Parents, teachers and friends

This week i delivered the first of our Intensive Interaction workshops for parents.  The school has a budget for parents events and it was decided this year that Intensive Interaction would be the priority.  This is an important element of my strategies for developing the community of practice at Woolley Wood and I am happy to say the the morning went very well.
We received the names of 23 parents who said they would like to attend on Tuesday morning and by 10am there were 30 people in the room.  This represented almost a third of the families for the whole school and is the first time that there have been more people than expected from the responses to the invitation.  From initial chats with parents it was clear (as we would expect) that the issue of communication is very important to them and any hope of a more meaningful relationship is worth checking out.
We began the day talking about the purpose and principles of Intensive Interaction and why it it is important in the context of the school and the community of children, teachers and parents. I then introduced the basic techniques and showed several films of the work that has taken place over the past 18 months at Woolley Wood.  On the days that I am at the school I make sure that everything is filmed so we now have a great archive of footage capturing some wonderful interactions and moments.  This is very useful for training so that people can see the work, reflect on the practice and enjoy the emotional connection for themselves.
After having sat and listened to me for long enough everyone split up into groups and started to discuss ‘ways in’ and how to communicate with children who are ‘difficult to reach’.  The parents have little opportunity to engage with other parents because the bus drop-off replaces the typical mainstream school pick-up.  Group discussion was really well received for both the chance to engage and for the content and by the end of the morning everyone seemed happy and gave good feedback about the training.  As a result of the morning I have now made contact with parents of some of the children we are working with and I have been told stories of how these children are at home which puts what I have seen at the school into an overall context.
The morning was also very interesting for me because I had the opportunity to ask a question that had interested me for a while.  In last week’s post I talked about emotional and functional communication and the importance of these types of communication.  I think that we will find that the day-to-day social experience of a typically developed person is a balance of functional and emotional communication and I believe that it is therefore important that a child learns how to be literate at both. Thinking about this further I came to the conclusion that, on the whole, a typical child at a mainstream school will learn more functional communication skills through interactions with the teachers and more emotional communication skills through interactions with their friends.  As a parent I know that I send my child to school to learn both functional and emotional literacy and my question to the parents at Woolley Wood was whether the parents of a child with a learning disability send their child to school expecting them to have the same opportunities.  The unanimous answer was yes, each of them sends their child to school to learn both these forms of communication.
It is clear to me then that, in order to give learning disabled children the same opportunities for learning social skills as children in a mainstream school, the teachers and teaching assistants must adopt an approach like intensive interaction.  Why? Because many of these children do not have friends and have much less opportunity to learn emotional communication skills from their peers.  Following the principles of intensive interaction can help the staff to fulfil the role of both friend and teacher, fulfilling the expectations of the child’s family and enabling the child to realise their full potential.

Small talk

Every Monday I co-ordinate socially engaged arts and music practice at the Woodlands Mental Health Unit for Older People in Rotherham.  Many of the people I work with at the unit have difficulty communicating and there are often interesting parallels between my Intensive Interaction work at Woolley Wood School and my work at the hospital with patients living with dementia and functional mental illness.
Last Monday a nurse talked to me after our music session and explained that the sessions have been of great benefit to her.  When working with people with depression she had found that while her usual attempts to initiate social engagement with the patients were often rejected as attempts to make small talk, when the same patients returned from the music session they would initiate conversation themselves (usually by talking about something the session had reminded them of) and the nurse would find herself in a deep conversation.  From these social encounters she had developed better relationships with the patients and had learnt much about their history which had helped her to provide better care and be more satisfied in her work.
In our Intensive Interaction practice we will find a similar pattern.  Like the nurse found with her patients, our attempts at initiating interactions may well be rejected if our cue is out of context and does not relate to what our partner is interested in at that moment.  If we wait for the right time and then respond appropriately to the cues that we observe in our partner’s behaviour then we are much more likely to establish a meaningful and more satisfying two-way interaction.
The above example can also help us think about the difference between functional and emotional communication and the importance of both in our intensive interaction practice.  Examples of functional communication are greetings and instructions e.g. ‘Take off your coat’, ‘Do you want a biscuit?’, ‘Blow the bubbles!’ etc.   While necessary, this mode of communication is based the exchange of facts and observations about the world rather than a mutually shared experience of it.
In contrast, emotional communications are usually much more satisfying and pleasurable as we share our feelings with other people and, as Phoebe Caldwell puts it, we address the fundamental human need to connect and belong.  We might share a hug or a smile, look deeply into each others eyes, hold hands or laugh together.  My understanding at the moment is that this emotional sharing of the world happens (and is most sensitively encouraged) through play – through interacting with other people for the sake of it rather than for a functional reason.  This could be a playful conversation, a sharing of memories, a dance, a hug, playing a tickling game, singing a song, playing chase, tapping together, rocking together etc.
In the story from the mental health unit we can see that functional/emotional communication are to some extent linked to whether the communication was initiated by the patient or staff.  The patient saw the staff attempts at communication as functional and refused to engage emotionally.  In contrast however, we see that the successful emotional engagements happened when the patient initiated the interaction.
When I think of Intensive Interaction in this way I can see many parallels.  I think sometimes that my partner has rejected my attempts at initiation because they were too functional whereas following my partners lead clearly results in more emotional communication.  I also think that that many interactions may begin as something functional such as give and take, particularly if our partner is at an early stage of communication development.  If repeated, this initial exchange can set a theme and we can then say that our skill is to develop this theme playfully and create opportunities for emotional communication.  It is this emotional contact that we hope our partner will one day reach out for themselves and if we can help them to discover, re-discover and then know the joy of being with another person then one day they will.
Phoebe Caldwell; Jane Horwood. (2008). Using Intensive Interaction and Sensory Integration: A Handbook for Those who Support People with Severe Autistic Spectrum Disorder. In Using Intensive Interaction and Sensory Integration (pp9-10). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Intensive Interaction Recording Sheets

For the most recent posts about how we record intensive interaction at Woolley wood school click on ‘recording’ in the menu above.
The intensive interaction recording sheets that I use have gone through many revisions over the years and change depending on the context too.  At Woolley Wood implementing a consistent system of recording is hot on the agenda this year and, because the teachers have many recording systems in place for other observations,  I spent some time over the summer trying to find an efficient method of recording that charts progress.
The idea was to create a form that could show progress in terms of new interaction behaviours becoming the norm.  The form needed to be efficient so that it could be filled in quickly (while still being a useful record) and also leave room for som
eone to add detail if they have more time.  I also use the form to focus staff attention on the things that they should be looking for hence the mention of staff enjoyment (with smileys) and eye contact types for example.   Whether I have succeeded or not will be evident as we put it into practice :0) The form will no doubt be revised as we progress through the year at Woolley Wood School (this is already the third revision!) and I will post updates as things evolve.  Thanks to Graham Firth, Dave Hewett and Mark Barber for their contributions to interaction records that I have absorbed over the years.
The form is available to download below.
Matthew Laurie Interaction Record Oct 14

  • Make a note of meaningful two-way interactions and indicate how typical the interaction is by using the relevant box.
  • For each row fill in one box only i.e.  typical, rarely seen, or never seen before.
  • Fill in the box using words to briefly describe the context of the interaction and cues.
  • Indicate whether you enjoyed the interaction (or not) using the smileys as shown below.

If you would like more information please get in touch.

How would you feel?

I was told a story today about an interaction that took place in the playground at Woolley Wood.  The teaching assistant said that she approached the child as she was playing in the sandpit and, after she sat down next to the child, the child stood up and walked away.  The teaching assistant’s reflection was that the child does not like being approached when playing in the sand pit so she decided not to try again.
This led to some interesting discussions.  First I explained that the reflection that the child does not like being approached was actually an assumption in contrast to a deduction made through reflective practice.  When we begin to analyse how we approached the child by asking questions like “what did I actually do?”, “what could I have done differently” we begin to see that there are in fact many ways that we could have approached and many ways that we could have tried to join in or cue the play.
As an example I asked the teacher to imagine the following:  You are sat on the back seat of an empty bus and a new unfamiliar passenger gets on board, walks all the way down the isle and sits right next to you.  How would you feel?  On another day you are sat in the same seat on the bus but this time the seat next to you is one of the few empty seats.  A new unfamiliar passenger gets on board and they walk down the isle and sit on the empty seat.  How do you feel this time?
The teaching assistant explained that in the first example she would feel unnerved and would feel like moving away from the new passenger while in the second example she wouldn’t mind that the new passenger had sat next to her.  I think that this how most of us would feel in the same situation too and I also believe, thinking back to our initial story of the playground, that the child in the sandpit moved away because he/she feel like we would on the empty bus. To help us with our Intensive Interaction practice we can now turn the the metaphor around and ask ourselves where we would sit if we were that new passenger.
This example can help us think about our approach to Intensive Interaction.  In terms of positioning, there are many different ‘seats’ that we could choose when we engage with a child.  The teaching assistant above chose one position and, to the child, this may have felt like someone sitting on the adjacent seat on an empty bus.  To work out what is acceptable to the child we need to become scientists and experiment.  Try further away (the other end of the bus) and if the child does not move away then try closer positions on subsequent occasions.  By employing reflective, empathic (and patient) practice in this way we can find a position where the child acknowledges our presence but does not feel too anxious.
What we do next of course is another matter :0)  I’ll write about this in another post…

Interaction Training

Woolley Wood School are hosting 4 training events for special needs teachers during the 2014/15 academic year.  The training will be led by Matthew Laurie and take place on the following dates:
12 Nov 2014 – Understanding Musical Interaction
10 March 2015 –  Understanding Musical Interaction
28th April 2015 – Intensive Interaction –  – Principles and Implementation
10th June 2015 – Intensive Interaction – Principles and Implementation
For more information please visit