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This week Jake Greenspan of The Floortime Center joins Affect Autism for a podcast about making Floortime a part of your everyday life with your child to promote relating, communicating, and thinking. Jake is the son of the late Dr. Stanley Greenspan, who created the Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship-based (DIR) model and involved his son in his work from a young age, including training Jake and his colleague Tim Bleeker for over ten years.
Floortime all day, anywhere with Jake Greenspan
What is Floortime?
After discussing a bit about Jake’s work with his father and the roots of The Floortime Center, how Dr. Greenspan really stressed an umbrella approach where every service is on the same page like The Floortime Center offers (rather than one-off therapies), and about the prevalence of the behavioural culture we live in–in parenting, education, and in therapy, Jake gets into how “children learn best when they get to do the thinking” and how Greenspan Floortime inspires this process.
Floortime is a set of techniques to deepen and build relationships with caregivers that allows the child to learn to think and communicate in emotional ways at higher and higher levels. Every moment we interact with our child is a moment in which we can be encouraging our child to communicate and think at higher and higher levels.
Brain research has really come to support the theories of Dr. Greenspan that emotion drives learning and that new pathways can be formed in the brain through rich, emotional interactions between children and trusted caregivers. The key to Floortime is that children have to be able to recognize and create social interactive patterns, and more and more complex ones as they grow.
How do we do Floortime?
My job as a parent is to challenge and respond in new ways so that my child can come up with a new idea. The key is helping the child feel in control. When children are less anxious we can do more problem-solving. The goal is for him to become flexible by coming up with new ideas and new steps.
Jake and I discussed an example of a video shown by his father, Dr. Stanley Greenspan, where a little girl with developmental challenges is in her own world using an object for sensory stimulation and how with coaching, the parents were able to make the object a toy and help the child switch from sensory play to object play, and most importantly, where she was able to have pleasurable social interactions with her parents.
If our kids are playing with objects themselves, they aren’t getting challenged. We always have to help the child expand by challenging them to do one more step, two more steps, three more steps. By increasing the number of interactive circles the child can achieve with an object, with their body, or in a play scenario we can help them have an elongated interactive pattern.
For more information about sensory play, object play, following the child’s lead, challenging, and expanding, please see last week’s blog post about The Floortime Manual.
Our son loves model trains and the latest thing he loves to do is have a bunch of his model trains on the couch and hand them to me one at a time asking, “What kind of train this is, Mama?” with great enthusiasm. I’ll ask “Is that the Princess Elizabeth train?” He’ll quickly respond, “City of Chester” then repeats the process with the next train. He wants to do it over and over again.
I try to change it up by asking, “Which one’s your favourite one? What do you like about that one?” or saying, “This one has three wheels but this one has four wheels. I wonder why…” Jake says that the key is getting him to EXPAND this pattern by responding differently each time.
Sometimes what’s inhibiting the overall expansion in the activity is that some of the non-verbal planning and ideation abilities still haven’t solidified so they get stuck in these repetitive social patterns where he can create a social exchange with Mama that he wants to experience over and over again. The challenge is that he may not have a lot of tools he can use to access that social exchange with me.
We don’t want to just limit and make available the exchanges around these trains. We, ourselves, have to think of new ways to challenge if we want him to have a new response. We can expand it not to higher levels of language, but to new levels of physical challenges: whether it’s harder to get the trains, or whether the trains are driving somewhere else even though he may not have initiated that part of the play.
We get caught up in the verbal part of the activity and forget about the physical communication which is where all of the pattern creation begins. If the child is having a problem taking patterns to a higher level, we have to go back and expand on not just their verbal ideation, but their physical and gestural communication and ideations.
That’s where we get the most expansive interactions because now it’s not just about listing the trains names in this repetitive pattern, but now the trains might be driving somewhere, or two might go this way and the other two go that way, or they might be deciding to go do something else.
I told Jake how I will sometimes take two trains and say they are going over here and drive them away and my son will protest, loudly saying, “Nooooo!” and insists that they stay right there on the couch! Jake says be sure to be cautious about how much time we spend with the trains in that way because the more time we spend doing this, it becomes addictive.
He said that if going to the store is too much of a challenge then the idea of going to the store becomes the challenge. You say, “Oh boy, I want to go somewhere new!” and if he says no, then you become the train and say “Oh man, I’m bored here. I want to do something new!” So now he has to come up with something new. Respect his protests, but get a little disappointed so he has to respond.
* STAY TUNED EARLY 2018 FOR A FLOORTIME VIDEO OF ME APPLYING JAKE’S SUGGESTIONS *
My job is to respond in new ways. If my son doesn’t respond, you say “Ok if you don’t tell me where to go, I’m going to go somewhere new!” and you go really slow and really soft, and then the second he protests, you say, “Oh no! You stopped me again!” Now, the new part of the pattern is him protesting in a fun, playful way rather than just naming trains.
We want the child to feel in control. The goal is not to move the train. The goal is to get him to be flexible by coming up with new ideas and new steps. If he tells you why the trains have to stay there, that’s new. If he tells you the trains aren’t allowed to go anywhere, ever, that’s new even just in language and ideas. He might say they have to all stay together and you say “Oh, they have to all stay together! Oh, they must all like being together.” Now we have a new dialogue. Until… one time he says they are going somewhere, which might just be going to the chair next to the couch. And now he’s in control.
Floortime in Everyday Routines
We can make Floortime, as described by Jake, a part of every interaction we have with our child, and for busy parents that might mean that we have to do it around our daily routines throughout our busy day. Here are some examples of how we can incorporate Floortime into getting dressed or around eating.
Getting dressed: Jake says that when we get dressed we can be silly and/or play ‘clueless’ by putting socks on the hands instead of on the feet, or pants on your head, and see what the child does.
When they indicate that they realize that’s not right, you can say “Oops!” or “Oh! Silly me! That’s not right!” You want to get your child to indicate which piece of clothing go where and do a lot of ‘clueless’.
You can even take out the wrong types of clothes wondering what you’re going to wear today and take out a bathing suit, etc. The key is getting him to do new things and sometimes it means us doing something silly or wrong.
There are many options there, but if you run out of options hopefully it’s because he’s becoming more communicative and those moments have been used really well!
Eating: Again, you want your child to be directing the pattern. So maybe you look for where the plate is, and how to make the sandwich. The child gets to make the decision about how to plan the process.
We can pretend we don’t know where the milk is and say, “What are we going to put it in?” They might to point to a mug instead of a glass to be more like Mommy or Daddy and be a part of the family in an emotionally more connected way.
When we open up the process for the child to make decisions we see that the child’s decisions are far more emotionally connected than we might anticipate. We can’t always anticipate what they’re feeling or thinking but we can let them tell us.
Flexibility and When to Hold Off
What if they just want their particular cup? How can we make them more flexible? It depends on the level of intensity of the feelings. The goal is always flexibility which is a bi-product of creative/social problem-solving. The more ideas, the more solutions, the more steps we’re able to achieve within any scenario, the more dynamic, flexible and adaptable we can be. But adaptability isn’t just learning that water is water, but that the green cup is just as good as the red cup, even though the red cup is my favourite.
We want to turn each of these things into a little game. If there is intense stress around food, eating, or drinking then we might have more of a tough time getting them being flexible around a cup. If eating is easy for them, then sure! We want to pick the right battles by setting the right goal at the right moment. We work on flexibility in the right moments: around moments of pleasure, not during stress, such as when the child is coming up with ten different places for Mommy to sit.
We have to start out in the moments of pleasure, then eventually the child will be able to be more flexible in the stressful moments. This way, creativity and shared problem-solving can be viewed as a fun process. But Jake says even if you can’t challenge too much in moments of stress, you can still expand the pattern. If you are pouring water in the favourite cup, for instance, you can pour just a tiny bit and ask, “Oh is that enough?” The child might reply, “No, more!” and this makes the interaction about water into a new pattern: a fun game.
Every child needs different types of limits, but all children do need limits. If you look at a child, shake your head and frown, that is the beginning of setting limits. If the child is throwing a toy, we stay calm, calm our child, and firmly say that we can’t throw toys. Dr. Greenspan would say we should be the “gentle giant”. The more impulsive we are with our voice and actions, the more anxiety we provoke in our children.
Perhaps the most important thing about setting limits, though, is that in order for a child to accept limits, the person setting the limits must be in a relationship with the child. Sometimes some of the interactions that need to take place for the child to feel grounded are not there. We have to give before we expect, we have to respect before we expect respect, and we have to listen before we expect our child to listen to us.
Children need to feel nurturance and love to respond to limits. Jake gives the example of a father and son who spent a lot of time together, but they were doing the things that the father liked. Once the father shifted and started doing what the son enjoyed, the son was eager to please his father so would respond to limits.
For children who don’t always respond when we give and give and give, we need to set clearer boundaries and limits that are firm. For children who are able, we can get their input into their own rules and boundaries. Jake gave the example of a family who made such negotiations. The boy said that his rule was “no yelling” and the father agreed, just like the boy agreed to his own limits. This put them on a mutually respectful social contract.
For developmentally younger children, we have to address their emotional age and set limits appropriately. There’s always a reason for a child’s behaviour, whether it be expressing what they are experiencing or they are trying to tell us something. We have to find out where it’s coming from rather than shutting down the behaviour. When we change the environment towards the child’s needs, it allows them to be more flexible towards us.
So What’s Wrong With Not Doing Floortime All the Time?
Recent Princeton research has identified that children need interesting people and to create and understand patterns by engaging in social, interactive play which produced better learners who were more flexible later in life. Jake says that many families have so many goals for their children, that they end up not doing any of them well. He suggests prioritizing engaging in social, interactive play which all of the latest research supports.
You will get what you put in. If you focus on one thing, that’s what you’ll get out of it. Busy parents can at least schedule in Floortime sessions at least once per day, and hire people to play with your child–whether it’s a neighbourhood teenager who is very playful, or a grandparent, sibling, or a therapist. Having a full community of support, all on the same page, will pay off in time. Parents have the ability to impact change.
Thank you to Jake Greenspan for taking the time to chat with us! If you want to see his website or contact him, please see The Floortime Center site. If you found today’s podcast informative, enjoyable, and/or helpful, please consider sharing it on Facebook or Twitter, below. Also, if you have any comments on anything Jake Greenspan talked about or any ideas, please feel free to share them in the Comments section below.
Until early 2018… here’s to affecting autism through play! Happy holidays!