Sunday, March 01, 2009

Discipline and Mentoring, Part Three: Mentoring

This essay is the third part of a series.

Part one discussed three different ways to teach a learner who is so young he or she lacks the self-control or skill to succeed in a situation.
  • Training taught a specific behavior in an arranged, calm, patient setting using gesture, phrase, and negative reinforcement. It was mechanical and anti-social.
  • Teaching taught a specific, simple skill. It took advantage of "teachable moments", was very conversational, and was social and fun.
  • Correction taught norms and self-control to a child too young to be responsible for her or her behavior. Before being redirected to better behavior, the child was led through the steps of being aware of his or her action, comparing it to a standard, and then doing something to fix or apologize for the mistake.
Part two formed a segue by categorizing the above three techniques as discipline. The young child lacked the self-discipline (self-control and skill) to be successful so the teacher had to compensate for the lack. In contrast, mentoring used three parallel teaching techniques with a learner that did have the prerequisite self-discipline.

Practicing a simple skill requires training. This is even true with a lone adult. When learning to play a musical instrument it is important to practice scales for several minutes each day: this is as arranged, patient, and anti-social as any other training; there is still reinforcement, both the disappointment when a mistake is made and the pleasure when mistakes are avoided.

Learning a compound skill requires more than training. A compound skill is best taught be mimicry and example. If I want to learn how to use a potter's wheel, or do the motions of a martial arts form, or how to better focus my mind in prayer, then I should study under someone who has already mastered the skill. This type of mentoring I'll called apprenticeship.

In many ways apprenticeship resembles training. It usually happens in an arranged environment. There is often little dialogue since sufficient supervision and guidance is a few timely reminders or hints. Patience and calm is required. It is anti-social in the sense that the situation is impersonal: the pair of mentor and learner are acting out roles with little opportunity for being social or expressing personality.

With apprenticeship, what is valued is mastering the compound skill.

Learning a simple skill for the first time requires teaching (as previously defined).

I will call the equivalent type of mentoring explorations. Like teaching it is social, fun, and involves a lot of conversation. It builds off of many "teachable moments" that arise as the learner explores a new setting to develop concepts and foundations.

Once Smiley develops the self-discipline to not want to put every plant he sees in his mouth I could take him to the back yard to explore its different plants and places. Perhaps he would learn about textures and colors. Perhaps he would try rolling down the hill, crawling through leaves, or climbing into bushes. Perhaps he would learn what I refer to with the words "rhododendron" and "hellebore". I do not know beforehand what will develop, but he will be learning.

Similarly, once Smiley develops the self-discipline to turn a book's pages one at a time we can explore how books tell stories. Perhaps he will point to each character in each picture and ask, "Who's that?" Perhaps he will care about the overall narrative. Again, I do not plan a lesson but supervise and guide his learning.

With exploration, what is valued is discovery, making connections, and refining vocabulary.

Learning behavioral norms for the first time requires correction (as previously defined).

The equivalent type of mentoring is mediation. As with correction the learner is helped to focus on his or her actions and feelings, be mindful of the standard, and fix the damage by making an apology or facing an appropriate consequence. But in mediation all the children involved are assumed to have the prerequisite self-control and skill to handle the situation so the mentor only needs to provide supervision and guidance. There is no longer a need to separate the misbehaving child or to use a question to help shift the focus from what is wanted.

The most effective routine I know for nearly all mediation situation involves this fill-in-the-blank sentence that both parties in the conflict use:
When you _____
I feel _____;
please _____.
The first phrase is simply to help the child get started. It is incredibly natural to cite what was done to you before shifting focus to yourself.

The second phrase recognizes that, for children, the harm in most offenses is emotional. Nate would have been willing to let Jill have a turn with that toy if she had asked nicely, but she just grabbed it. Jill would have enjoyed sharing the blocks and building things with Nate, but he barged in and took blocks from what she had built to start his own edifice.

The third phrase asks the child to take some responsibility in resolving the conflict. The child's request might not be polite ("go away") and might not be helpful ("let me play with this toy until I am bored with it"). But whatever is said the child has had once more occasion of responding verbally instead of with fight or flight.

After both children have made use of this sentence the mentor mediates an outcome. Perhaps it is unreasonable for Nate to use the toy until he is bored with it but a timer can be used to start taking five-minute turns. Perhaps both children have stated workable outcomes and the mentor's only job is to praise them for resolving the situation on their own.

If a young child who normally has the self-discipline to offer an apology is emotionally worn out by the mediation process a second kind of vicarious apology may be a helpful part of resolving the conflict. Ideally the child tells the mentor what to say to the other party. Unlike the vicarious apology of correction, this is not speaking instead an immature child who lacks the self-control or skill to apologize, but speaking "along side" a more mature child who recognizes an imbalance in desires, attitude, and energy level. Metaphorically it is not carrying an immobile runner across the finish line, only offering an elbow to lean upon during the last few steps.

With mediation, what is valued are the feelings of the children, but the feelings are explicitly not license to act inappropriately.

All three types of mentoring also work with adults.

The years I led a religious congregation I made use of all three. I would use apprenticeship to help someone practice the words to a liturgical prayer or the steps to a worship dance. I would use exploration to allow a service to be worshipful to all congregants in different ways, and to guide the discussion after each sermon. I would use mediation (sometimes with that same preschoolers' procedure) when congregants had conflicts.


Danielle said...

OK. So I get it mostly. I really want to stress that in my opinion all children have the words to solve the conflict its just hard to say them because the child's impulse is to react on emotion. the apology in a conflict is never required because whats the point of saying your sorry if you don't mean it because you are still angry or sad. Or the child may start to rely on this phrase to get out of what he/she did. What is required is that the words on both sides of the conflict are heard and a possible solution is made. the children work together to come up with a way both sally and billy can play with the truck. Now the adult I agree is just there for the mediation of the process but never puts the words into the child's mouth or tell the child how that made him/her feel because we can't possibly know how that made the child feel. We are not the child. We as the teacher/parent can make and educated guess but still it is not fair to the child.
There are "teachable moments" but what you do with those moments is the key. If your child shows interest in plants,keys, or computer cords give that child an opportunity to explore a similar object so that the child will get what he/she needs. the child needs to feel,smell,touch,eat and see the earth. That is what he is saying to you. He wants to explore the jingle of the keys and because daddy uses them its more appealing. the child wants to explore the long cord to the computer because he might see his family using this really neat thing. SO WHAT DO YOU DO? you provide the child the opportunity to explore these materials in a safe way that promotes respect for boundaries but still allowing freedom. So in respect for the earth, take the child outside so that he can explore the plants and when he is back inside and begins eating the plants tell him that his is not a choice and that outside plants are and carry him outside. Keys: Give the child some play keys of his own and whenever he reaches or grabs yours let him know that that is not a choice but here is what is a choice to play with and hand him his keys. this allows the child to explore the material but still respecting boundaries. Cord: Get the child a play phone with a small cord. the child will get the experience with the cord that he wants.
So in conclusion children have interest and want to explore the world. the key is to observe the child and try and provide as close to the interest as possible. the child will understand what is his and what is the teachers/parents.
Emerge the interactions between you and the child with what the child wants to learn about.

David V.S. said...

Hi again, Danielle,

Thanks again for writing thoughtfully.

We'll just have to agree to disagree about "all children have the words". When you are a preschool teacher I certainly hope your classrooms only have children that mature.

When I taught preschool I did have a few less mature students, sadly. They had just turned three. Their parenting, from what I observed during home visits, consisted largely of "Hush, mommy's busy" or "Go play with your toys" or the threatening gesture of reaching for the belt. Those children, through no fault of their own, really could mean they were sorry but not have these words on their own -- let alone the words to negotiate a resolution.

(And you are correct, of course, that once they learned how to apologize they tried to use apologies as a "get out of trouble free" card. That is actually not a hard problem to deal with as the teacher.)

The younger the child, the more a parent has a balancing act of being "fair to the child" verses "being the child". But by the time a child is preschool age this is less of an issue. As an example, at eleven months Smiley has not yet consistently learned to change focus when frustrated or tired. Today it was grabbing some rhododendron leaves out of reach, and later not wanting to stop riding his scooter when tired. Sometimes I am "fair" and let him process being frustrated and eventually deciding to do something else. At other times I "become him" and point out a new choice (the oregano leaves are in reach) or give him motivation (talk to him and run ahead of him to give him energy to keep scooting).

We'll also have to agree to disagree about vicarious apologies.

We do agree that the adult cannot fill in for the child the "I feel ____" part of my mediation procedure. Only the child knows his or her feelings.

This is true even if the child obviously picks the wrong word(s) for his or her feelings. Even at preschool age most children get feeling-words wrong (for example, they usually do not know the difference between "angry" and "frustrated", and some even confuse these with "sad"). But the middle of the mediation process is not the time to put in teaching about feeling-words unless the other child is confused by the mistake.

At eleven months, Smiley is too young to understand "similar objects". Toy plastic keys are not in his mind a substitute for real keys. (Real keys often contain lead and are not suitable for infant playthings.) He enjoys eating our garden herbs but does not see these as similar to the rhododendron and hellebore which are very different-looking and grow in different places (and are very poisonous).

Again, by preschool age this is not much of an issue -- preschoolers generally have developed the concept of "similar objects" and love to use toy versions of adult items. By that age children do "understand what is theirs" and are usually content, for example, to use the toy kitchen stuff instead of the real stuff.