Intensive Interaction and Mindfulness – Part 3

In the previous two parts of this series I have talked about the attitudes of non-judging, patience, beginner’s mind and trust.  My opinion is that while regular practice in intensive interaction can teach us about these attitudes implicitly, our practice can be enhanced if we intentionally try to develop these attitudes and consciously apply them to our practice.  To continue the series then we shall look at the attitudes of non-striving and acceptance.
Non-striving: One of the most fundamental features of intensive interaction is often described as ‘tasklessness’, a concept first highlighted (to me at least) by Hewett and Nind in their book Access to Communication (1994).  In contrast to interactions that have specific objectives communicated to the learner through instructions, tasklessness places the emphasis upon the process of interaction rather than a particular result.  In the same book, Hewett and Nind explain that “this process and its potential to provide a learning experience is more important than an objective” and that another perspective would be to say that the “objective is to get the process going”.  How then should be we approach this process and how can we be certain that our objective of setting up the process does not become another task?
Learning about mindfulness can help us answer this questions.  Jon Kabat Zinn does not use the word tasklessness but instead offers us the concept of non-striving. He explains that almost everything we do is for a purpose, to get something or somewhere and that this attitude is a real obstacle to mindfulness.  For example, if you approach an interaction with the idea of ‘we are going to do the clapping game’ or ‘it would be great if Jonny gave me good eye contact’ then you have introduced an idea into your mind of what should be happening or of what success looks like and along with this comes the notion that what is happening now is not ok or successful.  In practice, a practitioner with this attitude will be observed to ‘do too much’, attempting to cue interactions and initiate themes as they try to mould the interaction according to how they imagine it should be.  In contrast, a mindful approach would be to pay close attention to your partner’s behaviour and just try to respond to this appropriately by joining in with what your partner is doing.  Once we have stopped striving for the interaction to be a certain way, it is easier to accept our partner’s behaviour as it is right now and relax into the interaction.  When we can relax then our partner will feel relaxed too and it is more likely that the kind of things that we were striving for may naturally evolve.  I would go further than this and say that the success we strive for will always be limited by what we conceive of success as looking like, but if we relax and follow our partner then the resulting interaction could far exceed our expectations.
At Woolley Wood I have had many conversations with staff about how their engagement with the many tasks that are important to the running of the classroom (teaching, feeding, changing, recording) creates an attitude of constant doing and how a change of approach (to that of being) is needed when we engage in Intensive Interaction.  In Access to Communication Hewett and Nind highlight this problem when they explain that as teachers ‘it was our job to set tasks and objectives for sessions and make sure that they are fulfilled” and in my work at Woolley Wood I see this is compounded by the additional tasks that must be fulfilled with respect to children’s care needs.  In my experience, learning about social engagement happens when a child can explore the social environment in the same playful, self motivated way that a child explores the physical environment.  To facilitate this exploration we must be able to share our partner’s space in a relaxed way so that opportunities for social engagement are naturally available.  To do this we must stop the habitual attitude of striving that we have learnt as we engage in our day to day doing, pay more attention and learn how to be with our partner.  The most straightforward way to do this is to follow your partner’s lead and join in with whatever they are doing.
To offer a simple metaphor, if you were called to the head teacher’s (or line manager’s) office how would you share their space in a relaxed way?  What would you talk about?  I imagine that the sensible approach would be to talk about what they want talk about and agree to do what they want you to do otherwise the situation might feel a bit uncomfortable.  If you reject what the head says and start talking about your agenda then it is likely that things won’t feel so relaxed.  Our approach should be similar when we begin intensive interaction… your communication partner is your boss and you’re going to do what they say!
As a conclusion, the last paragraph of Jon Kabat Zinns text on non striving can be seen as an excellent exposition of intensive interaction with only one word needing to changed.  See for yourself…
“In the mindfulness [intensive interaction] domain, the best way to achieve your goals is to back off from striving for results and instead to start focusing carefully on seeing and accepting things as they are, moment by moment.  With patience and regular practice, movement towards your goals will take place by itself.  This movement becomes an unfolding that you are inviting to happen..”
Acceptance: An attitude that is clearly linked to that of non-striving is that of acceptance. As jon Kabat Zinn notes, this does not mean that we have to be satisfied with things as they are or that we are resigned to tolerating things as they ‘have to be’.  Neither does it mean that we should give up on our desire for change and growth or avoid getting involved in situations because they are the way they are and therefore hopeless.  Acceptance as we are speaking of it means a willingness to see things as they are.  This attitude then sets the stage for acting appropriately, no matter what is happening.
Placed into the context of intensive interaction we can begin to talk about our willingness to accept our partner’s behaviour as it is now rather than how we would like it to be.  If you can accept your partner and really see what they are doing then this sets the stage for a more appropriate response to their behaviour and an increased likelihood that your response will have meaning for your partner. To paraphrase Jon Kabat Zinn, you are much more likely to know what to do and have the inner conviction to act when you have a clear picture of what is happening versus when your vision is clouded by your mind’s judgments and desires.  In mindfulness meditation practice this acceptance is cultivated by taking each moment as it comes and being fully with it, as it is.  By taking this attitude to our intensive interaction practice we will also cultivate and develop acceptance too.  We can remind ourselves to be receptive and open to whatever we are seeing and and experiencing and to accept it because that is what is happening right now.  The more we practice this the better we will get at it and more appreciative our partner will be of our ability to be with them in a way that they find genuinely meaningful.

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)

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…