Let's talk about themes!

When I arrived at Woolley Wood on Wednesday the first thing that was brought up in discussion by my colleague Bev was that she had been approached by staff from one class team who said that they would be uncomfortable replicating some of the things that I had been doing in their class the previous week.  From the perspective of both myself and also the deputy head who had been observing that day, the interaction in question had been wonderful and, as Bev and I watched the video of the session, I struggled to see how there could have been a problem.  The context was that I was working with a 9 year old autistic boy who is often described by staff as a ‘loner’.  We had begun by jumping on the spot when when he offered his hands to me and then he had begun to push his hands toward me.  This developed into the classic trust game whereby one partner loses their balance and the other catches them.  Later on the boy pulled my hands to his waist so I could lift him a little in another jumping game.  Maybe you are reading this and thinking that the staff reluctance was something to do with physical touch… or perhaps it the staff did not want to do it because the games were quite energetic and they had less energy than me.  It turned out that, while these elements had something to do with it,  there was a deeper issue at play.
Following a discussion with the class teacher I headed to the classroom to talk over the issue.  It turned out that the staff thought that they had to do exactly what I had been doing: that this is what Intensive Interaction with the boy in question has to look like and that they would have to do this too.  The staff did not want to lift the boy because they were not as strong as me and they said that I had been sitting in ways that they might find uncomfortable.  ‘Okay’, I said, ‘Let’s talk about themes!’.
I explained to the staff that an interaction can be seen to be played out in a series of themes, in much the same way as a verbal discussion is formed around a theme or topic such as the weather.  During a verbal discussion or intensive interaction, the topics of conversation or themes of interaction can be said to be defined by the interests and abilities that are shared by both partners. For example, if both partners enjoy throw and catch then this is a way that they can be together, if both partners enjoy talking about the weather then this is one way that they can start a conversation [and be together].  In addition to shared interests, themes in intensive interaction can also be limited by other factors – because Intensive Interaction is non-verbal and therefore a kind of body language communication our strength and fitness will also sometimes have a bearing on the themes that we are willing or able to engage in, in much the same way that our vocabulary may limit us in a verbal conversation.
I went on to explain that themes are just ways for two people to achieve the aim of being together and sharing space in a relaxed and enjoyable way.   By observing the behaviour of our partner we can find themes that we would like to join in with.  By assuming that their behaviour has social meaning we can find ways for us join in and the theme of the resulting interaction will have come from us too – in terms of our observations and what we feel comfortable with.  This is much more likely to result in success rather than trying to replicate somebody else’s game out of context. One more way to explain this is that the themes or interests that our partner engages in can be seen in the same way as a musician has a repertoire of songs.  As a musician I may share some repertoire with one friend and therefore sing a certain song with them but this does not mean that, in order to enjoy being with a different musician, I have to sing the same song.  Instead I’ll just listen to what he is playing and find some other music that we have in common.  The song (or theme) has changed but the principles of finding a way to be together and share space is the same.
To highlight this idea, and that interactions consist of multiple themes, consider the following example:
Mary and Bob just met for the first time at an Intensive Interaction training day over a cup of coffee.
Mary: Hi, I’m Mary… 
Bob: Hi Mary, I’m Bob…
Mary: How was your journey here today, Bob?
Bob: Oh it was ok thanks… did you have far to come?
Mary: Only over the hills… weather was a bit dreary though… did you get the rain where you were?
Bob: No rain, but it was a bit misty this morning… that soon cleared as the sun came up though… 
Mary: So Bob, how did you come to be interested in Intensive Interaction?
Bob: Well, that’s a great story.  For many years I had worked in a special school and one day we went to a training day on Intensive Interaction and it was like a lightbulb moment for me. [smiles] I realised that this was the basis for some of the things that I had been doing intuitively.  I’ve been using the approach ever since.
Mary [smiling]: It was much like that for me….etc 
Thinking about the this discussion in terms of themes can prove quite interesting.  Mary and Bob have not met each other before and Mary has approached Bob with the aim of sharing space with him by having a relaxed conversation.  The first theme that she instigates is that of sharing names [highlighted in green].  Knowing this would be a short exchange she begins another theme by asking how Bob’s journey was [highlighted in blue].  After another short exchange Mary changed the theme to that of the weather [highlighted in red] .  This resulted in more small talk before Mary changed the theme again by asking about Bob’s interest in Intensive Interaction.  She felt that this was a good choice given the context and the question seems to spark his interest.  He shows some emotional communication by smiling and this is returned by Mary as she then shares her story of how she became interested in Intensive Interaction.
This example shows how one interaction can be composed of many themes and how, as in the example of Mary, the concept of themes can help us to find different ways to share space with our partner during intensive interaction.  Note that Mary was offering questions to Bob rather than giving him instructions and that it is clear that he could have answered in a number of ways, including rejecting her offer of communication.  Mary’s approach to being with Bob seems to have been successful but by following her example we may find that we are cueing or instigating more than we might like to and so we might prefer to take an approach more like that of Bob.
On reflection, we could well see that Bob was following the principles of Intensive Interaction. For example he joined in with the themes that Mary was interested in and then responded and changed to the next theme when she lost interest in the previous one.  In the first three themes about names, journeys and weather he simply reciprocated Mary’s communication style with a short relaxed appropriate response and then, when she asked about Intensive Interaction he saw the potential for enjoyable sustained dialogue due to the fact that it was likely to be an interest that they shared with enthusiasm.  Based on this observation he took the opportunity to consciously offer a smile and, following the reciprocation by Mary, the interaction evolved to a more emotional level.
In summary then we can see that interactions can be composed of a number of themes.  As practitioners our skill is in how to to share space by joining in with the themes our partner is interested in, decide when to follow or stay with a particular theme when our partner changes and and also to take opportunities for natural interaction by instigating and developing appropriate themes.  Underlying the themes are the principles of intensive interaction and good practice comes from understanding and applying these principles rather than just trying to replicate the themes that somebody else did.
Finally, the example of Mary and Bob also throws up some other interesting things such as how as practitioner’s we can have a strategy for the interaction while at the same time trying to engage in natural play, and also that there was a  difference in Mary and Bob’s view of what was happening.  These issues are addressed in the series on Mindfulness and Intensive Interaction, Part 3 of which will be posted next week.

Intensive Interaction and Mindfulness – Part 2

Last week I wrote about Intensive Interaction in the context of Jon Kabat Zinn’s foundation attitudes of mindfulness.  The first two attitudes were Non-judging and Patience and I explained that I find that these ideas can be helpful in Intensive Interaction practice.  Because the most fundamental principles of the II approach are to be responsive to the moment-to-moment behaviour and interests of our partner, I believe we will have more success if we practice with a patient attitude while acting on intentional judgements rather than those made habitually. This week we will look at the next three attitudes:
Beginner’s Mind: While non-judging is the attitude we take to our habit of discriminating based on how we value things, beginner’s mind is how we deal with the habit creating expectations based on our past experience and how we then let our thinking and beliefs about what we ‘know’ prevent us from seeing things as they really are. In my qigong class for example, beginner’s mind is the attitude that my new students have in the first few weeks and months of coming to my evening class.  In this initial stage they do not yet have enough knowledge to question what they are learning and they will usually accept what I say and just practice the exercise.  Students tend to begin to ask meaningful questions once they have a basic understanding of the principles of the skill and have practiced the movement frequently enough so as to be able to reflect of what they are doing.  While this is a critical part of reflective practice, this knowledge can also be a trap.  Once we think we know something it can be easy, when we see that thing again, to see it as we have ‘known’ it to be rather than as it actually may be now.
A good word for this habitually formed expectation based on our past experience is ‘preconception’  which in the Chambers dictionary is defined as ‘an assumption about something not yet experienced, often a prejudice‘. Another, slightly stronger word for this is ‘stereotype’, which in the Oxford dictionary is described as ‘a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing’. The saying goes that stereotypes exist for a reason but what really exists for a reason is a collection of observations – stereotyping is the fixation of these observations into a simplified expectation that influences how we interact with something in the future.  When we are acting from these preconceived ideas then we risk not being centred upon the person in front of us.  In contrast, if we are aware of our preconceptions then we can put them down and concentrate on what is happening now or alternatively we can reflect on them and consciously decide if they are useful.
I have many conversations at Woolley Wood School about preconceptions and how these fixed ideas can affect our sensitivity as practitioners. Only last week I commented during a video reflection session that one teacher seemed to be trying to instigate an interaction every so often by tapping her leg.  Her attempt at initiation was rejected each time and, since she did not appear to be initiating based on a cue from her partner, I asked her why she was doing what she was doing.  The teacher’s astute reflection was that she had had a really good intensive interaction experience with another child and that she was instinctively trying to recreate this level of interaction with her new partner.  We talked about how it is easy to let these past experiences affect how we see what is happening now and that this can mean that we fail to see the extraordinary things that are right in front of us. In this case, the teacher’s expectation of how success should feel had blinded her to the success that she had was already a part of…the teacher and the child were happily sharing space, enjoying each others company and engaging in what was, for the child concerned, a rare moment of cooperative play.
Trust: Trust is very important on a number of levels but in our intensive interaction (and mindfulness) practice it begins with a basic trust in yourself, your feelings and your practice.  As Jon Kabat Zinn notes, it is far better to trust in your intuition and your own skill, even if you make some mistakes along the way, than to always look outside yourself for guidance.  In Intensive Interaction we need experience and mentoring in order to develop this ability and as I mentor the staff at Woolley Wood I have found that I need to highlight the good practice that the staff are already doing in order to help them to develop this trust in themselves.  But there are some obstacles to this that make it a little tricky.  For example, as an external practitioner who visits class for short periods of time each day, some staff were of the opinion that I was there to assess and report on them.  This led them to think that I was ‘correcting’ staff practice and this would in turn lead to staff to doubt their existing practice.  This could be compounded by the fact my purpose in teaching staff reflective skills is to encourage the teachers and teaching assistants to question what they do and why they do it which, without sufficient mentoring, could lead people again to doubt their ability.
So it important for my work as coordinator that the staff trust me.  Without this trust the development of a community of practice would be very difficult and much of the work would be for nought.  While strategies such as developing clarity in my explanations and making myself available to engage with staff can help develop this trust, I think it probable that the reason the staff trust me is that I have the same strong trust in myself and my practice as noted at the beginning of this section.  I think that this trust permeates though the things I say and do and is felt by the staff I work with, giving them confidence in me and our collaborative work.
Further on the topic of trust, it is important that our partner trusts us too.  Following the principles of intensive interaction will help us to develop trust with our partner because we will be presenting ourselves with a non-threatening, safe, available and appealing demeanour.  By responding to our partner we are in fact trusting them to lead the interaction and our acceptance and affirmation of their behaviour (in contrast to correcting it) will help them to develop trust in their own ability.  If we take this approach then I believe that our trust in our partner will be reciprocated and a relationship will develop.  As this relationship flourishes the opportunities for natural interactions will naturally grow as our partner feels more and more confident. So true this seems to be that, conversely, I have often thought that it is very difficult to separate communication development from the development of a relationship because it seems to me that two people will co-create more sophisticated way of being together naturally as they learn more about each other.  This is something that I am still pondering and so rather than going further, I would like to finish with a practical way to develop trust during intensive interaction, especially when meeting our partner for the first time.
As a musician I am inclined think in terms of repertoire.  For example there is a classical repertoire and a folk repertoire and a pop repertoire.  With music there is also a common repertoire of songs that everyone knows.  Applying this idea to intensive interaction we can say that there is a common repertoire of themes that we can use as practitioners to share space with our partner and gain trust.  Examples could include high five, give and take, throw and catch, rolling a ball, tapping a rhythm, clapping hands… all of them interaction themes.  Can you think of any others? When I meet a new person I sometimes try these simple themes to see if they already understand them.  If they do then this game becomes part of our shared repertoire and our relationship is all the better for it.  Try it out and let me know how you get on.
The next attitude of mindfulness in non-striving which I’m likely to write at length on so I’ll leave that until part 3 :0)