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Aug 6, 2013

Incorporating the DIR®/Floortime Model into Group Settings: Learning to Connect and Relate to Others

Written by Sara Chapman, MA and Chrissy D’Agostino, MA

Children learn dynamically. How we relate to others and to our environments becomes the basis for how we learn about the world and ourselves. Through these various experiences, children make connections about the world and their place within it. In the context of a group, many novel experiences and situations arise that allow a child to learn from others and to expand social understanding and thinking. These experiences can then be applied to the larger world.

The DIR®/Floortime Model is developmental and relationship-based approach that provides a framework for assessment and intervention and can be used not only within individual programs, but also to understand children within the context of a group setting. The model was developed by Drs. Stanley Greenspan and Serena Wieder, and enables parents and professionals to design comprehensive programs tailored to a child’s unique differences, strengths, and challenges. The goal of DIR®/Floortime is to help every child build healthy foundations for social, emotional and intellectual development.

D-I-R: How a child’s Developmental profile, Individual Differences, and Relationships, come together to inform and enrich intervention.


We look at each child’s individual developmental capacities to better understand:

  • when a child is most calm, organized, and attentive
  • how a child naturally engages and relates with adults and other children
  • how a child communicates wants, needs, and ideas
  • what supports a child to engage in a continuous flow of back and forth interactions and solve problems with others
  • whether a child engages in representational and symbolic play and uses language to represent ideas
  • whether a child bridges ideas together in a logical sequence to create play schemes and expresses himself or herself emotionally

In addition to understanding each child’s unique developmental progression, we also look at the overall development of the group. It is important to understand that what children can do one-on-one often decreases in the context of a group as there is more information to process and a greater variety of situations to negotiate.

Some questions we might consider when developing a plan for a group session include:

  • How is each child’s development impacted by the group experience?
  • At what level is each child able to engage and interact within the context of a group? 
  • What similarities and differences do we see between individual children?
  • What shared interests can we capitalize on that will support natural interactions to arise between the children?
  • How can we build on each child’s strengths and support challenges through peer modeling and support?

Individual Differences:

Each child takes in, regulates, processes, and responds to sensory information, such as sights, sounds, taste, smells, touch, and movement, differently. In order to understand how children relate to one another and the environment, we first have to understand how each child processes information. In a group, we also learn how children’s specific individual differences may be compatible or interfere with interactions, which provides opportunities for learning and coping that replicate real world experiences. For example, a child who is sensitive to sound may participate in a group with a child who tends to be louder and more active by nature. This creates opportunities to increase awareness of others, learn ways to cope with experiences that often may be disruptive or dysregulating to a child, and encourages children to learn to alter their actions based on the responses of others. The world is not always in our control, so it is important that children not only learn to relate to those that share common interests and ways of processing information, but also learn to cope in situations and within relationships/interactions that pose challenges.


Parents are a child’s first connection to the world, but children eventually make connections with adults other than parents and immediate caregivers. As children grow and develop, interest in other children develops too, and this becomes the basis for first friendships and the development of individuality and a strong sense of self. A supportive group experience provides opportunities for children to learn about and from others, in a supportive and nurturing environment, and to learn how to relate to other children through facilitated interactions.

Depending on the needs of the child, skills targeted might include:

  • learning how to initiate interactions and communicate effectively with others
  • responding to others
  • initiating play ideas 
  • exposure to a wider range of play materials and ideas
  • increasing flexibility and acceptance of others’ ideas
  • opportunities to use one’s strengths to increase confidence
  • imitating the actions of others (e.g. to expand play, communication, and motor skills)
  • learning to self-regulate within a group
  • participating in a combination of child-initiated and adult-led activities

Effective Strategies to Promote Peer Interactions and Awareness:

  • Incorporate individual and common interests into interactions and the environment to entice children into playing and connecting with others

  • Help children to pause and notice what their peers are doing, modeling comments for them to hear about the actions they see, particularly around common interests that might bring the children together 

  • Set up an environment that supports interaction by offering fewer toys and objects to promote parallel play

  • Offer the same toy another child is playing with to encourage parallel or interactive play 

  • Encourage children to direct communication towards each other. Adults should avoid becoming the voice for the children.

  • Some children tend to be directive, so model different types of communication for them, such as asking questions and sharing ideas

  • To encourage the development of pretend play, incorporate real props to give a concrete platform for exploring more symbolic ideas (i.e. dress up clothes & mirrors, dollhouse, doctor kits, car ramps, etc.)

  • Encourage motor or sensory experiences that do not require a lot of language. Often simple chase games are a great way to start positive interactions. Initially, the adult will be the glue that holds the children in interaction by creating repetition and a pattern for the game. Eventually, the adult can fade out as the children become more invested and learn how to carry on the game on their own.

  • Incorporate sensory experiences, equipment/materials, and a quiet space into the environment so that children have tools available to support self-regulation (and allow children to remove from group for brief periods of self-initiated quiet time)

  • Music and movement (e.g. parachute games, silly movement songs) provide a certain level of structure that can be organizing for many children and create a fun and shared experience