I'm singing your song

Music-making and singing is a way for people to be enjoy being together and I believe that an understanding of music can therefore help to create positive experiences of social engagement with people who are at the early stages of communication development.
Music can help in two main ways, the first of which is as a theme or activity for interactions.  Musical themes can ranges from singing together or copying sounds to taking turns playing a drum or tapping a table.  Musical instruments make good focus objects for intensive interaction because they offer obvious opportunities for interaction while engagement with the instrument usually results in satisfying sound from the shake, tap, strum with which it was played.
Well facilitated musical activities are good games with exciting tension and resolution.  Engaging in these games (as is the case with any good interactive game) encourages participants to use fundamental communication skills as they engage with other people and anticipate what might be coming next.  A common feature of traditional musical activities and songs for example is the presence of burst-pause sequences e.g. leaving the last word of the end of a song or nursery rhyme so that a child will feel compelled to sing it.  One way to view these songs and rhymes could be as more sophisticated and formulated versions of the natural spontaneous play that occurs between mother and infant in the first year of life.
This begins to lead onto the second and, I believe, more fundamental reason why an understanding of music can be useful in our intensive interaction practice.  My understanding and opinion is that music is communication and I would therefore venture to turn that around and to say that communication is music.  While this may sound a little abstract, what I mean is that communication can be thought of in terms of musical structure and that this can help in developing interactions.
For example, a composer will take a musical theme or tune and develop the theme over the course of the composition.  The theme will not repeat again and again in an identical way but will keep some some of the same notes while others will change. This can be compared to a conversation where the theme of the discussion develops over time.
In a discussion, somebody may start by asking a question which will then be answered by another person.  A good answer will relate to the question and develop the theme of conversation.  If the answer does not relate to the question the interaction is likely to falter and the same result is likely if the answer does not develop the theme.  Another example is to think of two people playing throw and catch.  After throwing and catching the ball in the same way the two players may feel like throwing the ball higher, or bouncing it or moving further away from each other before throwing again.  The players are instinctively developing the theme because they wish for the interaction to sustain but they are looking for newness and some more excitement and interest.  If however one of the players threw the ball far away, over a hedge for example, then the theme may break and the interaction will stop.
Another musical metaphor that relates to intensive interaction is to think of a person’s behaviour as their song.  As a musician, if I want join in with another musician who is already playing I would first learn what they were playing and then join in by playing the same thing before adding some extra notes or another verse for example.  In order for them to enjoy my company it is likely that I would need to keep to their theme while the new notes that I add, if done sensitively, would ideally develop the music in the same way as a good discussion.  To extend the discussion metaphor, I see what the musician is playing as a question and I wonder how I am going to answer while keeping to the theme.
In intensive interaction our initial approach (or answer) may often be to respond to our partner’s behaviour and join in with what they are doing, perhaps engaging in a simple turn taking sequence or by copying.  As a musician then, I like to think of my partner’s behaviour as their music or song, and that the aim of intensive interaction is to learn their song and sing it with them.
For more information on theme development see these posts here and here.
To learn more about musical interaction and intensive interaction, I deliver training at Woolley Wood School.

INSET at Woolley Wood

This week was a bit of a landmark in terms of the work at Woolley Wood.  On Wednesday 8 staff completed the new five week intensive interaction course and today I delivered a half day INSET session to the whole school team.  I was very happy with the results of both these training strategies which brought to light some interesting things.
I believe that training should be an group investigation.  This can only really work when the the training is about principles rather than plain facts (I talked about principles in the post two weeks ago).  It is important that clear principles underly the practice of Intensive Interaction however it is also true that principles can be somewhat intangible.  For example, in order to understand what ‘Be Responsive’ means, there must be a direct experience that is associated with the concept.  The concept can be introduced on a powerpoint or handout but the experience must be introduced through an practical activity.
The importance of this ‘understanding through practice’ means that the most effective way to make an impact upon staff practice is a programme of regular mentoring that helps staff to place the concepts into a practical context.  The weakness of this however is that it takes time and I can only make contact with a few staff at a time.  The INSET offers the opportunity to bring everyone up to speed at the same time and is a useful strategy to employ alongside the mentoring.  The first half of the INSET therefore comprises of practical activities during which the participants tried to unearth the principles of the work.   Some interesting comments during today’s INSET included:
“Engaging with my partner with the aim of following their lead really made me focus on what they were doing.  I found myself giving more positive eye contact too”
“The way my partner looks helped me trust her”
“It was really difficult to engage my partner when we weren’t at the same level”
“A good leader needs to think about the needs of their partner”
Teacher: “It’s really hard to make dialogue without words” Me: “That’s why we’re here!”
“When my partner wasn’t following me it just felt like we weren’t on the same page”
After the practical work I took the opportunity to introduce the attainment framework that we will be using at Woolley Wood.  This is based on the document produced by Graham Firth and Mark Barber ‘A Framework for Recognising Attainment in Intensive Interaction (2011).  In the past I have found using the engagement profile tricky because I found it difficult to resolve (and record) the fact that a learner may have an outstanding moment of interaction yet be at a low general level of communication ability.  I recently figured out how I would like to employ this framework and so the method is to record the level of the best moment during an interaction and also the average level of the interaction.  So far this seems to be a practical way forward.
The staff who completed the 5 week course had the opportunity to look at the attainment record in detail but I was aware that when they returned to their classroom they would find that the rest of the staff knew nothing these method of recording.  My aim with the INSET therefore was to make sure that all of the staff at least knew the basics of the method so that they could share the language with the staff who have done the course.
After introducing the attainment framework I then showed the staff a few videos of interactions that have taken place at the school and then the staff analysed the video in groups with the aim of assigning attainment levels to the best moment and average level of the sessions.  The outcome of this activity was a great deal of very interesting conversation as the staff used their new language and vocabulary to discuss what they had seen.  It was interesting to see that different people made different conclusions about which were the best moments and to begin with some staff disagreed which level should be assigned to which event of the interaction.  The continuing discussion seemed to resolve this as another video was viewed and people had the chance to place the levels in another context.
One very interesting point made by one staff was in response to a video of an interaction that took place between me an autistic boy recently.  She said that to her, one gesture the boy made that I had returned by copying meant that he wanted to be helped up from the floor to a standing position.  She said that if she had been interacting then she would have done this.  She remarked that she only knew this because of her long relationship with the boy and that I had responded differently because I gave his actions a different meaning.  In the video however the boy seems happy with my response and the interaction sustains longer than a typical interaction.  I explained that this seemed to be a nice example of the importance of mindfulness and how it is easy to make assumptions or not see things with a beginners mind. The staff member agreed because she said she would have tried to lift the boy up simply out of habit and would not have seen the opportunity to return his actions in a different way.
The next stage of the work at Woolley Wood is to hold an Intensive Interaction training day for teacher and teaching assistants from other schools.  This will be held on April the 28th and the focus for the day will be to investigate the principles of intensive interaction and explain how intensive interaction is being implemented at Woolley Wood, including the recording methods described above.  Full details can be found here.
INSET is also available for special schools.  Please contact me for further details if you are interested.

Forms of Observation

Each week at Woolley Wood I deliver a 45 minute classroom based course for 8 of the staff.  Each course runs for 5 weeks and is an opportunity for me to present the principles and method of Intensive Interaction through presentations and social learning activities.  The course supports the mentoring that takes place in class and the combination of these two approaches seems to be helping staff to understand the practice.
Last week I explained to the staff my framework for observations and this week everyone reflected on the observations that they had carried out during the week.  For example, one thing that I have asked people not to do is to write on a form at the same time as trying to observe.  This approach just means that, for at least half the time, the observer ends up looking at the form rather than looking at the child and the constant shifting between filling in the form and trying to observe can make the practitioner feel quite tense.
Having tried this during the week the staff made several reflections.  One person said it was much more relaxing to just watch and then fill a form in afterwards.  Although she felt that once she had got to the form she may have forgotten something that she observed, she also felt that she actually saw much more in the first place by not trying to fill in the form at the same time.  Other staff reported that it was much better to leave the form until later because, having tried without it, the form only seems to serve as a distraction.  The reason we can place less emphasis on the form is because the purpose is slightly different.  Our aim for observation in intensive interaction is that we need to be able to function as observers all the time so that we can respond appropriately to the moment-to-moment happenings of the interaction.  To do this well our observations cannot be reliant on a form so the idea of the framework is that it is clear enough so that it can be remembered easily and staff will eventually be able to conduct accurate observations without needing paperwork.
Teaming up on the observations was also reported to be a successful approach.  The idea was for one staff member to observe while the other films the observation.  After the observation they discussed what each person saw and then looked at the film to see if they missed anything.  The two staff from foundation reported that between them they felt that they missed very little and that the post observation discussion was very helpful because they were able to discuss the application of the observation framework and this helped them notice more about how the child was behaving rather than just what they were doing.
The highlight of the session for me was when one teaching assistant talked about how she found that conducting an observation using the iPad helped her to focus on the observation more and let go of the tasks she would otherwise be responsible for with the other children.  She said that using the iPad made her feel like she had a clearer task to do and that if the rest of the staff team saw her holding the iPad they would know what she was doing and that she couldn’t be disturbed.  The effect of this was that the teaching assistant felt she could let go of her other responsibilities, stop worrying about the other children in the class and relax into a mindful observation.
The reason I really like this is because the effect on the staff team of the teaching assistant’s holding of the iPad is pure intensive interaction.  By holding the iPad she is non-verbally communicating to the rest of the staff team that she is engaged in an observation.  How as practitioners can we use our actions in a similar way to affirm the behaviour of a child and non-verbally communicate that we are here for them.  By enjoying doing what the child is doing and using our actions to show that we too can find meaning in what the child finds meaningful.