If you were lucky enough to have experienced a consultation with Dr. Greenspan, whether in person or reviewing a video of one of your sessions together, inevitably you would’ve heard the question, “who’s doing the thinking?” It was one of his favorite questions to ask because it refers to one of the most important and effective components of his entire framework. The Greenspan/DIR™ Model and The Greenspan Floortime Approach® differ from other interventions, like DIR/Floortime, ABA, and traditional speech therapy and special education programs, by being a thinking-based intervention. Unfortunately, most people don’t understand what this means, even in the ‘floortime’ certificate holding community.

Early in life, children experience the natural developmental process of learning through exploration, figuring things out, and engaging in unstructured reciprocal interactions with caregivers. Infants are not learning by being directly taught, spoon-fed, prompted, or directly modeled to exhibit a specific behavior or outcome. While indirect modeling and natural feedback occurs, these play-based fun interactions between child and caregiver are unstructured and naturally evolving around the child’s interests of the moment. They evolve, are dynamic, and expand in directions that we don’t always anticipate.  Most importantly, the child is allowed to decide on their own adaptive response within the exchange. If mom is hiding behind her hands, the child can make a noise, they can tap her hand, they can try and go under them, or they can let out a whimper. Each one of these responses should get a different response from the caregiver. It’s these initiation-response patterns that are the foundation of verbal communication. These exchanges are actually the beginning of a ‘conversation’, called a proto-conversation, and social pattern. Can you imagine what happens when a child isn’t being given an opportunity or hasn’t had enough opportunities to figure out what to do next because adults are constantly telling them what to do or showing them what to do next?

Unfortunately, the vast majority of education programs and interventions, even ones not using terms like behavioral intervention or ABA, still focus on specific adult-led outcomes and compliance-based teaching. It is this traditional method of teaching that Dr. Greenspan was pushing against when he realized that children were not developing the adaptive, creative, open-ended thinking skills of problem solving, planning ahead, and expressing themselves in novel and new ways.  While some professionals may tell you that children who are on the autism spectrum or have other developmental delays aren’t capable of that level of thinking, adaptability, creativity, and expression, we have seen clinically for the last 40+ years that these children can develop these ‘thinking’ skills.  Unfortunately, only Dr. Greenspan’s version of Floortime, The Greenspan Floortime Approach®, and not DIR/Floortime or any other version of Floortime, prioritizes this principle. 

Dr. Greenspan knew that this principle was one of the most important and effective components of his intervention that led to the long-term success of many of his ‘super star’ kids.  These children, with the full support of their parents and families, progressed so much they no longer needed developmental support and could access every part of life they were inclined to experience.  Unfortunately, the ever-growing community of professionals providing various forms of ‘Floortime’ are not achieving Dr. Greenspan’s outcomes, and this missing piece is one of the reasons why.   

Years ago, I was describing the differences between traditional behavioral interventions like ABA, special education programs, and traditional speech therapy compared to The Greenspan Floortime Approach®. As I was discussing this with a psychiatrist, I shared that the goal of The Greenspan Floortime Approach® is not to teach a specific outcome, but instead to elicit a natural adaptive response from the child, take that response and treat it as purposeful, and continue to encourage the child to expand on that response, ie. eliciting more complicated, longer social patterns.  The intention of the other interventions and programs is to elicit a specific outcome that we as adults have deemed as appropriate or correct for the child. To achieve their goals, adults use methods like prompting, modeling, directing, et cetera. The psychiatrist said to me, “wow, that sounds a lot like teaching to the test”. I said, “exactly”.

We know in education programs that “teaching to the test” is not an effective way to help students become well-rounded thinkers or even learn the material. Unfortunately, for many children in different intervention programs, the adult is the one primarily doing the thinking and essentially “teaching to the test”. The adult is telling the child what to do, showing the child what to do, prompting the child to elicit a specific outcome or answer.  Every one of these techniques limits the child’s opportunity to think for themselves. When we take away that opportunity, we are taking away one of the most important learning experiences. It’s not about getting the right answer. It’s about figuring out how to get to their own answer, even if it’s wrong.  Over time, problem solving, creating, and adapting helps the child find the best answer for them, ‘process over product’.

Next time you’re playing with your child, talking with your child, or doing anything with your child, think about this and ask yourself this one question, “Who’s doing the thinking?” If you realize you are, then ask yourself, what can I do differently to encourage my child to do the thinking?  

To learn how to apply The Greenspan Floortime Approach®.  Register for the Professional or Caregiver/Parent Course at http://www.stanleygreenspan.com/floortimeu/register. Parents and Professionals can also receive Greenspan Floortime® Expert tele-coaching with video analysis and feedback.

For in-person Greenspan Floortime® based OT, SLP, Social Group Programs, and coaching contact The Floortime Center®, www.thefloortimecenter.com.