Do Engagement and Happiness Increase With Diverse Learning?

Relationship-building in education models supports greater generalization.

Posted Jan 08, 2020

"The word seek means to go in search of, try to discover, try to acquire. It requires an active, assertive approach to life." (Joseph B. Wirthlin)

This is true of learning as well. How we pursue knowledge, skill, wisdom, and connection in the world is a constant choice and a reaction to our environment, circumstances, and mood. Often educational models, developmental models, and behavioral models take one perspective and run with it, but there is something truly valuable about integrating models, making them intermittent, or sometimes messily intertwined to see where things lead. Individualized education not only diversifies from one student to another but also from one moment to the next. It is the gift of a good teacher who builds relationships and customizes lessons while considering the needs of the body and the spirit, who truly educates for life beyond test and model type.

In both running a school and a nonprofit as a teacher, a principal, and an executive director there is no skill more valuable to me then fluidity, meeting the needs of my students, families, and staff not where they "should" be but where the reality of the moment brings us. There are so many variables in life that if we do not move beyond our expectations we cannot achieve true progress. We must be present and radically candid. 

"Fit no stereotypes. Don't chase the latest management fads. The situation dictates which approach best accomplishes the team's mission." (Colin Powell) 

This philosophy is exactly why schools like the Atlas School in New York City value and are built on a multistrategic approach. This is not always easy, but it is a useful decision to choose not just one, to listen to the community, to take the best of everything, and to decide based on the person, the situation, and yes, even the feeling, how to teach, support, hold space, and grow. True education means both the student and teachers grow from each other. In the world of special education this means absorbing and respecting the roots and the extremes of therapeutic interventions, educational models, behavioral supports, and personal life skills and observations. If we do not accept our own challenges, how ever can we understand others? Often schools choose just one model to focus on as it bears clear results on specific targets and is easier to teach parents, staff, and the community. There are fewer variables to consider and the habit of style is more manageable. In ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) data are often the basis for creating programs for learning and behavioral reinforcement. They create a framework and clearly outlined progression that gives very concrete steps to achieving direct skill sets. They offer insight into causes of behavior, which can help highlight reinforcers and triggers that often encourage or inhibit learning readiness and overall regulation. Relationship-based models of engagement and learning offer opportunities for playful interaction and naturalistic progression, often empowering students through integration of their passions and interests into all aspects of interaction with both staff and  peers, There is less pressure to perform and a sense of curiosity and "flow" that often appeals to students and families who are seeking a sense of overall calm and well-being that supersedes traditional models and visions of classroom learning. DIR/Floortime (tm) is one such model, and for many families in the autistic community it is a window paradigm offering levels of connectivity and readiness through which they and staff learn about their students by following their lead, observing and holding space with great affect, energy, and interest. According to ICDL ( Interdisciplinary Council on Development & Learning )" D.I.R. Floortime (also known as Floortime ) is an intervention that is used to promote an individual's development through a respectful, playful, joyful, and engaging process. It uses the power of relationships and human connections to promote engagement, communication, positive behaviors, and thinking. Based on the DIR® model that was developed by Dr. Stanley Greenspan and his colleagues, it is used around the world by teachers, occupational therapists, speech therapists, mental health professionals, parents, and many others who care for individuals with developmental challenges or other related needs. It is an evidence-based approach to promoting human development that helps children, young adults, and even adults—especially those on the autism spectrum."

For many families and schools there is a temptation to lean towards one school of thought over another, however more and more people are embracing the tapas approach to learning: taking little bites of the best of everything to truly customize learning and generalization of skills, trying a smorgasbord of social, emotional, and cognitive approaches to reach the most valuable and prioritized goals for a happy and full life! This movement of thought bears amazing fruit, as reported by many families and educators who see the benefits of all these approaches. Yet it is often a challenge to get approval for relationship-based models in schools and as therapies, whether that be by insurance, educational administrators and institutions, or other funding sources for families in need, What's the holdup? Research! ABA is the only clinically approved developmental/educational model with quantitative data backing it up that is recognized by the Board of Education and insurance companies. Due to the lack of both formal data and overall knowledge of relationship-based approaches, the case studies and family surveys backing these models are often not honored as "enough" for them be given such approval. Families who truly see progress are often left on their own to provide their kids with what truly works best for them and is most appropriate for their learning and sensory profiles. There are many advocates in the community fighting to get the word out and push for greater recognition and better research to bring these humanistic and progressive student supports into the spotlight. 

Jackie Bartell is one such educator and advocate. She has been working in the field of special education for over 30 years. She has worked with special-needs children in a variety of settings, including both private and public schools, and has consulted with families in their homes. Currently, Jackie is mentoring a variety of educational and developmental human service agencies and families, using the DIR model as a framework. As an expert training leader for ICDL, she also provides online instruction in the DIR model for both parents and professionals worldwide. She received her B.A. in psychology and her M.Ed. in developmental disabilities from the University of Rochester. She draws on her experiences, which include work with Stanley Greenspan and Serena Weider, with insights that help parents understand the relationship they have with their child. Her perspective is refreshing and inspiring, as is highlighted in the following question-and-answer exchange addressing her experiences, observations, and hopes for the future of our kids and our teaching institutions and beliefs. She demystifies the stigma of relationship-based learning and validates the balance of individual decision-making, common sense, and open-heartedness with those who use other approaches or a mixed approach. We exchanged ideas and inspiration in preparation for this article via enthusiastic zoom sessions and emails; her affect and love of teaching was obvious in every word shared. We wanted to ensure we considered those both new to and familiar with the ideology. his was our initial q and a. 

How does DIR Floortime allow greater freedom and respect for learning style and pace of learning in one-to-one interaction, and how does that work in a larger setting like a classroom or play group? 

DIR Floortime allows for greater freedom and respect when it comes to the learning style because it takes into the account the uniqueness of each person. This uniqueness emphasizes a person's learning style and accommodates individual needs. When each person’s unique sensory profile, individual differences, or learning style is understood, it creates a level of respect very naturally because there are no expectations that can’t be met. Rather, expectations are created that can be reached and built upon. This can naturally happen in a one-to-one situation, but it also is easily applied to a group setting. In a group, the individual differences are apparent to the caregiver/therapist/teacher, and each individual is addressed as a unique member of the group. In other words, there are no single instructional objectives or expectations but rather a single activity where the way in which individuals interact with the activity is driven by their learning style/individual differences, and the way in which each person reaches his or her own specific goal within the single activity has a wide range of possibilities. The planned activity is one of the ways in which each person engages and learns.

What is the role of structure/discipline in the model? 

Each of us as human beings needs structure and routine in our lives. The model suggests there have to be boundaries around safety—both physical and emotional. Often there is a misinterpretation or misunderstanding that DIR is a model that is about play in which children can do whatever they want, and this belief spills over into the world of behavior. So, yes, there is a place for structure, especially when safety is an issue and when there are must-dos in life, like brushing teeth or combing hair. it is important, however, to remember that power struggles are not useful and that the structure should be supportive not punitive. The strategies for Floortime can be applied in developing parameters around discipline. and part of this process is about setting limits and expectations in order to challenge a child to move up the developmental ladder and develop thinking processes for a happy family life. 

Why do you think so little formal research has been done with relationship-based learning, as it has been done with behavioral approaches? 

I think that there has been less research on relationship-based approaches because the work doesn’t naturally generate data the way the behavioral approaches do. There is some nice research, however, that has been done.

How do you believe we continue the learning curve developmentally, emotionally, and communicatively in students over 21? 

The learning curve after 21 continues to be important, because each of us as humans is forever evolving, and a person with developmental challenges is no different. Floortime principals are easily applied across the lifespan and naturally support communication and emotional development. The model allows for people to be functioning across capacities, to be given intervention and support depending on where they are functionally.

Is there room for both behavioral and relationship-based models in schools and home life? 

It seems so important to really reflect on and dig in to this—that these models can survive together. Behavior models alone can't preserve the "mensch" that each of us was born to be, and the field is evolving from behavioral to relationship approaches.


One might ponder if this isn't true of all aspects of growing up and getting to know life; going from the behavioral habit to the organic relationship and use of knowledge. Knowledge is nothing without the wisdom of how to use it. This is why. with enough encouragement and sharing of these different models, we can help empower parents, educators, and administrators with the skills to communicate and embed these paradigms in classrooms, therapeutic settings, one-to-one relationships, family dynamics, and outside services and programs to create a framework for lifelong learning. We must make room in this era for not only acknowledging the principles of neurodiversity but for understanding how that should affect our teaching styles and classroom structures. Floortime/DIR moves along the lifetime and across settings and allows peers and educators room to become play partners, not just authority figures. The roles of emotionality, comfort, and safety—following openness—bring in our humanity as a key to how we react, how our kids react, and how we shape and support each other with awareness and sensitivity as well as with rules and boundaries. This is a journey on so, so many levels, one that is fluid and dependent on constant mindfulness of the environment, the mindset, and the circumstances. This is why, in how we teach and learn, there is no failure, for everything is a lesson. In time, as the research possibilities are opened up, funded, and prioritized, we will see the statistical proof of these previously unquantifiable measures of happiness, regulation, and love/interest in learning across settings and models. The field of mental health tends to support skill sets, and we are looking to expand perspectives on interaction and engagement to include dignity and self advocacy by the autistic community, to include their reflections on all of these chosen-for-them models, and to help them lead us in how they think and want to be taught. The balance of these approaches allows change that moves beyond the immediate moment, moving beyond behavioral “shaping” into active problem-solving, thinking, and mental negotiation that goes deep, allows for greater generalization, and that makes learning life friendly.

To better understand what the drive is for many families towards DIR/Floortime, I also interviewed Michele Sanchez Stierheim, a parent of children with special needs and a public advocate and founder of Spectrum Warriors, a nonprofit organization supporting first responders and their engagement with the autism community in New York City. She shares her relationship with DIR/Floortime as such.

How has DIR Floortime changed your life? 

It has been a part of me for as long as I can remember. I just never had a name to give to what it was I was doing. For me, DIR Floortime is more than just a method, it is the very fabric of who I am. it gave me the ability to connect with so many children (both my own and others) and adults. I have found so many ways to incorporate the methods into my daily life that it just makes sense to start at the most basic point—meeting others where they are and allowing them to take the lead. What a wonderful, sensitive, more understanding and productive place the world would be if everyone could take a step back from themselves and take this approach. 

How has it shaped learning for your kids? 

Learning becomes an easy, fun thing to do when I incorporate it with what my children's needs are. I believe we all as parents try our best to do this, especially when our children are quite young. Somehow, as our children get older, we lose the joy and wonder of learning, and it becomes a tedious chore. For me, when I know that my children can do something, I find ways to draw them out just a little bit more while allowing myself to become their student and the joy is returned back to them. A joyful child is a child who is ready to receive the information I have to share.

How does Floortime grow with kids/adults?

Parents grow with their children, even if they do not realize it. I can honestly say that I have personally grown from Floortime: learning patience and trust, being able to view things differently, to meet others where they are and to help them expand. These are the tools we can all use in life. I have incorporated Floortime with other adults, both autistic and neurotypical, and there definitely have been more positive outcomes—being able to establish a meaningful connection and to just be able to have someone know "I am here with you." There are so many other ways that Floortime grows with children and adults and helps all of us reach our potential, but I would be going on forever.

What were the key things that drew you to DIR?

Funnily enough, I was doing DIR before I had a name for it. It was organic for me and my style of both parenting and interacting with other children. Being able to connect with my children is so important to me, but it becomes something so much more. The most significant thing I feel I can do is just learn how to "follow the leader," which gives my children an advantage and gives me leverage. The give-and-take, drawing them out, allowing myself to be pulled into their "world"—these are the key things I've always loved. So, over five years ago, when I met Dr. Janet Lobel and we started doing private sessions for my children, when she gave a name to what I was doing, it felt that I had a homecoming of sorts. 


To round out the pedagogical playing field, Alyssa Esposito, a speech language pathologist and Matthew Pappadia, an occupational therapist, shared their perspectives on the impact of a multistrategic approach to learning. They each carry a unique perspective from varying work settings and therapeutic angles and the vast number of families and students they have encountered throughout their careers. 

How important to sucessful student growth and development is family engagement and partnership when using these models at home at school and in the community? 

Alyssa: I believe family engagement and partnership are extremely valuable to the student’s overall growth and development. Consistency and carryover across various contexts assure the student’s ability to progress. This helps the student to better understand how to integrate skills into daily life. As a speech/language pathologist I value family engagement tremendously as I am continuously thinking of how to spend my sessions teaching/targeting their communication skills so that they can use them across contexts to communicate and express themselves to the best of their abilities, not just in the therapy room but back in the classroom, at home with their siblings, at mealtime with family, and so on.

Matthew: Just as individuals who are not on the (autism) spectrum are told by life coaches around the world, consistency is key, the same idea translates into a child's routine. For example, as an occupational therapist, I cannot create a sensory diet unless I have a profile of how a child interacts and plays outside of the school environment. Due to the vast of elements that can change a child's behavior, it is imperative that the clinical and academic teams keep open communication with parents. 

What role do you believe relationship-building with students has on behavior, academic learning, and generalization of skills? 

Alyssa: I believe relationship-building is pivotal when working with students. When students feel trusted and respected, they are more willing to work with and learn from you. When students are not only willing, but motivated to engage with you during an academic or therapeutic learning activity, the chance of their absorbing the material and skills and to then generalize them is much greater.

Our students, our children, are constantly leading us to greater understanding of them and often of ourselves. While this post is meant to inspire thoughts on measuring student engagement, learning, and happiness through strategic variety, it is evident to me through these interviews that it is also the educators who gain so much to explore and who have a variety of spices with which to cook in the developmental, behavioral, social, and academic kitchens. I will close this circle of communication with the signature line on Jackie's email in the hopes that it offers a final inspirational smile and reminder to teach with and for the sake of curiosity as well as for results. 

"Don't train a child to learn by force or harshness, but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of genius of each." (Plato)