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Stanley I. Greenspan, 68; expert on infant development

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 29, 2010; B07

Stanley I. Greenspan, 68, a child psychiatrist who wrote more than a dozen parenting books and developed the popular "floor time" method for reaching children with autism and other developmental disorders, died April 27 at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda of complications from a stroke.

In a career spanning 40 years, Dr. Greenspan drew praise for his early research on infant development and later found a wide following as an author and public speaker. At the time of his death, he was a professor at George Washington University's medical school.

In the 1970s, while working at the National Institute of Mental Health, he was at the forefront of a movement that saw human interactions and loving relationships as the foundation for a child's emotional and intellectual growth.

In books such as "First Feelings" (1985), "The Essential Partnership" (1989) and "Playground Politics" (1993), Dr. Greenspan gave parents a map of the developmental stages that most children experience from birth to age 7. He said parents could best help their children by engaging in intensive, child-led play for half an hour every day.

Such "floor time," wrote Dr. Greenspan, teaches children how to confidently take initiative and "creates the whole basis for security, trust, and self-worth that a child will need from here on."

In 1995, Dr. Greenspan published "The Challenging Child," about raising difficult kids, including those who are aggressive, defiant or highly sensitive.

"Engaging Autism," his 2006 book co-written with Serena Wieder, received positive reviews at a time when autism diagnoses were skyrocketing. The book explained how the floor time method could be tailored to address the social and emotional deficits of children with autism.

Trademarked as "D.I.R./Floortime," Dr. Greenspan's method focused on developing children's underlying ability to form relationships and react to new situations. It received widespread attention as an alternative to more traditional methods that use rewards and punishments to shape specific behaviors.

"What he did was give us a way to begin to reach these children early and give them a chance to develop to their potential," said T. Berry Brazelton, a noted pediatrician, author and Harvard professor who wrote "The Irreducible Needs of Children" with Dr. Greenspan in 2000.

Dr. Greenspan thought that "you don't teach a child what to do, you let the child do and you reinforce them for what they've just done," Brazelton said. "That way they begin to feel more and more competent and begin to flourish right in front of your eyes."

Early intervention

Stanley Ira Greenspan was born in New York on June 1, 1941. He struggled with reading and writing as a boy and developed methods for meeting academic requirements -- scanning books for key ideas, for example, rather than reading each word closely. In adulthood, he frequently worked with co-authors who could smooth his prose.

The experience of overcoming his learning difficulties taught him two things, he told The Washington Post in 1996: "One, that kids have different learning styles that are real and need to be paid attention to. And two, that people have an enormous capacity to use their strengths to compensate for any areas of vulnerability."

His first marriage, to Helen Hans, ended in divorce. In 1975, he married Nancy Thorndike, with whom he wrote several books. She survives, along with three children from his second marriage, Elizabeth Greenspan of Boston, Sarah Greenspan of Silver Spring and Jacob Greenspan of the District.

Dr. Greenspan graduated from Harvard in 1962 and Yale University medical school in 1966. He began his career at the National Institute of Mental Health about 1970, a time when researchers were just beginning to understand the complex emotional lives of infants.

He headed a long-term study of a group of pregnant mothers who had older children with emotional difficulties and whose families suffered from multiple risk factors, including mental illness, substance abuse and domestic violence.

The idea was to see whether early intervention would help babies form emotional connections with their parents and thus avoid the trouble their older siblings had experienced. Indeed it could, Dr. Greenspan and his colleagues found. According to a 1983 report in The Post, six years after the study was begun, none of the children appeared to have developed serious emotional or psychological problems.

The study led to Dr. Greenspan's understanding of child development, a blend of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud's emphasis on the emotional world and psychologist Jean Piaget's theory that children go through concrete stages of cognitive development. The emotional milestones Dr. Greenspan identified for healthy children became part of the American Academy of Pediatrics' guidelines for doctors assessing the well-being of infants.

He was founding president of Zero to Three, a national organization promoting healthy infant development, and started the Interdisciplinary Council on Developmental and Learning Disorders, a nonprofit group that offers training in his floor time model.

He maintained a private practice and was the recipient of numerous professional awards.

His advice received widespread attention in the national media, and his work was featured in the 1986 PBS special "Life's First Feelings," about the emotional development of babies.

"Stan had a gift for making things clear and for making them even dramatic, so that they would get and hold people's attention," said Fred Goodwin, former director of the National Institute of Mental Health. "He was a wonderful translator."

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