Early support in schools can be a real game-changer for ‘disruptive’ children. Child Psychotherapist Adriana Buzetto shares her story of therapeutic work with a nine year old boy in the school setting.
(Names and identifying details have been changed to maintain confidentiality)
I’d like to share the story of Zain, a 9 year-old boy who was referred to therapy because of his disruptive behaviour at school. To me this is a beautiful and quite straight-forward example of how early support can really be a game changer.
Zain was referred to therapy because he was behind academically and didn’t manage friendships well. He was often in trouble and the teachers didn’t know what strategies to use as everything they’d tried hadn’t worked. The school staff was worried because Zain would soon move to secondary school and they knew the importance of supporting him before this big transition. At home life was difficult; no boundaries or structure and a family dynamic that placed Zain in the “bad child” position.
When I first met Zain my experience of him was of a lifeless child rather than the angry trouble-maker that was described to me. I observed him in the classroom and noticed that he was constantly fidgeting as if his body could not be contained. But in the playground, he was a completely different child. He even looked taller. He was very physical – running, playing football, shouting. He seemed extremely confident but also quite intimidating. As soon as something didn’t go his way he’d explode and subsequently get into trouble.
One day, during our session Zain mentioned to me that he liked dancing. He said this without much enthusiasm but there was a spark in his eyes that I hadn’t seen before. He told me that he liked copying the movemets from a YouTube channel called ‘animal dance.’ I suggested that at the end of our sessions we could play the video and dance in the room. His face immediately lit up and from that moment his engagement with the sessions completely shifted. He would arrive for therapy excited and the first thing he’d ask would be:
C – Miss Adriana, can we dance at the end of the session?
T – Yes, if you want we can!
C – Yeess! (together with an arm gesture)
Listening to ‘animal dance’ and imitating their moves, Zain loved to show me how good he was and laughed at how uncoordinated I was! Zain was full of energy – the dance for him wasn’t just something he was good at and proud of but also a release of physical energy. Before he was applying this energy to fights in the playground or just having to suppress it, making him restless in the classroom.
Zain’s progress was noticed by everyone around him, he started to feel confident and get attention for positive behaviour. In the therapy room he was more confident to explore and try new things. One day he decided to make a sand castle. He got a plastic cup, filled it with sand and as the sand wasn’t wet enough it wouldn’t sustain the shape and would collapse. Zain would then express the same hopelessness I noticed at the beginning of our work. He would give up and shift to another activity.
A few months had passed and his progress was steady. Zain was doing well academically, socially and was more capable of reflecting and expressing his feelings in therapy. And again he tried to build a sand castle. He got the plastic cup and started making a castle. He did it silently. Sometimes he’d get it right, sometimes the sand would collapse but this time he didn’t give up. Instead he carried on and tried again and again until he made a castle. When I brought his attention to the fact that this time he didn’t give up and asked what was different, he said to me, “I can do things properly if I put my mind to it”. That insight was a big discovery for Zain. Not just in terms of confidence, but also taking responsibility for his actions.
Many months have passed and our work was coming to an end. Once again Zain wanted to play with the sand and build a castle. He picked up the cup and started to build towers, one by one and with much attention and care. When the castle was ready he placed a Lego miniature of a boy on top. He then looked at me and said:
C – I finished!
T – Wow… So tell me a bit about what you made here…
C – This is a castle and the boy on top lives in the castle! He built the castle and he is now on top, looking at what he built, he is very happy and proud of what he did. He has learned many things…
T – What has he learned?
C – He learned that he can make things… he can even fly…
T – He can do things he didn’t know he could. And he learned lots about himself as well… he looks very proud..
C – Yes!
T – I can see that he worked very hard to get to where he is…
C – Yes…
To me this case is a good example of how important – and simple – early interventions can be. Very often all a child needs is somebody that can see what is good in them. In a time when parents and teachers are overworked and overwhelmed, the disruptive aspect of the child is an inconvenience that easily can become all others can see. That’s when the therapist work can really have an impact.
Taking Zain’s interests into consideration – the dance – and giving him the opportunity to show it to me was a relatively easy intervention and yet fundamental to shift his self image and emotional process.
From the moment he felt “seen” for something positive he started to blossom. He felt safe and free to take risks, like try activities that he wasn’t good at. To have the courage and determination to build the sand castle despite its fragile structure, doing it again and again till he mastered it was a symbolic consolidation of his process in therapy, a metaphor of what he has achieved and his way to communicate it to me, his therapist, as we came to the end of our work together.