The ‘R’ in the DIR model is the Relationship-based part of the model.

The R describes the learning relationships with caregivers, educators, therapists, peers, and others who tailor their affect-based interactions to the child’s developmental capacities and individual differences. Directly from the DIR Fact Sheet on the website of the International Council on Development and Learning (ICDL), the home of DIR/Floortime, “The “R” describes how relationships fuel our development. Humans are social beings and relationships are a key to our human development. DIR harnesses the key affective (emotional) aspect of these relationships to promote development.

Let’s break this down. Relationship is the most important part of DIR/Floortime. There has to be a good relationship with the person doing Floortime.

Today’s culture does not support Relationship. Children are too often dropped off with caregivers they’ve never met and expected to feel safe. Children are seen by different therapists at different times and expected to feel safe and regulated without first establishing a relationship with the person trying to help them. This is absolutely ludicrous, yet is common practice.

The saying “it takes a village…” didn’t come out of nowhere. The village was an attachment village of community where people of all ages—relatives or friends—had a relationship with each new baby born. The mother had help raising children where others would hold and get to know the baby so that as the child developed, the child was familiar and felt safe with those in the village. Feeling safe meant that children would allow themselves to be guided by those in their village.

Today, however, our society is set up in a way where adults are not only not in relationship with our children, but they are also not guiding, but rather directing them. Imagine us as adults being told what to do by strangers, say, at a grocery store. What is your instinct if someone you don’t know walks up to you and tells you to stop talking so loudly, walking too slowly or quickly, or to stop touching items on the shelf?

And yet, just because children are young, today’s society expects them to follow commands from adults they don’t know simply because the adults are in a position of authority. This is disrespectful and is what developmental psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld calls ‘form over function’. In fact he goes so far as to say that our brains are wired to not take direction from or to be guided by anyone to whom we are not attached, i.e., do not have a relationship with.

Now how does this relate to DIR/Floortime?

We don’t direct children. We follow their lead within safe, warm, nurturing and well-established relationships to find what interests them in order to meet them there with genuine affect, respecting their individual differences and developmental level. Then, we can guide them.

We need to have a safe, warm and nurturing relationship with a child before doing Floortime. You can build this relationship over a number of sessions if you are a stranger. If you are a parent, we will assume you have a good relationship. If not, please refer to Dr. Gordon Neufeld‘s work to repair the relationship between you.

Next, within this safe, warm, and nurturing relationship, there are at least three other factors to consider in the DIR model: the use of genuine affect in our interactions, considering the child’s individual differences, and where the child is developmentally. Let’s go into each.

When we interact with a child, we want to use genuine affect. We want to be present in the moment and react with a genuine response. So if a child looks scared or upset, we would respond in a genuinely caring manner that involves making a concerned face as we naturally would. This affect shows the child our concern nonverbally.

Considering the child’s individual profile, if a child dislikes loud noises, you will approach the child with a calm and quiet, soothing voice and avoid being loud. If the child is very under-responsive, you might need to show more excitement in your face and with the tone of your voice to alert their attention to you with more energy.

To meet the child where they are at developmentally, we consider the functional emotional developmental capacities  (FEDCs) discussed two weeks ago. If a child is not in a regulated state nor able to share attention (FEDC 1), observe the child and join them in their interest to gain shared attention.

This might involve doing some sensory work that is tailored to their individual needs. An overstimulated child might need some calming in a dimly-lit room that is quiet and/or some deep pressure, whereas another child might need to go on a swing or wear a weighted vest to give their body input in order to calm their nervous system while interacting with them.

Once all of these conditions are met, we have a safe, warm and nurturing relationship with the child, we use genuine affect to interact at where the child is developmentally, tailored to the child’s individual differences and can help to support the child’s developmental progress. How do we do this? Using Floortime.

That is next week’s blog topic: Floortime.

Until next week, here’s to affecting autism through playful interactions!

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