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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Saturday, May 21, 2011

What is Floor Time? Well, Folks, It Isn't Physical Restraint

I’ve just been hearing some discussion at In this audio presentation, preparatory to a weekend conference for adoptive parents concerned about aggressive children, Heather Forbes and Ronald Federici spoke of methods that involve physical restraint as a way to reduce child violence. It wasn’t clear exactly what methods were to be used, but presumably they resemble the ones talked about in Federici’s book.

Much has been said about physical restraint in a prone position and other aspects of Federici’s methods. I don’t plan to talk about those criticisms here. What I’m concerned about is terminology and what might be called “definition creep”. I’m especially concerned about the use of the term “Floor Time”.

In the audio presentation, Federici uses “Floor Time” to refer to physical restraint of a child lying on the floor. He also refers to Stanley Greenspan, the originator of the actual Floor Time approach. Whether Federici, who knows of Greenspan, also knows that the term Floor Time had been used for about 20 years to mean something quite different from physical restraint-- well, that I can’t tell. However, I hope this post will help readers differentiate between Floor Time as defined and practiced by the recently-deceased, much-admired child psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan, and the methods advocated by Federici. Incidentally, the term Floor Time is trademarked.

Floor Time (the TM kind developed by Greenspan) is an aspect of DIR-- Developmental, Individual Differences, Relationship-based therapy for autism and similar developmental disturbances. It’s not only a method, but a philosophy characterized by adult responsiveness to the child’s lead and the complete absence of coercion. Here is a description of the Floor Time method:

Floor Time has been used for many years as a method for working with normal toddlers and preschoolers in child care and educational settings. It is an effective way to help anxious children communicate their fears and relax and play. Teachers trained in doing Floor Time learn to follow the child’s lead by accepting and encouraging whatever the child wants to deal with, rather than doing what is all too easy and trying to distract the child from themes that are “not nice” or too worrisome to the adult.

Parents can also do Floor Time by spending twenty minutes or half an hour not only “on the floor” (i.e.,at the child’s level) but carefully responding to the child’s ideas. This “following the child’s lead” does not mean getting bossed around by the child, and of course safety for people and property is a first rule. Instead, a parent who is following the child’s lead will accept a role to be played (“you be the fireman”) and will occasionally and cautiously make a suggestion that elaborates on the child’s thinking. Practice in Floor Time is enormously helpful to parents who don’t know how to play, or who get bored with the child, or who are concerned with their own dignity rather than with the developing relationship. Greenspan was known for his belief that emotional and intellectual abilities are deeply connected, and Floor Time is intended to support their intertwining development.

When you read about Floor Time or hear it mentioned, it might be a good idea to check whether the term is being used accurately or not. Not everything that happens on the floor is Floor Time! And I believe the idea that Floor Time is physical restraint would be shocking to Stanley Greenspan if he could know, to Gil Foley, and to other people involved with the Interdisciplinary Council on Developmental and Learning Disorders. I plan to pass my concern on to the latter.


  1. Indeed it is quite stunning that Greenspan's Floor Time would be mentioned in the same breath as Federici's method, especially since Federici, as I understood him, was repeatedly emphasizing during this Q&A session, just the opposite -- that it is the parent who should be leading the child, not vice versa where the parent or therapist follows the child's lead, as in Floor Time.

    I have commented on some other aspects of this Q&A session:

  2. Thanks, Monica-- I hope interested readers will check out your take on issues that I didn't mention.