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Tips on Gentle Teaching

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Gentle Teaching is not "an easy answer to complex problems" or "the whole answer," says Dan Hobbs. Nevertheless, so many people were anxious to hear about Gentle Teaching that the crowd in the huge room spilled over into the hallway when Hobbs spoke at the 1987 convention of the Association for Retarded Citizens of Indiana.

Usually Hobbs explains the concepts of Gentle Teaching to a large group one day and, for the next four days does intensive, hands-on training with six to eight teachers, caregivers, or parents. He calls them enablers. Here are some of the many tips he gives them.

Prevention: "What do I do if so-and-so does this?" is a question enablers are always asking Hobbs. "That's the wrong question," he tells them. They should be asking what to do to stay ahead of so-and-so, he says. This may involve changing routines, being on the lookout for signs of trouble brewing, having the person sit in a place that will decrease the likelihood of problems, being in the right position to act quickly if necessary and, in some cases, staying out of the firing range.

Participation. After preventing the worst from happening, how can an enabler get the person involved and focused? Hobbs suggests making participation "easy and errorless" and using tasks as vehicles for rewards.

Sharing value/reward. If you are an enabler, have you rewarded the person with words or touch! Are you teaching that the ultimate purpose of the interaction is to share human value? "The purpose is not to learn to recite the ABC's, to count, or to put socks on," Hobbs says. "The purpose is to learn to live and work with other people in a valued way...If I can't do a lot for myself, but I can smile, I can make the world happy...That's a skill that's going to mean you're treated right."

Defusing. The important questions for enablers here, Hobbs says, are "How do you take the power out of unfair responses" "How do you neutralize the power so you can focus the person and channel the power in more positive ways?" Hobbs emphasizes that the questions are not "How do you correct the response?" or "How do you punish it?" or "How do you impose submission on the persons?"

The trick is to ignore the behavior but not the person, Hobbs says, "Minimize eye contact towards the problem...Continue teaching if possible." If you have only a little participation, he says, you can shape towards more. If participation stops, though, "the person tends to escalate in some other direction."

Hobbs recommends this sequence: ignore redirect the person to participate in the growth activity, and reward the person with words and touch. For those who try to hurt themselves or others, the firs step in the sequence would be interruption.

Focus. It's extremely important not to lose sight of your focus, Hobbs says, giving an example: You wan to teach Mary how to write her name. As she approaches the table, she knocks the pen and pad on the floor, If you insist that she pick them up, what's the focus item? If, after a bit of a struggle, she picks them up and you say "Thank you," your words are rewarding her for the very thing you didn't want her to do. That reward makes it very likely that she'll knock the pen and paper off again.

Hobbs gives another example. When you try to teach Mary how to write her name, she jumps up and runs out of the room. You go after her and physically try to get her to return to the table. She may hit you. In desperation, you try to bribe her: "If you go in the room, Mary, and write your name, I'll give you a donut." Mary says "No." You offer her bigger items but get nowhere.

In Gentle Teaching, the focus would not shift to picking up materials off the floor or deciding whether to accept bribes. If Mary ran down the hall, you would go after, pencil and paper in hand. You would begin teaching right there. If Mary threw the materials on the floor, you would begin working with here there and gradually move towards the table.

Ask Dr. Susan