Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Giving Troubled Kids a Better Story

This post may be especially relevant for teachers, counselors, and other community professionals who work with at-risk young people.

Last week-end an art therapist posted the following message on a creative arts listserv to which I belong:

I am running a group for 6 students in 3rd grade who have behavior problems and aggression. I found that for the first group, the rules were consistently broken, even when reinforced and warnings were given. I spent so much time on just trying to get the students to be quiet when someone else was talking, take turns, ask for materials rather than grab them from another student, sit in their chair, not name call, tease or swear, that there was little time to focus on the artwork. Any advice on things that will work for them?

This was my response:

I co-facilitated a social skills summer camp for special needs kids with many of the problems you described. They ranged in age from 6 to 12 and there were 10 of them.

What I did was to give them a better story than the one they were used to hearing about themselves -- a profoundly negative story that was imprinting itself more deeply every day on their sense of who they were and what life would be like for them. I completely changed the ballgame from a therapeutic or teaching environment into a Native American warrior rite. (Thus going with their aggressive impulses rather than trying to change them.)

To start with, I played non-percussive music -- mostly Carlos Nakai -- to create a relaxed and mysterious space totally outside of their ordinary lives. All the chairs were placed in a circle and they drew on the floor. I had each one draw fire (implicitly allowing safe expression of their anger and aggression through the metaphor of flames) and had them arrange their drawings together to create a campfire in the middle. I named my co-facilitator -- a social worker -- the Village Chief and myself the Medicine Chief. (Amazing how we both rose to those roles!)

I defined the kids as braves who were becoming adult warriors of the tribe. Their mission was to protect the people, not go to war because that wasn't necessary. All activities and social skills teachings were presented within this context of a brave band of warriors and their mentors. I told stories and myths about indigenous people and they responded with pictures and stories about themselves (some revealing through metaphor that they were experiencing violence, chaos, or trauma at home), and they learned the "warrior code" of behavior rather than "social skills" or "rules of conduct." There were no sticks, but there were plenty of colored rubber balls. To talk, you had to ask for and hold a "talking ball." Only it turned out not to be a ball; the kids decided that it was a sacred fossil containing the bones of a dinosaur that were the source of the power of the tribe and its warriors.

What happened with most of the children was that they were so spellbound by the imaginative world they found themselves in and who they were within that world that they forgot to be disruptive. Teaching took place "under the radar."

It wasn't perfect, of course, but we built in an exit point whereby kids who were disruptive could ask for or be "given" a time-out to go out into the hall with one of the co-facilitators to talk or just to sit quietly. No punishment, just calming retreat.

A year or so later, I used basically the same approach in a more subtle, sophisticated way with youths in a diversion from incarceration program and after that, with teens with HIV/AIDS who were living on the streets. Again, it imbued the groups and each member with a dignity and respect from adults and other kids that they rarely if ever had experienced, and they got to perform "up" to that new self-image rather than "down" to the low expectations most adults had for them.

All of us -- especially children and teens (and adults going through difficult times of loss and transition) -- hunger for dignity and self-expression within the structure of respectful community, as well as some kind of "roadmap" or pathway forward to a better sense of self and future. I've found the traditional rite of passage model and myths of all cultures immensely useful in creating these kinds of dynamic and nurturing environments.

by Juliet Bruce. All rights reserved.