Going to school can be a massive challenge for many students with special needs. However, with so many possibilities to connect creatively with peers, encounter new ideas and practice regulation in the face of challenges, school is an awesome opportunity for working on social-emotional development! Here’s how the DIR/Floortime (Developmental, Individual Differences, Relationship-based) model can provide a different sort of classroom aide or 1:1 behavioral support: rather than focusing on simply preventing misbehaviors or directing the child to produce “appropriate” behaviors, it provides a framework of the sequence of normal developmental steps to guide the aide’s support for the child or adolescent’s developmental accomplishments in each moment of challenge or opportunity.
At the very beginning of life, an infant must learn to regulate its body in order to be able to pay attention to the world. Echoing this early life task, the DIR-informed aide first looks to support the child or teen's state regulation. Utilizing information from the child's individual differences profile, the aide helps the student develop effective means of achieving a calm or alert state to be ready to pay attention to the world, i.e., engage with others and with the curriculum. The goal of a Floortime-trained aide is not only to have the child behave appropriately in the moment, but to learn to notice how they are feeling, accept support, and eventually seek support as needed. At first an aide can be more explicit in offering breaks, proprioceptive joint/muscle input ("squeezes"), or other self-regulating activities. Soon the child begins to internalize these co-regulatory successes with a sensitive, attuned adult so that more and more often he or she can remember to self-monitor and think of solutions such as, “I can ask for a break when it gets too noisy” or “I can stand up and walk to the water cooler to get some water when my body starts to feel too sleepy.” Often, Floortime support at school includes asking non-judgmental and curious questions to incite self-monitoring, self-awareness, or mindfulness, such as "what is your body needing?" or "how are you feeling right now?" In these ways and others, the student also learns to distinguish between appropriate ways to up-regulate or down-regulate in different contexts, such as being silly with friends outside during recess or focusing on the teacher’s lesson in the classroom.
Once infants learn to become regulated, they are only then able to move on to the next developmental stage of engaging with others around them. The same is true for every person in every new setting; we need to first be regulated before we can satisfyingly engage with others. So the second step is for a Floortime-trained classroom aide to help a student experience the joy of engaging in parallel and collaborative interaction with peers. With a developmental approach (vs. a “social skills” approach), the child learns organically that playing with friends and staying with the group feels much better than isolating, fixating on predictable objects, and/or playing out old familiar scripts. The child feels the natural motivation to figure out the unpredictable world of playground politics, such as how to join peers in games or conversations and how to woo peers to play their preferred game. Additionally, with attuned, sensitive adult support, the student learns how to regain a regulated state when conversations or games do not go as planned (i.e., much of the time!). Thus, a the aide facilitates robust peer engagement that leads the child or teen through the next developmental steps of working on resilience, communication, collaboration, creating original ideas, emotional comprehension, and logic.
While providing hundreds of hours of Floortime support in the school environment, we have found this experience to be much like riding a wave. The model teaches us how to spot the ideal sized wave of opportunity appearing on the horizon. We follow the child’s lead up the front of the wave to increase regulation and engagement until we see that “gleam in the eye” from the child that says, “I'm engaged, I'm motivated, so I’m ready for more.” On our way to the crest of the wave, we add the just-right challenge until it almost starts to be too difficult, and then ride the wave back down together to help regain that regulation and engagement.
In comparison, using DIR/Floortime strategies at home is more like riding a wave in a wave pool. In some aspects, we can expect and control the size and frequency of the waves that come our family’s way. The parents can set the routine, the schedule, the rules, and the family culture. With attunement, the parents can also incorporate flexibility or boundaries in the home environment that are uniquely tailored to the child they know and love so intimately.
If Floortime at home is like a wave pool, then Floortime at school is more like the ocean. The environment is much less predictable. There are many children on the playground, with many conflicting individual differences and preferences. The waves may come and go more unexpectedly, as the environment is not always structured in a way the student is used to or prefers. Furthermore, there are specific goals, rules, and expectations at school that may be different from a child’s home environment. However, herein lies the beauty of Floortime at school. Floortime support does not require the waves to be predictable. In fact, it teaches us how to capitalize on the unexpected or unfamiliar nature of the school environment to practice co-regulation and to encourage connection with peers.
For sure, being surrounded by peers at school can be dysregulating or frustrating to many students with special needs, it can also provide very powerful motivation to learn and grow. Human beings are born pre-wired for emotional connection. It is our human condition to long for a sense of connection and belonging. (See The Healing Power of Emotion: Affect in the Field of Affective Neuroscience and Interpersonal Neurobiology.) A child with special needs may not always present this longing in a neurotypical fashion. The DIR approach helps us decode the child’s sometimes difficult-to-interpret behaviors and bridges the gap between the child's desires for emotional connection and the school social environment. When the Floortime aide serves as the playful link between student and peers, the child with special needs can fulfill the most deep, innate desires we all have: to connect with others and to belong.