to interact with others, he does pretty well, but when others want to share control, he finds it very difficult. In this case, the Floortimer would want to help him learn how to respond to and to include others in his play.

This is a tall order of course, and you would do this by being “gently persistent” and “tuned in” to the child.

“Tuning in” helps you to be in sync with the child’s affect: her intentions, goals, feelings and point of view.  In practice, ‘tuning in’ means being very aware of your child’s feelings, intentions and abilities at the moment and doing whatever you can to help him follow his interests successfully (“successfully” means that the experience is satisfying and motivating).  ‘Tuning in’ helps you to be sensitive in a way so that you avoid overwhelming the child and promoting defensive or withdrawn responses.

Being tuned in or “attuned” also means having the right amount of challenge. The child that plays well alone but has difficulty playing with other probably has a lot of relationship skills missing and a lot of things to learn. But the first thing that has to happen is for the child to develop some sort of trust in the Floortimer. Therefore, the Floortimer takes a gradual approach, starting at some point within the child’s already developed functional emotional skills and working up the ‘DIR ladder’ towards a higher stage.

Attunement as Responsiveness to the Child’s Developmental Capacities

Floortime techniques help broaden the child’s range of interactive experience by engaging the child at his developmental level, where your actions give him something that he can respond to meaningfully. In this way, you help him stay engaged in the reciprocal back-and-forth of interaction. In other words, you don’t tell him what to do or say, but your actions can provide the best conditions for him to respond in some meaningful way and to keep going back-and-forth in what DIR refers to as Circles of Communication.

The Floortimer joins the child’s ideas and intentions by following the child’s lead (activities, play, and systems of actions towards his or her goal). The Floortimer employs critical skills of attunement: helping the child relate his or her experiences through sensitive and informed reading of the signs and signals of their inner world.

When doing Floortime, your overriding goal is to draw the child into a relationship with you. It is within this “attuned” relationship that you teach her how to share her inner experience with others.

Ethan began to squeal at the distant sound of the garbage truck. Garbage trucks fascinated him. He squealed with delight the entire time the trucks were on his block.  Every Thursday morning at this time, his eyes are wide open and his attention riveted on the trucks from the time he first heard them, until the time he no longer heard them. When they appeared, he watched their every move, rarely breaking his attention.

Ethan looked back-and-forth at us, panning our faces for our reactions. He doesn’t do that very often, but he was doing it a lot now. And when his favorite part happened – the part where the truck’s mechanical arms dump the container over and pour its contents into the truck’s bin, he kept grinning at us.

Prior to intervention, Ethan’s grandparents did not share Ethan’s glee over garbage trucks. They were more worried that he would run out to greet them, crossing the street with no awareness of traffic or the dangers involved. Twice before, when the door was left open, Ethan ran towards the trucks.

While it was pretty obvious how Ethan felt about the trucks, he could never explain how thrilled they made him and how important they are to him. Ethan didn’t have to say anything. Technically, the intensity of his behavior was high, (jumping up and down; wide-eyed and intensive attention; squealing – indicating a high level of positive arousal), the pace of his behavior was quick – so it was clear that his level of stimulation was high.

Obviously – he was excited. It was very obvious why he was excited. Obvious signs like these make it easy to attune to his experience.

Before, Grandparents’ goal was to get Ethan away from the door – to “redirect him” as another professional advised. They weren’t trying to be mean or insensitive – they just wanted him to be safe. But every week at this time, Grandparents and Grandson reran the same power struggle. Ethan wanted to run out to greet the trucks, so grandparents had good reason to worry. He “succeeded” a couple of times before, and Grandma and Grandpa are worried that he’ll run in front of a car.

They typically responded to his behavior by giving him a direction, “Ethan, get away from the door” with an attempt to “redirect” him, “You can go out the back.” Ethan never accepted the invitation to go out the back door, even though that would have allowed him a view of the trucks through the gate. But if a grandparent approached to guide him Ethan flopped to the floor in protest, and they could not physically move him.

Attunement instead of managing and manipulating behavior…

We recommended that instead of spending their energy trying to “get” Ethan away from the door, grandparents try “attuning” to “the message” of Ethan’s behaviors. Since we could expect the trucks to come every week at the same time and Ethan’s excitement was so reliable, we thought it would be a great time for attuning to his experience.

Grandparents were reluctant. They were concerned about encouraging Ethan’s interest in the garbage trucks.  That was in fact what we were recommending. Following his lead and trying to connect with him (attuning) would very likely heighten his excitement. We predicted that in those moments of heightened interest and excitement, his attention would be very focused and his ability to learn would be optimal. We reassured grandparents that it is usually easy to prevent Ethan from getting past the door when it is locked. The plan changed from countering Ethan’s intentions and trying to get him to change his feelings, to trying to engage him and then to elicit his cooperation.

As usual for this time on a Thursday morning, Ethan was sitting at the breakfast table, eating his cereal. All of the sudden, he jumped up and ran to the door. “Ethan, come back…” Grandpa’s first impulse was to direct Ethan to come back to the table. But he quickly remembered to tune in to Ethan’s wavelength, as he had been practicing.  Grandpa hollered, “OK, here I come,” sort of matching Ethan’s level of excitement.

At this point, the trucks could only be heard in the distance. Ethan was at the door – he knew what the sounds meant and he loved hearing them.  From the distance, a truck revs it’s engine. Ethan’s eyes widen and he stills, flapping his hands in excitement here and there.  Grandpa, “Garbage truck!  Did you hear it?” Ethan responded by jumping up and down. He vocalized. “That’s the way he says ‘truck.’ It took us a while to figure out what he was saying,” Grandpa volunteered. Ethan was saying it over and over and looking at everyone in the room.

There it is” exclaimed Grandpa as the truck turned into view. “The garbage truck!” Grandpa and Grandson were high-fiving each other. They had worked out their own special hand-shake, bumping knuckles with one hand and then the other, turning around, and knuckle-bumping again. This became one of Ethan’s favorite parts of the experience – the silly hand-shake.

The engine roared and Ethan turned back to the door. “It’s coming. Here it comes!” Grandpa tried to comment at every little punctuated moment such as this – every experience worth sharing. When the arm clutched one of the trash cans and lifted it up and over, Grandpa chanted, “Up, up, up, up…” Ethan couldn’t say, “Up, up, up, up,” but he could say “Up…  …up.”  Once Grandpa got him started on this, Ethan said, “Up… …up …up” each time the arm did its thing.

I still worry about him running out there. I don’t know if I really trust him, but he’s not fighting me any more over it” Grandpa volunteered to us.

As if on cue, Ethan tried the door knob. As coached to do, Grandpa offered attunement, reflecting the problem and showing Ethan he understands his predicament, “Oh man. You wanna go.” “Go, go” replied Ethan. His speech was unusually clear at the moment. “Pretty good huh” Grandpa volunteered. “He says ‘go’ when he wants to go. He asks for permission now…”  Grandpa liked that. It was much better than fighting him over it.

Uh oh, Ethan.” Grandpa looks down at Ethan’s feet. “Sh… sh…” “That’s ‘shoes’” Grandpa explained. Ethan quickly retrieved his shoes and gave them to his Grandpa. Grandpa stood still – as if waiting. Ethan thought for a moment and then realized he needed to sit down on the couch for Grandpa to put his shoes on.  He sat down and offered his foot. “There you go. Now give me… good.”  “It’s not as good as this all the time.” Grandpa referred to the many times Ethan shows no interest in getting ready for school or assuming responsibility for dressing himself. But today, the garbage trucks are giving Ethan’s motivation a push in every direction.

After his shoes were secure, Ethan sprang up. Grandpa and Grandson looked into each other’s eyes, “Ready?” Grandpa asked. Ethan waved his arm purposefully in a “Yes” gesture entirely of his own invention – but that he used very consistently to indicate agreement. “Are you gonna hold my hand Ethan?” Ethan waved his arm again. “What’s gonna happen if you let go?” “sy…sy…” “That means ‘inside’” volunteered Grandpa. “He’s never talked as much as this before” volunteered Grandma.

In this state of positive alertness and arousal that Ethan goes into when the garbage trucks come – he is most available for learning and challenging – as long as it is done right. Following Ethan’s lead, Grandpa capitalized on the energy the garbage trucks provided – rather than fight it. Grandpa put words to Ethan’s experience. Ethan might not understand all of the words, but if Grandpa is careful to speak in a way that Ethan understands (slowly – and with a lot of feeling), Ethan and Grandpa can stay pretty much in tune with each other.

A child has to be able to trust that you will not push or ask her to do something that she is not ready for or that might overwhelm her. Heightened and intensively attuned responding safeguards a child from these situations because the adult is able to provide a unique knowledge of the child and a flexible and responsive scaffold.

Even when Stakeholders are trying to attune, they can be prone to believe that children know things that they really do not, or that a child “knows better.”  This may be more reflective of a lack of in-depth knowledge of the child’s capacity to understand. On the other hand, children take risks, explore their worlds and express their curiosity when they assess themselves to be competent enough for the context. When demands seem too much for a child, the behavioral response is usually to avoid or withdraw. Adults need to be sensitive and attune to how the child sees himself and in Floortime, the goal for such a situation would be to help the child form more realistic concepts of his abilities and with that, more confidence to approach the environment rather than withdraw.

Floortime begins with a careful assessment of the child’s capacities or skill sets – the tools the child already has for learning and understanding. Remember that in the DIR model, the Functional Emotional Levels describe the ways that a child pulls together a wide range of regulatory, sensory, emotional and cognitive capacities. The comprehensive assessment that occurs first (and continues in an ongoing way), is the guide the Floortimer uses to present well-calibrated or more attuned demands and challenges.