Floortime Goes To School

This year my daughter started grade one.  Through her Kindergarten year and now this fall, we’ve been working with our school to create a program that meets her needs.  We are very fortunate to have a school that is happy to learn about autism, about DIR/Floortime, and how to put it all together, but it has certainly been a learning process for everyone.

Recently I took a look at The Rebecca School, a private school in Manhattan that applies DIR principles to its educational planning for students from early childhood to young adults.  Dr. Stanley Greenspan acted as consultant in the early years of the school, and the principal, Dr. Gil Tippy,  has written a book describing how DIR/Floortime is applied in a school setting.  As well, I took the time to watch a webinar by Dr. Tippy, entitled “DIR ® Schools in Action:  Strengthening Capacities All Day, Every Day.”

It’s clear that there are some things that would be difficult to replicate in a typical public or private school in Winnipeg.  The Rebecca School has access to a very large pool of professional resources.  For 115 children, there are 120 employees – teachers, teacher assistants, psychologists, social workers, music therapists, drama specialist, occupational and speech therapists… 2 students to every teacher.  The facility was designed specifically for its students’ needs: it has 15 classrooms, 115 kids, 2 gyms, 3 music therapy rooms, and a large rooftop playground.  We’re unlikely to be so fortunate as to have access to such a resource-rich school.

However, the principles that the school follows are ones that can be applied anywhere, and follow recognized best practices for early childhood education.

DIR is perfect for an inclusive school setting because:

  • The process of learning is more important than the product
  • Activities that develop thinking skills are emphasized rather than rote memory tasks
  • It’s founded in an understanding of stages of childhood development
  • Activities are meaningful to children and connect with what they know and have experienced
  • Positive relationships are the context of learning
  • Learning differences are recognized and supported.
  • Children learn through play and inquiry.

Some other thoughts that emerged from Dr. Tippy’s webinar:

Know Your Goals

Autism is not a disorder of memory, but of development.  Most autistic children have no difficulty at all in remembering information, and in fact, this is often their greatest strength.  Their weakness is that they are emotionally and socially younger than their chronological age.  This means that rather than focusing on memory-related tasks and strategies, autistic children are best served by fostering their growth through social-emotional developmental levels.  They need to learn how to relate to others, to solve problems, to manage their emotions, and to communicate increasingly complex ideas.  The DIR approach is all about addressing these kinds of goals.

Although this sounds difficult in an educational setting, the truth is, every interaction can be a learning opportunity.

  • Wait.  Don’t solve problems for the child, but give them the opportunity to ask for what they need, to overcome obstacles, to come up with their own solutions.
  • Use language at the right level.  Talk about feelings, about problems, about activities – at a level just a bit higher than what the child can already do.
  • Be emotional.  Let excitement and interest be an enticement for connections and learning.

Lay Developmental Foundations

Before you build a house, you need to lay the foundation.  Curriculum needs to be sequenced with attention to child development.

Dr. Tippy distinguishes between two layers of curriculum, what he calls “Foundation Academics,” and then “Secondary Academics.”  Foundation Academics include all the things young children are expected to know before they enter school, which lay a foundation for academic learning – such as the ability to interact, follow directions, focus on a task, recognize patterns, orient themselves in space, and coordinate actions with intentions. If these foundations aren’t laid, a child will not be able to succeed academically.  So time needs to be taken in order to build that foundation – and thoughtfull planning with 1:1 support (with teacher, EA, or peers) can be a great help in that goal.

  • schedule in Floortime every day.
  • use ordinary actions and organizational activities as opportunities for interaction, problem solving and skill development.  Dressing, getting supplies, eating lunch…every activity can be an interactive learning opportunity
  • train and encourage the other children to interact and support the child with autism.

 Make Connections

Learning needs to be rooted in relationship, connections, and interests.  In language arts, the emphasis should be on oral language and comprehension.  Exploration and play are the basis of science and mathematical learning.  This isn’t just about children with special needs – all children learn best when they are making connections with people they know, their interests and experiences, and the things they already understand.  Everyone learns better when they enjoy what they are doing.

Strategies in place at our school include:

  • encouraging our daughter to interact with other teachers besides her EA, for example when she needs help getting dressed
  • scheduling Floortime sessions with both the homeroom teacher and the EA
  • sensory breaks that include visits with office staff or other teachers
  • using a buddy program at recess with special toys and activities, to build relationships with other students
  • teaching thematically, so that learning topics can be supported with activities and books at home

 Use Sensory and Movement Strategies

We need to pay attention to sensory and movement needs, all through the day.  Again, this applies to all children.  Autistic children might need extra sensory or movement breaks, but all children benefit when we let them move or work in ways that help them concentrate.   In my daughter’s class, movement breaks are built in for everyone throughout the day, and my daughter has additional opportunities for sensory breaks.

Collaborate and Reflect

Perhaps this is most important.  Each child with autism has a team of professionals who can contribute towards making that child’s school experience the best that it can be.  Taking the time to talk about what works, what doesn’t, how problems might be solved, what the next steps might be, is critical to that child’s progress.  Our autism specialist from the Autism Outreach program has been very helpful, providing advice, training and resources.  Parents need to be a part of this process too – they know the child best.  Building positive, collaborative relationships between parents and teachers goes a long way to creating a positive school experience.

So, while a DIR/Floortime school may not be available, a school program incorporating DIR/Floortime principles is definitely within reach.  In fact, these principles are all being practiced in my daughter’s program, and she is thriving as a result.  Putting these principles into practice is good for the other children too.  A classroom that is inclusive for one  makes it easier to be inclusive for all – everyone benefits!

The Rebecca School’s Website:

http://www.rebeccaschool.org/.  The Rebecca school also has a Facebook page.

 Dr. Gil Tippy:

Blog (with videos and links): www.drgiltippy.wordpress.com

Dr. Tippy’s book about Rebecca School is entitled Respecting Autism.

 More Thoughts on Inclusion:

See our post on Universal Design for Learning.  The Three-Block Model presented by Dr. Jennifer Katz lays out how to implement the principles described above in an inclusive setting, and her book is a helpful resource for teachers.



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