Wednesday, December 09, 2020

Getting on the Same Bandwagon

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 getting on the same bandwagon, by which I mean, essentially, to befriend them. Once we're on the same 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" is a bedrock principle in preschool. If I want to help someone alter a behavior or make a transition or engage 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.

Some time ago one of our parent groups spent an evening discussing challenging behaviors during their monthly parent education meeting and the concept of "connect to redirect" was discussed. Afterwards, a new parent came up to me and said that the concept struck a cord with him 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 the kids had gathered around, almost literally on my bandwagon, 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 that I had told the group about during an earlier discussion on health and safety, 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 live 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 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 had 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, "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 over 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 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 with recognition, "Oh, yeah." I gave him a dollar unsolicited, saying, "Good to see you."

Weeks passed without any of the problems. Jason was still around. I'd given him a few more dollars, but some days we just nodded at each other like friends and acquaintances do when they meet on the street.

It seemed like he was on my bandwagon now. The curious thing is that whereas I once hurried past him, I now found myself looking for him. I guess I was on his bandwagon too.


Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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