Relate, Communicate, Think.

Dr. Stanley Greenspan defined Floortime as an intervention that focused on strengthening 3 elements; a child’s ability to relate, communicate and think. While many professionals doing “Floortime” only work on 1 or 2 of these elements, it is always best to fully integrate them.  After all, when are children not using all 3 of these capacities together? Can we effectively communicate without thinking or relating? Can we truly relate to someone without communicating and interacting with them? If we develop skills independent of one another, it can lead to fragmented development. This is why it is crucial to understand the three elements and how to bring them together for true growth. 

Relate: The ability to relate is our ability to connect with those around us, not with objects or activities, but with people and their interests, feelings, opinions, and ideas. In order to successfully relate, we have to develop things like shared attention, engagement, and the ability to interact. By sharing your attention with someone within an activity, you are now participating in something together. This shared attention shows an interest in someone else and what they are doing, it is a key first step in building a relationship. If we think about our own lives, when someone else shows an interest in what we’re doing, we feel more connected with them. It is this emotional connection with another person that leads to greater engagement with that person and builds a foundation of trust allowing us to form relationships with others.

As this development progresses and we become more interested in people, versus objects or activities, we see an expansion of engagement including an understanding of more emotions and different perspectives. We learn to do this around a broad range of emotional experiences while building and deepening relationships. A large body of research shows that this begins with caregivers. As children build and deepen relationships with caregivers and other meaningful adults in their lives who are adaptable to them, then they have the foundation allowing them to apply these skills with peers.

Communicate: Communication is both a non-verbal and a verbal capacity that we all have to master in order to effectively navigate the world around us. Communication begins as a pre-verbal skill with simple looks, smiles, frowns, and simple sounds. All are forms of communication that begin to establish reciprocity, back and forth exchanges/interactions. These early exchanges are types of communication, and they are a necessary prerequisite skill that leads to higher levels of communication, including language.

These interactive patterns are the foundation for other pattern recognition later in life. Understanding social-emotional patterns in the world around us helps us become adaptable, flexible, and creative. It also helps us understand other people’s opinions, ideas, and perspectives. For example, the first time a child sees a frowning face on their caregiver is the first time they begin to understand a limit or boundary. They see that not everything they do is safe or good. These boundaries help them understand where danger is, what’s appropriate and inappropriate, and it helps them organize their exploration at an early age. Without these interactive communication patterns, children end up not understanding boundaries and are more likely to develop behavior problems. They also could struggle to develop higher-level emotional communication skills.

This reciprocity with caregivers is the foundation for successful social interactions with peers. We learn to participate, take turns, and share, not because we’re taught to do so in an instructional manner, but because we have fun playing peek-a-boo, hide and seek, or exchanging objects with our caregivers. As we start to understand that sometimes waiting or slowing down is necessary to play these games, as well as taking turns and sharing things, then we learn to apply these with peers. These early playful interactions lead to more adaptability and flexibility, especially within our social environment. Communication begins as a non-verbal or pre-verbal skill developed with caregivers, and it turns into a verbal skill that’s used with caregivers and other meaningful adults in our lives. Eventually, communication becomes a tool we also use with peers.

Think: Dr. Greenspan described thinking as the process by which an individual generates their own solutions, ideas, and plans in order to accomplish a specific goal or express themselves. Unfortunately, most interventions and education programs are based on adult-led education, meaning the adult shares the specific expectation/outcome, telling or showing the child what to do. The child then performs the action. The adult is giving the child the answer and having them replicate it. That gets results, however, the results are very limited and often only used in the specific location they were learned. This type of learning has been shown to lead to children becoming rigid and/or passive participants.

Elements of health and safety will require more adult directives, instructions, and explanations. However, the initial social-emotional capacities that children need to master early in life are things they need to learn through experience with our involvement and support. If we interrupt the natural learning process, learning through experience and exploration, then we are inhibiting the development of their creativity, problem-solving, and thinking skills. They’re no longer developing ideation, executive functioning, critical thinking, and analytical skills. Instead, they are simply following instructions. While following instructions is a goal that can be addressed eventually, it’s a secondary goal.

If you ever heard Dr. Greenspan review videos of people trying to do Floortime, you would know that he frequently asked, “Who’s doing the thinking here?”. He was referring to instances where adults began to lead and direct the child. Giving prompts, suggestions, and directions are all examples of the adult doing the thinking.  

The goals of Floortime are broad and inclusive and can be integrated into a number of different environments and curriculums. Each therapist should find the ways that work best for them to address these goals while also addressing the specific goals within their curriculum.  The Greenspan Floortime Approach® techniques we teach are meant to be used as an optional guide to address these bigger picture goals. They are by no means the only techniques that can be used to address a child’s ability to relate communicate and think during your sessions.