I will never EVER forget my first day of kindergarten.
Unfortunately, there are no words I can find to adequately describe the mind-numbing shock of opening that classroom door and being confronted with no less than 45 other small, loud, fast-moving bodies who were already inside.
There were one or two taller bodies too – I later learned these were called “teachers.”
But it was the short bodies that most concerned me. First of all, there were simply far too many of them. Second of all, they were all too close to me. Third of all, I had just learned I was going to be expected to spend the majority of my days crammed in there with them for a lifetime (or at least for the next 9 months).
That first morning, the teachers sat us down on the floor in rows. Being tall for my age, I was seated at the very end of a row nearest to our lockers. We got our locker assignments and I remember how I spent quite a bit of time that first morning analyzing how best to cram my entire body inside and still be able to close the door.
Finally I had to settle for cramming my backpack and my favorite sidekick at that time, a small beanbag lobster, inside. I figured at least they would be safe if I didn’t make it.
All this to say, when people speak about “going back to kindergarten” to learn a new skill, recover from a harmful habit, or find a way to connect to spirit or God or the divine or whatever they like to call it, I often cannot relate at all.
This is because I learned nothing in kindergarten except how much slower the hands on the clock moved in the morning when we were in class than in the evening when we were not in class.
In my last blog post, I shared about a new book I’m reading called “What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love and Marriage” by Amy Sutherland. It is a very good book….or at least it was until I got to the chapter called “Baby Steps.”
In this chapter, Sutherland talks about how animal trainers often send their charges “back to kindergarten” when they forget or simply mis-remember a behavior.
Her point is that the animal trainers realize they need to gently and patiently retrace all of the steps used before to train an animal to do a behavior, rather than get frustrated or yell or give up or keep insisting the animal remembers when clearly s/he does not.
I get it – I truly do. It is a good strategy.
But I just prefer the term some trainers tend to use – “successive approximation.” This term refers to building (or re-building) a behavior in baby steps. Sutherland offers the example of getting a baboon to ride a skateboard.
In this case, she outlines how the trainer has to first teach the baboon to sit on the skateboard. Then he has to teach her how to remain calm while he moves the skateboard forward and back. Then he has to teach her to stand on the skateboard while it moves. Finally, he has to teach her to use one of her feet to make the skateboard move without his help.
At each stage, the moment the baboon masters the step, she is given a reinforcing reward.
Sutherland then addresses using successful approximation to train (or re-train, as the case may be) human animals who are struggling to learn certain behaviors, such as getting a hearing aid, putting away piles of clothes, or going to yoga.
Rather than tackling the whole task head-on, she advises breaking these big goals down into a series of baby steps and celebrating mastery of each step in turn with an appropriate reinforcing reward.
As I read this, it occurred to me I can and sometimes do use this tactic with myself as well. I can break down big tasks like saving up for a tiny house or writing a new book into baby steps a la successive approximation.
It also occurs to me that I did this with recovery. When I was battling an eating disorder, I realized the main reason I kept regressing in my efforts was because the task itself felt too big, too impossible. So I broke it down. My mentors helped me find small steps I could look for on a daily basis, recognize and reward myself for. Often, the most reinforcing reward was to write each of these steps down as I took them throughout the day and re-read them to myself at day’s end.
My perfectionistic mind loved this – the more it wrote down, the happier it got. And the chance to write down a small victory over the eating disorder made me feel more courageous in doing what was required to achieve that small victory….so I could then write it down, of course.
I had to first do it and then I could write it down. Baby steps. Successive approximation. Returning to kindergarten, if you prefer.
But eventually, no matter what the mentor of the moment may have called it, all those baby steps I took did add up. Today, I look back and marvel that I ever struggled to recover. I marvel that there was ever a me that had to recover from an eating disorder. I marvel that somehow, then-me and now-me, the me I am today, are even related.
I marvel that what took so very many years to achieve and almost cost me my life many times over now feels like a blip on the radar of my life – like a solar flare whose intensity earned it a place in the permanent archives, nothing more, nothing less.
Today’s Takeaway: What is motivational for you when you think about having to retrace your steps to re-learn a lesson or learn something new from the ground up? Do you like the idea of taking baby steps? Or perhaps you loved kindergarten and can easily apply that analogy to the process? Or maybe you are like me and enjoy using big technical-sounding terms for the basic stuff you do. What works best for you when you need to refresh a lesson or learn a new lesson from scratch?