• Floortime and ABA are both effective methods for behavior modification in individuals with unique learning needs.
  • The two approaches can be used in tandem or separately, depending on the individual’s needs.
  • Combining the best of both Floortime and ABA may provide the most effective results.

When it comes to behavior modification programs for individuals with unique learning needs, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is often the go-to method. However, there is another approach that may be just as effective – Floortime.

Like ABA, Floortime is designed to increase positive behaviors and decrease harmful or distracting ones.

A child sitting and playing with colorful interlocking plastic blocks, experiencing the difference Floortime approach makes in engagement.

Evidence supports ABA being effective at modifying behavior in autistic individuals. However, there is no shortage of critics. You’ll find (no pun intended) a spectrum of disdain toward ABA. Everything from “all ABA is child abuse!” to “ABA didn’t work for us” and everything in between.

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My family has experienced success with ABA and you’ll never convince me he was abused. And as Forrest Gump said, “That’s all I have to say about that.”

Since both ABA and Floortime appear on IEPs, I want to explain what they both are so parents can make an informed choice.

Personal opinions aside, many teachers and clinicians are providing ABA, and many parents are seeking ABA or Floortime.

It’s important to educate yourself as a parent, read all sides, and then decide what is right for your family.

What is ABA?

ABA, or Applied Behavior Analysis, is a therapy that aims to increase positive behaviors and decrease negative ones that may hinder learning or cause harm. It is commonly used to help children acquire social and language skills, as well as improve academically.

Many different treatment approaches now incorporate elements of ABA. However, some critics argue that ABA can lead to robotic responses and fail to generalize skills outside of the therapy setting.

As a result, Floortime has been introduced as an alternative approach to improve behavioral response.

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) originated from studies conducted in the 1950s, which involved training nurses and other staff at a psychiatric hospital on how to use a token economy. Subsequently, researchers and instructors at the University of Washington adapted the principles used in these studies for the instruction of children with developmental disabilities and other situations.

The Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis was launched to study and continue to implement this therapy. Although ABA is often associated with interventions for individuals with autism, it is also used in many other settings, such as classrooms with typically developing students, job performance, desensitization for phobias, applied animal behavior, and behavioral medicine.

ABA is a flexible and widely applicable approach to behavior change.

A young child engaging in Floortime by playing with blocks on the floor in a room.

What is Floortime?

Floortime is a developmental intervention therapy that was developed by Dr. Stanley Greenspan, a child psychiatrist, and detailed in his 1979 book, Intelligence and Adaptation. The therapy is designed to meet children with unique learning needs at their current developmental level and help them progress through a hierarchy of milestones.

Dr. Greenspan developed Floortime as a response to the limitations of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and other behaviorist approaches. He wanted to incorporate the best aspects of ABA while also focusing on the child’s emotional and social development.

Floortime targets four areas, including home, educational programs, therapies, and playdates, for a holistic approach to skill development. It starts with an initial assessment and moves onto intervention and activities.

The therapy challenges each learner to move up a hierarchy of milestones, which are divided into six stages.

These stages include:

  • Regulation and interest in the world
  • Engagement and Relating
  • Two-way Intentional Communication
  • Continuous Social Problem-Solving
  • Symbolic Play
  • Bridging Ideas

The idea behind Floortime is to help children with unique learning needs move up the developmental ladder by progressing through these stages. While typically-developing students master all of these stages by age four, students with unique learning needs may have missed some of these stages or struggle with mastering them at their present level.

Floortime helps them progress through these stages and develop the necessary skills for emotional, social, and intellectual growth.

Floortime vs. ABA: What’s the Difference?

Floortime and Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) are two approaches that are commonly used to help children with developmental disorders. While both approaches aim to improve the lives of children, there are some key differences between the two.

One of the primary differences between Floortime and ABA is their focus. Floortime is more focused on emotional connection and development, while ABA is primarily focused on behavior.

Floortime looks at social and relational deficits as the core issues that block students from producing desired behaviors, while ABA takes a more formulaic approach to behavior modification.

Another key difference between Floortime and ABA is their approach. Floortime is child-led, while ABA is therapist-led. In Floortime, the therapist follows the child’s lead and uses whatever objects or toys interest the child.

This approach provides more opportunities for connection and is appropriate for inspiring a more social relationship. On the other hand, ABA is more structured and follows a set of predetermined steps to modify behavior.

While both approaches can be covered by insurance, the availability of coverage varies. Floortime is frequently offered via Early Intervention services, while ABA is more commonly covered by insurance.

Floortime and ABA are both effective approaches for helping children with developmental disorders, but they differ in their focus and approach. Floortime is more customized and child-led, while ABA is more formulaic and therapist-led.

Floortime vs. ABA: When to Use

Floortime and ABA are both effective strategies to improve social and behavioral skills. However, most consider Floortime the best option for individuals who need to improve their emotional awareness and regulation. It is a more holistic approach that focuses on the child’s interests and emotions, and encourages interaction and communication.

In contrast, ABA is better suited for a formal setting and offers more concrete measures of success. It might be easier to track progress with ABA, making it a good choice for children who need more structured therapy.

When deciding between the two, it is important to consider the environment in which the therapy is being used. Floortime is better for a more natural, loosely-structured therapy, while ABA is better for a formal setting.

It’s worth noting that Floortime can be used in combination with ABA, and may be more useful when applied across settings. For example, parents who wish to incorporate their own interventions at home may find Floortime to be a good option. Ultimately, the choice between Floortime and ABA should be based on the individual needs and preferences of the child and their family.

Combining Floortime and ABA

Combining Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and Floortime techniques can be highly beneficial for parents and other stakeholders. The use of Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT) is one specific technique that combines the best of both worlds.

Developed by Drs. Robert and Lynn Koegel at the University of California, PRT recognizes that improving a child’s ability in one area can positively impact functioning in other areas.

PRT employs the same principles of ABA but takes a more natural approach similar to Floortime. The combined technique requires the adult to take the child’s lead, similar to Floortime. However, like with ABA, it rewards desirable behaviors while encouraging but not demanding the behavior.

One of the benefits of PRT is that it can be used to target multiple areas of development, including communication, social skills, and language.

Using PRT can be highly effective in improving a child’s overall functioning. It can also help parents and other stakeholders feel more confident in their ability to support and engage with their child. Learn more about PRT and how it can be used in combination with ABA and Floortime techniques to support a child’s development.


Floortime is a therapy technique that can be delivered by anyone, including parents and caregivers, without requiring extensive training or certification. Its techniques are easily accessible through books, workshops, and websites. In contrast, ABA therapy requires a highly trained and certified therapist to provide the service.

Although ABA is a highly qualified field of therapy, parents and caregivers can still apply its techniques at home. However, it is important to note that ABA therapy should be administered by a trained professional to ensure the best possible outcomes for the child.

And, always listen to your gut as a parent. If any teacher or clinician is telling you to do something that you’re uncomfortable with, don’t do it. Mom instincts are rarely wrong.

Getting Either on an IEP

You may hear from your team that “we can’t name specific programs on an IEP.”

Sigh. Yes, they can.

But, is this worth the fight? That’s up to you. If you want to fight it, ask them to show you where it says they cannot name specific programs. I in IEP means individualized.

If the program is otherwise specifically described, maybe you don’t want to keep pushing. That’s up to you.

Which One is More Effective?

While both ABA and Floortime have shown to be effective ways to improve a child’s behavioral responses, there is limited research on the efficacy of Floortime. ABA is rated as “established,” while Floortime has only received a rating of “emerging.”

ABA offers a more intensive focus on observable behaviors, which is why there have been more studies on its effectiveness. However, this does not mean that Floortime is not a valid therapeutic technique.

Both ABA and Floortime can offer significant gains in children and may be used in tandem as part of an intensive therapy program for a child with unique learning needs.

It is important to note that while ABA has more research supporting its effectiveness, it may not be the best fit for every child and their unique needs.

Floortime may be a better fit for some children, and it is important to consider all options when selecting a behavioral treatment approach.

Ultimately, the effectiveness of each approach will depend on the individual child and their specific needs.

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