The Community School is only one of a few programs in the country that has explicitly embraced Stanley Greenspan’s DIR/Floortime model as the foundation of its approach. We believe that healthy social-emotional development is the key to success in the social realm, the academic realm, and in the so-called “real world.” It’s important to realize that the DIR/Floortime model is a broad framework for understanding how development occurs, how emotions relate to learning, and how one can best interact to foster growth in social-emotional and cognitive areas. In addition to using the principles of the DIR model to guide us, we also use a variety of broad teaching approaches and specific strategies to address the individual needs of each adolescent and young adult participant.
It’s important to realize that the DIR/Floortime model is a broad framework for understanding how development occurs, how emotions relate to learning, and how one can best interact to foster growth…
As a result of our work in creating and using curricula for adolescents and young adults built on this foundation, we have developed five core tenets for effective learning:
Core Tenet 1: Effective Learning Occurs When Learners are Calm and Regulated
Every individual experiences the world in slightly different ways. Some of us love noise and movement; some of us don’t. Some of us like to be touched; some of us don’t. Some of us take in auditory information successfully; some of us need visual support for better understanding. We find “difference” in every domain ̶ sensory reactivity and processing, learning approach, communication style, preference for movement, individual affinities, emotional flexibility and durability, climate preferences, sleep patterns, energy-level patterns, and much more. The more we understand how an individual experiences and prefers to experience the world, the better able we are to support their search for meaning, and to relate to and communicate with that individual. When we create learning experiences that are, at the outset, tailored to an individual’s preferred style, we can be assured that they are calmer, better regulated, and ready to learn.
Our understanding of the specific functions of the brain is still in its relative infancy. We do now have a somewhat more precise understanding of how our brains and bodies work (or don’t work) together. By looking at the ways our brains receive and process specific information, we are better equipped to understand an individual’s learning profile. An individual’s reactivity to sensory information, their ability to integrate sensory information from multiple sources, their capacity for finding and maintaining appropriate levels of arousal, and their ability to organize and make sense of sounds, visual stimulation, tactile, and movement information all play a huge role in how easily and completely an individual learns to relate to the world and function independently within it. By creating a profile of each individual’s sensory and regulatory needs and preferences, we can create environments that are more conducive to learning. Put more simply, if the body is at ease, the mind is available to learn.
A part of this individual profile includes the key neurodevelopmental functions, including memory, attention, language, and visual-spatial thinking. Our emerging ability to understand the component parts of these brain functions and to provide ways to support their efficient functioning (and/or to work around their constrictions) allows us to provide more than simply nurturing, acceptance, and unconditional love as we try to support meaningful learning. It allows educators to tailor learning such that an individual’s capacities are maximized, rather than simply “pushed through” or tolerated.
There is a challenge inherent in becoming attuned to individual differences, in that it can become a little more difficult to conceptualize and carry out “group” interventions. As a program’s attunement to individual difference intensifies, the concept of group instruction becomes more difficult, and there is a tendency to individualize every aspect of treatment all the time. A focus on individuality should not, in the long run, lead to paralysis on the part of staff in this way. Working with individuals in groups is a very effective way of supporting growth and should be tried frequently. What should change in the minds of caregivers is the reasoning behind the difficulty for a particular individual. Rather than attribute difficulty to “behavioral problems” ̶ a vague construct at best ̶ a knowledge of individual differences allows us to generate a much more specific and useful analysis; that is, not impugning the motives or desire of the individual, but instead acknowledging that an activity may be challenging because of its mismatch with an individual’s profile.
Core Tenet 2: Learning Should be Individual-Centered
What we have discovered again and again at The Community School is that learning from something that has meaning and brings pleasure to an individual is almost always the most effective and powerful way to support growth. Occasionally we encourage staff, parents, or other audiences to spend a few days monitoring their own moods and behavior. How do you feel when you’re thinking about and doing things that you love as compared to things with which you are uncomfortable or unfamiliar? In most cases, our anxiety is higher when we’re on unfamiliar ground, and our ability to communicate, relate, and think is, in relative terms, constricted when we perceive the subject to be less relevant or less interesting. We have worked with individuals who struggle to communicate at all in a conventional classroom setting, and whose “behavioral problems” appear significant in that setting, but when these same individuals are offered the chance to discuss their favorite Pokémon, or get a chance to play with a Pokémon plush doll, they come to life, functioning better in every way from increased communication to a warmer way of relating to others.
For any human being, a full life includes spending time with our affinities. Rather than viewing this as “leisure time,” “down time,” or as some kind of distraction or reward, we believe it is essential to incorporate these affinities fully into a program of learning and growth. John Holt, the “unschooling” advocate and pioneering educational thinker, wrote a book entitled “Learning All The Time,” and this curriculum takes that phrase to heart. Meaningful learning occurs regardless of the specified “topic”; because again content is not the primary motivator, process is.
Perhaps we may sound a bit too idealistic; however, while we would argue that your basic college student will learn more effectively in classes of their own choosing, and will get more out of classes that relate to their chosen field, it is also true that your basic college student has to get through core requirements and do many things not of their own choosing. A great strength for anyone to have is the ability to choose to do something consciously that is not of one’s own interest or preference, at least in part because of the awareness that the path to goals we do care about may be marked by challenging and uninteresting way stations. For example, “I really want to be a doctor so I will take Organic Chemistry even though it’s hard and I don’t like the subject matter.” “I love feeling fit and looking healthy, so I will run every day even though it takes discipline to do it.” “I love to play golf so I will endure the frustration of mishits because I so enjoy the total experience of playing.”
For many individuals with challenges, it is difficult to visualize a goal somewhere far off in the distance and then muster the self-discipline and manage the emotional ups and downs of doing the hard work to reach that faraway goal. Imagine someone who has struggled with weight control for much of their adult life. This person is an intelligent, disciplined individual who has had moderate success in many areas of their life. And yet this person struggles to manage the emotional experience of food. Sometimes they eat when they are stressed, when they are enticed by food, and often they eat more than they should. Sometimes they even have the experience of simultaneously enjoying something they’re eating while hearing a voice in their head that says, “Don’t eat that, it conflicts with my larger goal of losing weight.” For this individual, simple content learning based on nutrition and knowledge of healthy habits is not enough. But person-led learning, joining them for meals or creating teaching moments around food, may be the starting point for better mood regulation and ultimately higher level thinking that involves goal setting.
All of us have our growing edge, and we all need practice in communicating, thinking, and problem-solving in a wide range of emotional situations (i.e., situations marked by sadness, anger, uncertainty, excitement, etc.). For all of us, but especially for those whose global challenges are relatively profound, individual-led learning is an excellent way to accomplish this. Starting in a place where a learner feels most confident, calm, or passionate, can build trust and excitement for the process of learning. This can then be expanded slowly as new areas are explored, including emotional depth and range, and expansion of higher level thinking such as visualizing, planning, and sequencing.
Core Tenet 3: Meaningful Learning Arises from Emotional Experience
If we think about the knowledge that has been most important to each of us and shaped our lives or guided our thinking, chances are that knowledge was gained through emotional experience. As infants, we learn cause and effect through the emotional experience of crying, which in turn prompts a caregiver to offer warmth and caring. As adults, we may learn more deeply about the collapse of the housing market if our own home has been foreclosed upon. In both cases, the learning lasts longer and is richer in meaning because the content was tied to a personal, emotional state of being.
Our emotions engage us in our lives, alerting us to danger and increasing our continued efforts towards joy. Emotions in the process of learning increase our attention and alertness, provide greater motivation and drive, and offer opportunities for more robust exploration. Without an emotional connection to content, learning can become rote and tedious ̶ “I have to…” instead of a “I want to…”.
As teachers designing and implementing curricula, we must make every effort to infuse emotion into the experience of learning. This can be accomplished by creating an environment of high affect, where emotions are shown more demonstratively so that they become both a vehicle for learning as well as a subject of interest in and of themselves. The emotions of a scary short story could be acted out and exaggerated such that not only is the plot more accurately conveyed and understood, but the discussion could be about how the story elicits emotions in the reader as the teacher outwardly conveys fear and surprise. Another way to create emotional experiences for learners is to present content in more emotionally meaningful ways. Fractions can be presented by cutting a cake and budgeting can be taught using an example of a desired HDTV purchase. Finally, emotional experiences can be created (or capitalized on in real time when they occur) in the dynamic of learning. Arguments, negotiations, collaboration, and competition all create emotion that can strengthen learning. No matter how it is accomplished, learning that engages the emotionality of the learner leads to greater understanding and retention. It is the basis for higher level thinking, social development, and self-sufficient learning.
Core Tenet 4: Effective Learning Happens in the Context of a Warm, Empathetic Relationship
This tenet represents a key construct in Stanley Greenspan’s DIR/Floortime model, but it also deserves special mention beyond the specific application of that framework. When we think about our own education, many of us will focus on the power of a specific teacher we had. We believe that so much learning occurs in the context of trusting, warm, supportive relationships. For too long we have focused on the idea of learning as a mechanistic process, overlooking the idea that much of what prepares us to be able to absorb information and to make meaning out of ideas is the creation and maintenance of a mentoring relationship. These curricula are built on the idea that all individuals want to learn, and that their learning will be optimal within the context of a trusting, supportive, warm relationship. When all else fails, returning to this basic starting point will always yield results, because at its core, learning is a dynamic flow of information and emotion. The easier that flow occurs, the greater the investment in learning and the more significant the meaning for learners. If the flow is between two people, then the relationship between the two becomes the conduit and basis for growth.
In our work with individuals who have challenges in relating and communicating, we have often encountered “unsolvable” learning problems ̶ difficulties in emotional regulation, behavioral control, information processing, comprehension, and so on. These challenges can be frequent and persistent, and very overwhelming for the individual and those trying to support that individual. The trusting, supportive, warm relationship is always a starting point, and often, establishing that relationship is a major learning achievement in its own right and should not be overlooked. The capacities to engage and relate, to know another person, and to communicate reciprocally are all fundamental to any higher level thinking and problem-solving.
Core Tenet 5: The Goal of Learning is to Become an Active, Engaged Learner
We believe that the goal of learning is not simply the acquisition of knowledge. In fact, a goal that limited prevents flexibility and creates dependence of learners on content providers. What TCS aims to create and support is a group of active, engaged learners who can adaptively apply knowledge already gained and become independent seekers of knowledge. What this entails practically (beyond the first four tenets), is increasing a learner’s self-awareness and bolstering self-determination.
Our ability to understand the functional profile of an individual has improved dramatically in recent years, and a wonderful benefit of having more information about how an individual’s brain and body works is that we have much more information with which to support an individual’s understanding of themself. As humans, we do so many things based on fear of the unknown or inexperience and a lack of information or ability to predict. The more we understand about ourselves, the better able we are to live adaptively; that is, to avoid the things that overload or over-challenge us, to prepare ourselves for the things that are challenging but manageable, and to focus our learning and growth efforts on the areas that will provide us the most benefit.
Both in terms of specific instruction and as a general attitude, these curricula build on the idea of demystification as an important part of any individual’s transition to adulthood. How do I work? How do I take in and make meaning out of information? Why is this easy for me? Why is this hard for me? As we support the demystification process for each individual we are providing the foundation for satisfying vocational and avocational exploration for healthy relationships and for a healthy self-concept.
Self-determination is a bit of a buzzword in most transition work, and in some ways we are hesitant to include it. It often seems to be invoked as a way of saying, “we respect the individual’s right to choose”, and it is certainly hard to argue with this kind of assertion. The reality is, however, that many individuals (both those with identified challenges and those in the general population) make imperfect choices, both large and small, about their lives. For those individuals who we are supporting and guiding, we must stay aware that we are determining many aspects of their lives in the way we structure the program and the philosophy we bring to bear in our education and support. A program that is supporting adults in transition has been asked to determine aspects of the lives of the participants to a certain extent, at least as an interim situation. Self-determination, then, is as much a learning goal as it is a pillar of the philosophy. Just because an individual says they want to do something, or doesn’t want to do something, doesn’t mean that this is a wise course of action, nor one that we intend to support. But what does seem essential is that we respect and support that person’s fundamental right to direct the course of their life and are aiming always for greater self-reliance. Throughout our work, both implicitly and explicitly, the idea of including the individual in decision-making should be evident for several reasons. First, individual buy-in leads to better motivation, which leads to higher engagement, and engagement is one of the cornerstones of optimal thinking and problem-solving. Second, it’s simply respectful. Although it is true that these curricula are intended to support individuals who actually need support and don’t always make good decisions independently, it is also true that, in the end, the goal is to support someone in choosing the direction of their own life to whatever degree possible. It always makes sense to try to honor this at every stage of the learning process.