Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Connect To Redirect

There are few more gratifying things than when the experts tell you something you already know. For instance, throughout my teaching career, I've always said that the first step with every child is to get them on my bandwagon, by which I mean, essentially, to befriend them. Once I have them on my bandwagon, once they know I like them and I know that they like me, behavior issues don't exactly go away, but they become manageable because you're working from a foundation of mutual respect and love. So when Dan Siegel and Tina Payne's book The Whole Brain Child came out in 2011 with it's concept of "connect to redirect," it didn't hit me as an epiphany, but rather as a confirmation.

"Connect to redirect" has since become a sort of bedrock principle around our school, a staple of the incredible parent educators who work with our parents. Honestly, I don't think much about it myself, because I've already sort of internalized it in my own way. I know that if I want to help someone alter a behavior or make a transition or engaged some other sort of change, my first step is to re-invest in making sure that we're still sharing a the same bandwagon. When I'm working with children with whom I have a long track record, like our five-year-olds, it might only take a couple seconds, some genuine eye-contact and an inside joke, for instance, and we're good to go. Children I'm still getting to know might take a bit more effort, but the goal is to make sure the trust is there first. But again, I don't really think about it as much as just do it: I think it's become part of who I am.

A couple weeks back one of our parent groups spent an evening discussing challenging behaviors during their monthly parent education meeting and "connect to redirect" was discussed. Afterwards, a new parent came up to me and said that he liked the idea and that during the meeting he realized that I had given him "two clear examples of how well it works."

His first example was a small one. That morning had been the first time he had seen me prepare the children for clean-up time. I typically take a few minutes to connect with the group, usually in some sort of silly, playful way, getting them on my bandwagon before officially signaling the transition. In this case, I'd goofed around with the hand drum I use to signal the end of one thing and the beginning of the next, making a show of pretending that it's a banjo, then a violin, then a flute, and so on, until most of them had gathered around insisting that it's a drum and demanding that I "bang" it. (For a more detailed version of this, click here.) I had never thought about it in the context of connect to redirect, because I normally think of that in the framework of one-to-one interactions rather than group ones, but essentially the dynamics are the same.

His second example was one, frankly, that I had told the group about, one that had stemmed from desperation. We're an urban American school which means that we have occasional problems with our local population of homeless people who are living in tents and under bridges. Over the preceding weeks, we had been dealing with a large number of hypodermic needles in the parking lot, been forced to clean up human waste, and had discovered items vandalized and stolen from our playground. As a community we spent a great deal of energy trying to figure out what we could do, most of which involved getting the police or the city involved. Of course, in a city like ours, we all knew the response would likely be some polite version of "get in line."

I always feel it as a failure when the authorities become involved: it always represents for me a breakdown rather than a solution. So, I was obviously dissatisfied with our plans. I began to ask questions and after a few days narrowed the problems down to single guy, a man with whom we were all familiar: we've all seen him sleeping in doorways, behaving in ways that indicated he was mentally ill, often walking around with his pants down around his ankles. He was new to the neighborhood, but by talking with members of the Fremont Baptist Church from whom we lease our space, I discovered that his name was Jason. Knowing this didn't solve anything, of course, but it was somewhat comforting to know that our problems were with a single guy rather than a legion.

I made up my mind that I was going talk with him. It worried me because some of his behaviors had appeared violent to us, as if he were physically fighting his demons. The next couple of times I saw him down by the stores, I chickened out, but then one day, he caught me off guard by grumbling at me as I exited a shop, "Spare change?" This was my opportunity.

I asked, "Are you Jason?"

He seemed stunned, then smiled, answering, "Yes, I'm Jason."

"I'm going to give you five dollars." I opened my wallet and handed him a bill. It disappeared into the tangle of clothing he wears.

"I work up this hill there, at the church," I said, looking him in eyes, smiling, striving for a warm, conversational tone.

He nodded his head. "Yeah, I know the church."

"I know you do. I've seen you around. I'm the preschool teacher there. That playground is where little kids play. Lately, you've been leaving your needles there and defecating there and stealing things from there." I tried to say it in a matter-of-fact, rather than accusatory manner. It was an accusation without real evidence, but since he didn't deny it I went on. "Listen, I know things are hard for you." I patted him on the arm.

He muttered something I didn't understand, but he maintained eye contact and curved his lips into a smile. I said, "I just want to ask you, as a friend, to try to be a little more respectful of the place we play with our kids. Okay?"

He didn't respond, but it seemed like he heard me. I walked away saying, "See you later!" and he replied, "Yeah man, see you later."

That night, nothing bad happened around the school. Two days later, he panhandled me again, not seeming to recognize me, so I said, "Hey Jason! Remember me? I'm Tom, the teacher from the preschool in the church. We talked a couple days ago." He looked at me and smiled, "Oh, yeah." I gave him a dollar, saying, "Good to see you."

It's now been over three weeks without any of the problems. Jason is still around. I've given him a few more dollars when he's asked, but some days we just nod at each other like friends and acquaintances do when they meet on the street.

I'm knocking on wood, but it seems that he's on my bandwagon now. The curious thing is that whereas I once hurried past him, I now find myself looking for him. Maybe I'm a little bit on his bandwagon too.

I've published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

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