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The Link Between DIR/Floortime, Client Engagement, and Child-Led, Play-Based Therapy

Over the past two months, we dove into the vast topic of the DIR/Floortime model and two of its key components: play and self-regulation! In keeping with our goal of sharing more insight into our treatment philosophies at Circles of Communication, this month’s blog post will focus on another key component of the DIR/Floortime model, child-led play-based therapy and shared engagement! There is a lot to unpack so we will start small and most definitely revisit these themes in subsequent months.

In the DIR/Floortime model, “functional emotional developmental capacities” refer to a series of developmental milestones that learners can be expected to meet on their learning path. Each developmental capacity contributes to a child’s ability to achieve necessary emotional awareness skills for engagement, relating, communication, thinking, and reasoning. The second developmental capacity in the DIR/Floortime model is “engaging and relating.”

One way we work towards building engagement during our sessions is through child-led play-based sessions. As a reminder from earlier blog posts, self-regulation must come first before true, joyful play (and subsequent learning) can occur. However, once regulation is achieved, the next step is engagement and relating to others.

Research supports the practice of child-led, play-based therapy for establishing excellent client-clinician rapport, helping clients achieve a “flow state” for optimal learning, and serving as a platform for naturalistic, spontaneous language rooted in client’s existing interests (hello buy-in!!). It’s incredibly rewarding to see natural, volitional engagement in session activities from clients who have the opportunity to learn and communicate using games, activities, and interests that they really love!

Traditional speech-language therapy often utilizes tabletop, compliance-based activities that may require learners to “work” for a preferred item or game. This traditional style of therapy, while also effective for skill-building, can reduce engagement and intrinsic motivation and make learning feel like a chore. Child-led and play-based practices are built on mutual trust and respect, promote joy and creativity, and, perhaps most notably, elicit voluntary communication from our clients!

Criticism for child-led, play-based therapy includes the idea that reducing demands can lead to “out of control” sessions. While this can be true in some instances and every client is different, we have found that in just a few sessions the quality of our relationship leads to willful cooperation and authentic collaboration in the learning process. Additionally, structure can be built into child-led sessions in a way that feels respectful to the client’s needs and interests. For example, we love building in “planning” time at the beginning of sessions. Allowing clients the opportunity to plan for their own sessions targets executive functioning skills for concepts like time management and organization, communication skills for sequencing and expressing ideas, and emotional awareness skills for perspective-taking, mindfulness, and considering the ideas/needs of others while also honoring one’s own mood and energy level. We find that planning ahead for session activities helps clients strike a balance of fun and structure while making them feel totally in control.

We have a few recommendations for supporting engagement with learning and communication at home, particularly during the last month of summer when “plans” and “schedules” feel like they’ve been tossed out the window:

  • Join your child in play! Model language fitting to the context, acknowledge what they are trying to show/tell you, and have fun. Play can provide numerous opportunities to teach things like new vocabulary, story-telling and sequencing, figurative language, reading, math, and more.

  • Have a free weekend day? Let your child be involved in planning the activities for a summertime adventure. You will feel in control by having an agreed-upon plan, and your child will feel in control by contributing to the decision-making process. We recommend the following to support most learners in a planning process:

  • Start with a “brain dump.” Give your child the opportunity to blurt out as many “preferred” activities as they can think of in, say, a 5 minute period of time. Write them all down.

  • Next, choose an amount of time that you can dedicate to the day’s adventure and set a budget. 2 hours? 5 hours? $25? $100?

  • Discuss each activity listed in the brain dump. Eliminate activities right away that are too expensive, too far away, etc., then begin to assign expected time and cost values to each activity remaining from the brain dump. For example, getting ice cream might take 1 hour and cost $25.

  • Build math and time concepts into the activity by helping your child choose a combination of activities that can fit into the allotted time and budget.

  • Make a schedule, let your child write it out to practice spelling and handwriting, and get going on your fun adventure!

We encourage you to try these strategies to support your child’s communication and engagement through play this summer. Remember that learning can occur both during joyful play AND seemingly mundane tasks (like making a schedule), and it’s ok to move away from worksheets at the table.

We hope your month ahead is filled with both sweaty adventures and air-conditioned relaxation, as well as continued growth in learning and communication. While we will continue to implement these child-led practices in all of our sessions, we encourage you to implement our suggestions in whatever way works for you.


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