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Monday, October 15, 2012

Life Happens but Let's Not Make a Habit of It

Life happens. We are rocking along, singing our song, and whoops, something comes up and we are tugged off course. Something upsets our routine, and we cannot get to our regular practice or music lesson or group class. It is just for a brief time, we tell ourselves. We just need to get through the next few days, or this week, or through the weekend, we promise. Maybe we should not go to our lesson this week because we really are not as prepared as we should be.

We go anyway. We hang down our heads and admit that we did not practice well this week. The teacher is understanding. After all, the teacher is a nice person and kind and gracious. The teacher smiles and teaches the same lesson as last week. Or so we think, except that our child is not the same child as last week. So the teacher has to take a few steps further back than the previous lesson. Why is that?

Life does happen. Life happens to me as well. I have pockets of time when life seems to skitter out of control. I have my routines and systems in place to help guide me through these full patches of activities, and I understand how easy it is to get pulled under by life's periodic undertow.

As a teacher, I respond to these parental pronouncements with kindness, understanding, and graciousness. I truly understand. But, I also make sure that I help parents pull out of the downward spiral. Here is how I do that.

First, I explain to the parent what we might see from the child during that lesson today:
  • inappropriate behavior
  • dawdling or reluctance to follow instructions
  • hesitation to participate in any lesson activity
  • frustration that pops up quickly
  • new bad habits
  • shorter attention span
  • lack of concentration and focus or for a shorter period of time than usual
  • improper posture
  • memory slips
Sometimes the parents try to discipline the children for these behaviors, but I try to head that off before it happens. Is it really the child's fault that he or she did not practice adequately the week before? Can we really in good conscience correct the child's behavior for something that the adults created? I think not, but that is what many parents try to do. Instead of examining the cause of the situation, parents are quick to act as if the child can easily spring back to normal with the snap of a finger. And yet, parents are not able to do that. How can we expect a child to snap back to normal that quickly when the parent was unable to do that during the week?

Life does indeed happen. After I explain to the parent what we might see from the child during the lesson, I then discuss how easy it might be for the parent to make "life happens" a habit. Because the parent skipped practices and routine the week before, the parent has now created a big pile of inertia. It is much easier to stay stuck in the mud of nonpractice. One week turns into two weeks. Now nonpractice and the excuse that "life happens" are the new habits and routine.

Here is how I help parents to get out of the rut:
  • We look at the week's calendar together and discuss when practices might occur. I discuss this openly with the parent and sometimes the child too, because I want to be sure that this issue gets addressed. I know the parent is already battling the inertia of not practicing from the previous week, so my partnering in this discussion helps give the parent the sometimes added kick-in-the-pants that the parent needs to get moving in the right direction. Believe me, if I could really offer a physical kick to the parent's rear, I would gladly do it for the sake of the child. I settle for the figurative kick by having this frank discussion about schedule and calendar.
  • We plan a short practice plan for the next 2-3 days, and then a gradually longer plan for the days thereafter. Depending on the current family home situation or the child's age, the short practice might be a five or ten minute practice list. My purpose here is to offer the parent and child something easy to accomplish. This little jolt to combat the nonpractice habit may be enough to get things rolling again.
  • I throw in an element of randomness to the practice plan to get the child's attention and interest. It might be a new game that involves a spinner or dice or a timer. This intrigues the child and helps to reignite the child's and parent's interest in practice.
    • We might make up colored pieces of paper for various activities and then throw a dice of colors to see which activity to do first.
    • We might do a 1-minute bow hold or violin hold to get back into the habit of correct posture. We use a small hourglass (a minute timer) for this or my iPhone's timer.
    • I find that I must completely provide this practice plan in order for it to happen. If I just suggest the idea, the parent is likely to let this slip by. Instead, I actually make up the practice game right there at the lesson. I set up a Popsicle stick game, I provide the spinner and dice, or I make up the colored paper list of practice tasks.
  • I show the parent and child some possible practice sheets that they could use for the coming week. I have downloaded several great examples from Leslie Thackeray's website: The Practice Shoppe. If the parent finds one they are interested in, I send an email link to the particular practice sheet to the parent.
  • We discuss the possibility of trying the 100 Days Practice Challenge. Leslie also has a nice example of that too: 100 Days.
    • I have several prizes that I offer to a student who has completed the 100 days challenge. I give a little Mozart statue, a small violin pin, and another round pin that says "Outstanding Student" along with a certificate and other little doodads. Usually once a student has seen the loot that I will award upon completion of the 100 days challenge, the student is full of interest and motivation.
    • I also explain how parents can help a younger child to make it through the long 100 days period by breaking it up into smaller, more digestible segments. For example, one family promised to award their six-year old son a small fish aquarium on the 100th day, but along the way, the parents awarded the child the parts to the final prize.
      • On the 30th day, the child received the empty aquarium.
      • On the 50th day, the child received the gravel that would go inside. The child was then able to begin putting his aquarium together.
      • On the 75th day, the child received the plastic plants and other figures that would go inside the aquarium, and the child could begin to arrange his aquarium scenario.
      • On the 100th day, the child received the fish.
  • I extract a solemn promise from both the parent and child that they will practice every day in the coming week. The parent and child hold up the bow hand (right hand) and promise to practice. I also note in the student's handbook that the parent and child have made this promise. That way I will be reminded of the promise at the next lesson. Sometimes parents will text me during the week to tell me that the child is being very serious about fulfilling the promise.
  • I might send an email or text message to the parent the next day to follow up on whether the parent has followed through with the practice plan. It amazes me to have a discussion such as all that I have written above here, and yet when I check in with the parent and student the next day, I find that again life has happened and that no practice plan has been followed. Such a short attention span!
I have met some parents here and there who seem to have trouble getting back on track despite my help. These are tougher cases for me. I might have to delve a little deeper into the reasons why the parent wants the child to have lessons when the parent is not helping the child to benefit from the lessons. And on occasion, I might have to let this parent go from the studio. It breaks my heart to do that, and I do not do it lightly or often. I might spend a year or more trying to turn the situation around; parents go through stages too, but that is a different article for another day.

Starting out small with tiny steps for a few days usually gets the parent and child beyond the inertia of nonpractice, although there might be a few days of bumpy drama, as both the parent and child need to work through the inertia together; this is not easy.

My main focus at this point is that life happens, but we do not want to allow this excuse to become a habit.

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