Twenty some-odd years ago I learned how to overcome public-speaking anxiety during the initial moments when audience eyes fell upon me. The trick, I discovered, was getting people to look away while I pulled myself together. My method was throwing colorful, plastic balls around the room and asking people to throw them to each other.
This quirky icebreaker worked fabulously loosening people up and causing everyone to engage each other at my professional development trainings and Family Storytelling Nights. You might say I’d discovered an innovative strategy; all I knew was that it worked and that was reason enough to keep doing it.
Turns out there’s a neuroscientific reason why my ball-toss activity—and other physical icebreakers that speakers use—work so well, says Mark Goulston, M.D., author of Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone: If you can get someone to uncross their arms to you physically, they’ve uncrossed their mind to you also, he told me.
For a decade I’d used that icebreaker at my events never knowing why it worked. Did the knowing make any difference? Academically speaking, yes, because it was good information to apply in other contexts, but as practical matter, no, because I was going to keep doing the ball-toss icebreaker at my events anyway—because it worked!
Similarly, you say and do unique things—whether inadvertently or on purpose—that accomplish your goals, directly or indirectly leading to positive outcomes. Each of us possess—individually and as programs—the ability to innovate, rely on our innate abilities, draw from the literature and research as we can, and purvey our good intentions onto the families we serve.
Like my ball toss icebreaker, your best events, activities, and interactions with children, families, and peers are likely working for you in the sense that they make positive things happen for the people you educate and advocate for. So, you’re probably going to keep right on doing those successful things even if research and other forms of validation haven’t caught up to your innovations yet.
Perhaps there’s a special way you tell stories to the children in your sphere of influence? Do you greet parents a certain awesome way that gets them engaged at your events? Do you say, or do something unique on home visits that gains instant rapport with moms and dads? Chances are good you’re going to keep right on doing whatever that thing is for one reason: because it works!
Yes, adhering to research-based best practices and program/school approved methods to optimally support children and families in the child-and-family-advocacy sphere brings consistently positive results. Things would get hectic quickly if people chose to experiment all the time while ignoring best practices and research-driven strategies in the classroom and across programs and child-and-family advocacy endeavors.
Yet, even as the best course is to follow the lead of those who’ve paved the path to successful procedures and techniques before us, we must remember that we are innovators too, and we are also the creators of new best practices to come. After all, you innovate daily as you strive to optimize how you meet the needs of those you care for and serve, and it’s conceivable that you’re doing great things right now, today, in your classroom or organization that may one day become bona-fide best practices in the industry—even though the research hasn’t caught up to your innovations yet!
So, even though the research may lag behind us, and we must adhere to our organization/program/school policies and procedures—and approved best practices—we also need to remember to innovate and create new systems and methods that we know work.
For instance, chances are good you promote these whole child tenets: doing things that keep children healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. Perhaps you say things to parents or peers—inadvertently or otherwise—that honor your families, team members, and colleagues, and maybe you do things to promote equity in your program, school, or community.
If you’re striving to apply your professional and personal talents to your endeavors, and you are repeating over and over something that works for you, then you are probably doing something wonderful even though no research might yet exist for the doing of that thing!
Programs inviting me to lead Family Storytelling Nights know I’ll teach and challenge parents to tell stories and create family storyboards honoring each other. They invite bilingual interpreters to attend, further optimizing everyone’s success at the event.
If you are developing systems, methods, events, or ways of communicating with parents, children, and peers—and whether you’re an early-care educator, serve foster families, children who need behavioral health support, or are promoting a trauma-informed workforce—and you’ve found methods that work, then keep on doing things because, as long as you’re adhering the policies of your program, the research might catch up to your tried and tested methods eventually!