Intensive Interaction and Mindfulness – Part 1

Mindfulness is an evidence-based approach that is accepted and taught across the UK by organisations such as the NHS.  This post reflects on my experience as a teacher of mindfulness and how this skill can help intensive interaction practice.
First I think it would be worth explaining what mindfulness is and isn’t. To become more mindful is to become more aware of the present moment, to see things more as they actually are and to become more content with the way things are right now rather than habitually desiring things to be different.  The practice associated with mindfulness is usually called meditation but this does not mean that practitioners need to follow a religion.  Over the past 30 years a lot of recognised research has developed mindfulness as an evidence based practice. One of the most instrumental people behind this work is Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. His 8-week mindfulness based stress reduction programme is now taught in over 30 countries and is delivered by mindfulness schools that can be found in many towns in the UK and also to both patients and staff through the NHS.  The accessibility of these courses means that it is now possible to study the mindfulness skill outside of the context of religion, for example Buddhist meditation.
My background with regards to mindfulness is through the Chinese health skill of qigong and tai chi. After working at Woolley Wood on a Wednesday, I teach the traditional Chinese skills of Wild Goose Qigong at my weekly evening class.  I have studied this skill since 2001 and I love the relaxed flowing movements of the exercise routines.  An important part of the skill is meditation and I find that the benefits of this mindfulness practice make a difference to many aspects of my life including my intensive interaction practice.  What follows is my interpretation of Kabat-Zinns attitudes of mindfulness which he details in the his book ‘Full Catastrophe Living’.  As soon as  I read this essay I saw the connection to intensive interaction and thought it would be worth writing about these attitudes in the context of intensive interaction practice.
The Foundation Attitudes of Intensive Interaction Practice
Non-judging: At Woolley Wood, the observation that is most frequently made when we reflect on video during mentoring is that an assumption was made about the meaning behind a child’s behaviour and that this led to the practitioner making an inappropriate return.  An example of this happened last year when a child was stacking jigsaw pieces on a table.  The teaching assistant I was mentoring sat next to the child and showed him how to fit the pieces together after which the child promptly stood up and walked away.  I explained to the staff that the child was actually playing the game of stacking or making a tower and the teaching assistant had assumed that the  jigsaw pieces must used only for the purpose that they were originally intended i.e. by laying them flat on the table and making a picture by fitting the pieces together.  To me it seemed that the child walked away because the teaching assistant did not see things as they really were but instead responded to their assumptions about why the child was playing with the jigsaw.
The problem here is that it is very easy to make an assumption about what we see without knowing it.  When we begin to pay attention to this quality of our mind it is common to discover, as Jon Kabat Zin notes, that we are making these assumptions all the time as we constantly generate judgments about our own experience.  Almost everything we see is labelled, categorised by the mind and these judgements can come to dominate our awareness. In contrast, mindfulness is about paying close attention to the present moment-to-moment experience and, as best we can, not getting caught up in these ideas, opinions, like and dislikes.  This orientation can allow us to see things more as they actually may be rather than through our own distorted lens or agenda.
Coming back to Intensive Interaction we can see that, in the above example from Woolley Wood, a more mindful approach may have meant that the teaching assistant could have calmly observed the child stacking the jigsaw pieces and seen that he/she was doing exactly that – stacking pieces.  An appropriate return could therefore have been to sit and join in with the stacking rather than the return she took in the example which could be interpreted as correcting the child and showing him how really to play with a jigsaw.
Does this mean that making judgements about the child’s behaviour is wrong? Not at all.  We need to make in-the-moment judgements and decisions frequently; the obstruction to our practice is the habitual making assumptions and reactions.  In contrast to this, our aim is to be aware of when we are making an assumption and to knowingly make judgements about what we see.
Patience: The second most talked about subject when reflecting on videos at Woolley Wood is the importance of waiting.  Beginning practitioners will tend to do too much and I think this has as much to do with human nature as has to do with being a beginner.   In his book ‘Full Catastrophe Living’, Jon Kabat-Zinn describes patience as a form of wisdom.  Patience demonstrates that we understand and accept the fact that sometimes things must unfold in their own time. He uses the analogy of a child trying to help a butterfly to emerge by breaking open its chrysalis.  The butterfly usually does not benefit from this and any adult knows that the butterfly can only emerge in its own time, that the process cannot be hurried.
Our partners in Intensive Interaction are much like butterflies emerging from a chrysalis (or a chick from an egg) in that their social skills can only develop at their own pace.  Of course we can help to create the conditions for natural social engagement by making ourselves socially available (and the more we do this the more opportunities there will be for development) but ultimately we must wait for our partner to choose to be with us rather than instruct him or her to do something when we want them to.  To achieve this we may have to wait and be silent for longer than we feel comfortable but this feeling of ‘uncomfortable silence’ is usually about our impatience, our lack of familiarity with stillness and the fact that we are so accustomed to doing things.
So to be the person that our partner needs us to be we need to develop more patience.  How can we do this? By engaging in more intensive interaction and simply reminding ourselves that there is no need to be impatient when the feeling arises, that our partner may be quite happy just sharing space with us and that it is important for them to choose to initiate an interaction with us.  I sometimes ask staff members whether they could be still and wait for 30 seconds, or a minute or how about 5 minutes? If as practioners we can do this then there will be no ‘uncomfortable silences’ because at those times we will be relaxed and content and this will help our partner to feel relaxed and content too.
To be continued…

Co-ordination strategies

Establishing a sustainable community of practice requires a strategic approach.  Some of the techniques that have worked at Woolley Wood are:
Whole school briefings: For the staff team to unite behind the challenge of learning and developing intensive interaction it is important that they all trust the co-ordinator and share the same basic language.  I think it is difficult to achieve this unless the team hear things directly ‘from the horse mouth’ and have a chance to interact directly with the co-ordinator.  At Woolley Wood I have achieved this partly through a 20 minute whole school briefing held four or five times in a term during which I have introduced key concepts, explained these concepts through reflection on video clips and held question and answer sessions.
Mentoring: The heart of the my co-ordination role is the provision of staff mentoring in Intensive Interaction.  For staff to understand the practice they must have some theory (presented through discussion, briefings and video reflection) and direct experience.  A programme of mentoring is how they gain this experience as reflective Intensive Interaction practice is first modelled and explained after which I gently offer opportunities for staff to have a go while I watch and film.  In the beginning it is important to praise the mentee for the things they do well, explaining the rationale behind what they are doing.  This process can lead staff to reflect on how they can improve their practice.  Once I have developed a relationship with the staff member and they trust me, it is possible for me to be a little more (constructively) critical about their practice.
Use of iPads for video feedback: Time is at a premium in the classroom and arranging extra meetings for video feedback can be logistically challenging.  At Woolley Wood I use an iPad to film interaction and the large screen means that we can immediately view the footage and reflect on it.  The advent of tablet computers seems to have enabled this immediate format for reviewing films and I think it has been critical for the progress of the mentoring work at Woolley Wood.
Developing relationships: As mentioned above, I believe that good relationships are the basis of effective mentoring.  I feel I need to be available to encounter staff and engage with them socially, talking about both the practice and also small talk.  Each encounter leads to more warmth and increases the chances that the person will become a member of the community of practice, choosing to learn more about Intensive Interaction and reflect on their own approach to social engagement with the children.
Newsletter: Each week I write a one page newsletter that includes a photo of an interaction that happened that day, a short article of interest usually about principles, a list of who was involved that day and some basic ideas to keep in mind.  The purpose is to keep a memory of the work within the school, something that each person can read so that they hopefully feel part of a project that is moving forward even if they did not participate directly that day.  The newsletters are also put on a display board each week.  The board is therefore changing week to week and is something that is more likely to attract interest of people walking past.  As time passes it is possible to look back and see how far we have come. The board looks good for visitors too.
Blog: As you are aware if you are reading this, I have been keeping a (roughly) weekly blog of the work taking place at Woolley Wood.  The purpose is to communicate the work happening inside the school externally and connect with other communities of practice.  So far this seems to be working quite well.  The blog posts are also posted to the Facebook Intensive Interaction Users page.  In terms of return on time invested I think that a blog is a good strategy and it isn’t too tricky to set up with a service like wordpress or blogger.
Parents sessions: I have delivered one parents session so far and we plan to run one per half term.  Extending the community of practice to parents is an important goal for this year and has often been the missing like when I have worked in school previously.  Conversations with parents have already yielded much information that is useful when understanding the meaning of a child’s behaviour and the parents have shown a lot of energy for learning more about Intensive Interaction.  We ran a 2 hour session involving some theory, fun games and watching films of children at the school.  It seems to be a good format (don’t forget the tea and biscuits) and we will continue in this way for the future sessions.
Assign Roles: Perhaps the most critical part of setting up a sustainable community of practice is to make sure that the co-ordinator is not responsible for all of the above jobs.  It is important to find people in the organisation that have pre-existing skills or the willingness and enthusiasm to contribute in some way.  So tasks like organising the newsletter, liaising with parents, chairing meetings etc can be led by other staff members.  At Woolley Wood for example, one of the teachers has been working with me for over a year now and is now able to help other staff develop reflective practice skills.

Musical Interaction Training Day

Last week I delivered the first ‘Understanding Musical Interaction’ training day at Woolley Wood School.  The day was for teachers and teaching assistants working in SEN settings who were interested in the use of music and communication with children with special needs.  My aim for the day was for participants to pick up the principles of the work and be able to apply them in the context of their workplace.
IMG_1907The approach is thoroughly grounded in Intensive Interaction so we investigated the principles by engaging in experiential learning activities and reflecting on footage of sessions that have taken place at Woolley Wood.  A special element of this course was the opportunity to participate in a music circle with children from Woolley Wood so that attendees could see the work in practice.  The afternoon was spent making music, understanding the repertoire and learning how to play the kalimba, a musical instrument that was included in the course fee that each participant could take back to their school.  I enjoyed the day throughly and included below is some of the feedback from the participants.
The next ‘Understanding Musical Interaction’ training day is on March 10th 2015.  For more information see
“Perfect in every way” Sue Brear, Rowan School, Sheffield
“The way this course has been delivered is inspiring and I feel excited about trying these things (principles) not just in school but in social situations with friends! :0)” Matthew Grayling, Woolley Wood School, Sheffield
“I feel I understand the theory behind the practice in a much deeper way” Matthew Blackwell, Tameside Music Service
“Videos we are useful way of showing and defining Intensive Interaction. Fundamentals were explained very clearly through the games and discussions at the beginning of the day” Matthew Grayling, Woolley Wood School, Sheffield
“I can see clearly how musical interaction and intensive interaction are linked.  Everything comes from the child and during music sessions when we go from the child we see a better response” Bev Cotterill, Woolley Wood School, Sheffield
6 out of 6 delegates said they have a clearer understanding of the benefits of musical and intensive interaction.
6 out of 6 delegates said that they feel more confident to try to apply the principles in their school.
6 out of 6 delegates rated the Delivery, Content, Venue and Resources as excellent

Developing themes (what do I do now?)

bev and kenzieAt the recent Intensive Interaction Co-ordinators Weekend participants had the opportunity to show films of their practice.  One video that we watched showed one teacher doing a very good job of copying the behaviour of her partner.  The interaction continued for over 5 minutes and the teacher had the skill to reflect back everything that she could see her partner do.  The question we were asked having watched the film was what could she do next.  This (rather long) post is a response to this.
The teacher’s question about what to do next and how to move things forward is not an uncommon one in my experience.  On the co-ordinator course I explained my view that copying is the foundation skill of Intensive Interaction – the ability to reflect the behaviour of your partner and only do what you see.  To be able to do this well means that we are skilled in observation, that we are not obstructed by feelings of self-consciousness and we are able to adapt our behaviour to match that of our partner.  To reach this level is a good achievement so why do we still ask how to move things on or what should we do next?
The question comes if our approach is to just copy. If we only reflect the behaviour of our partner then the resulting interaction can feel functional and a bit flat – lacking the sort of emotional content and mutual pleasure that the practitioner may have expected perhaps having seen videos of other practitioners doing Intensive Interaction.
To help find a solution we can think of interactions in term of themes. This is a familiar concept in verbal discussions where a theme usually describes the subject of the conversation e.g. the weather, a holiday, the problem at work etc.  In Intensive Interaction we can apply this idea of themes to describe the game, joint focus activity or turn taking sequence  that we are playing with our partner.  By thinking of the game in terms of a theme we can more easily understand how to develop the interaction as we would in a verbal discussion with friends or, as in the following example, in a very familiar game that we have all played.
Imagine a game of throw and catch.  One person throws the ball and their partner throws it back.  The first person throws the ball again and their partner throws it back once more.  The ball is thrown and returned ten or fifteen times in an identical way.  Something about the game then changes – the first person takes a few steps back and throws the ball to their partner.  The throw is a little less accurate so their partner has to jump to catch the ball.  They succeed and turn to smile at the thrower before throwing it back.  The ball is thrown and caught a few more times and then one of the partners makes a choice to bounce the ball instead of throwing it.  Their partner manages to catch the bouncing ball and returns the ball with a bounce to continue the game.
In this example the theme is ‘throw and catch’.  The theme was established once the ball had been thrown back and forth a few times.  Once the ball was thrown a few more times we saw that something changed and one of the partners took a few steps back.  Why did this happen? We have all been in this situation and so we can empathise with the players because we know that after 20 identical throws the game would feel a bit boring or samey.  The players response to this feeling was to move further away.  When we think about this in terms of themes we can say that the player was trying to develop the theme and that the method they chose to achieve this was to change the distance (proximity).  This increased the challenge and made the theme less predictable and so when one player succeeded in catching the ball they smiled – an emotional communication.  The theme continued in its evolved state until again it no longer held the interest in the same way as it did a few turns ago.  One of the players was further motivated to develop the theme and so they chose to bounce the ball instead of throwing it.  This seemed to work too and the players continued enjoying their game.
We can apply the same thinking to our intensive interaction practice.  Doing this brings up a few interesting questions…
What should we do if the theme feels boring or samey?
This feeling probably means one of two things.  Either the theme has lost interest for both partners and needs to develop or the theme is something that needs to be rehearsed by our less skilled partner and we as practitioners need to be more more patient.
How do I intentionally develop a theme?
To develop a theme we change a quality of the theme such as:

  • Rhythm
  • Pace
  • Strength of our actions
  • Proximity or distance from our partner
  • Position in relation to our partner or the game
  • Adding or refraining from using a sound
  • Volume of our sounds
  • Adding, changing (or refraining from) use of eye contact
  • Adding, changing (or refraining from) using physical contacts
  • Adding, changing (or refraining from) using gestures

To do this well so that it flows naturally requires good timing.  Initially when you try to change these qualities of the theme you may feel a bit clumsy or you may find that you break the theme.  With practice you will notice an opportunity to develop the theme but you may miss it.  With more practice you will find that you see the opportunity and you can take it in a relaxed way so that the theme develops and the play flows naturally.  Success in developing the theme is evidenced in feelings of anticipation and expectation and enjoyment when this tension is resolved.  A classic example of this is using burst-pause e.g. not saying the last word of a known nursery rhyme and then completing the rhyme to much enjoyment.
Doesn’t all this mean that I am being directive?
Being directive means that you are giving instructions that do not offer your partner choices.  When we develop a theme we should be taking opportunities to make a contribution to the interaction in the same way that a person answers a question in a typical verbal discussion or indeed asks a question.  If, in the example of a discussion, one partner interrupts and asks an inappropriate question that has little to do with the theme in debate, then it is likely they will break the theme and the conversation.  If however the same person waits until the other person has finished what they have to say, considers their point of view and asks a relevant question that takes the debate forward then the contribution is made appropriately and the theme is therefore more likely to keep the interest of both people.
In conclusion, natural and enjoyable intensive interaction communication is a collaboration between two people and so it is perfectly reasonable for the practitioner to make contributions to the interaction.  We need to develop reflective practice in order to understand how to do this this well with people who lack fundamental social skills because they do not respond in the way that we are used to during interactions with our typically developed friends or colleagues and therefore our habitual way of interacting may not work.  People with learning disabilities can be very sensitive to the behaviour of human beings and so to develop natural communication we must understand how interaction works in the same way as a person from another country will seek to understand the grammar and syntax of a foreign language.  If we can understand the ‘grammar and syntax’ of interaction then we can intentionally apply these principles during intensive interaction and with practice we will find that interactions develop more emotional content, feel less functional, feel more satisfying and result in more mutual pleasure.