Burnaby program eases child's stress and trauma
A group of boys from Burnaby high schools is asked to choose a photo that resonates with them from the pile spread on the table.
One teen chooses an image of a beach with the word "love" drawn in the sand. When asked why, he says, "It's the last time I remember seeing my mother alive."
It's these hints of trauma and stress that a Burnaby school district program aims to elicit, as social workers and district staff try to ensure local immigrant and refugee kids get the help they need.
Dubbed "Body Worlds and the Brain," the program was developed two years ago by B.C. Children's Hospital psychologist Dr. Sarina Kot, who specializes in trauma. The Burnaby program has since become a model for other school districts which are trying to emulate it.
The program is still in its early stages, said Peter van den Hoogen, the district's coordinator of student intervention and support services. So far, the eight-week program has run twice, and has been aimed at immigrant and refugee boys in grades 8 to 12.
Participants are selected from students who may be exhibiting behavioural or withdrawal problems or just generally having trouble at school. It tries to address the entire range of issues from settlement stress—such as having English as a second language, separation from extended family and family stress—to trauma, including war, refugee camps, violence and death of a family member before arriving in Canada.
The challenge is that most kids won't agree to counselling due to the stigma involved, said van den Hoogen, lead facilitator for the program. The program tries to teach participants in an indirect way that it's OK to talk about their fears.
"Counselling through the back door is what we call it."
Sessions are usually held at the Burnaby Youth Hub, a non-school location that offers a youth drop-in and other services. The boys are given lessons in martial arts to help boost confidence and teach discipline and self control. A ropes course, in which they navigate ropes 40-feet in the air, teaches them that "when you face major obstacles, you can't just do it alone."
Then there's van den Hoogen's rescue dog, Max, who likely plays the most powerful role in the program.
Participants are told Max's story, which involves being abused to the point he avoided eye contact, being abandoned and then found running with wild dogs on a First Nations reserve in northern B.C. No one would adopt him up there, van den Hoogen said, because he was scared of people and spent his time cowering in the back of his cage.
Max was eventually sent to an SPCA branch in the Lower Mainland where van den Hoogen and his partner adopted him and set about retraining him. Even still, Max's legs will occasionally quiver, in an almost subconscious reaction to people and his surroundings.
Van den Hoogen said all the teens in the program relate to Max. And their discussions of what the dog has been through, how it behaves as a result, and how they can help, serve almost as a mirror into their own troubles.
Other times, the boys are paired off and given an assignment that invariably results in discussions about their personal experiences and feelings.
"We don't pry into what's going on, we just watch and come up with a plan," van den Hoogen said.
Eventually, the students learn that it's acceptable, and even normal within the group, to have gone through stress and trauma, and that it's OK to get help.
Van den Hoogen said already the two groups of students that have completed the program are showing improved attendance at school, and improved self-esteem and confidence. Several have agreed to go into counselling. And through engaging families at a family night event at the end of the program, facilitators even convinced a participant's sister to return to school after she'd dropped out earlier.
While he's fielding numerous calls to help start up the program elsewhere, he said organizers hope first to eventually expand it to include a girls program (a co-ed program would be challenging for cultural reasons) and to do a formal evaluation of its success to augment the anecdotal evidence it's got so far.
"We're just starting," he stressed.