A touch on the shoulder and a temper is tamed

9th May 2003 at 01:00
Sue Curtis explains how dance therapy helps pupils who get out of control

Many years ago a friend of mine told me that whenever she got angry she would throw scatter cushions at the door to feel better. I remember thinking how lame; give me a sledgehammer and a brick wall!

Similarly, many of the children referred for dance movement therapy struggle to control their temper. The experience of their anger is often one of feeling out of control and overwhelmed. They can explode with rage, losing awareness of their own body and the ability to modulate their own impulses. Rather like Billy Elliot angrily dancing and kicking along the street, they crash and bang into others and objects in an attempt to quell and contain their feelings. They may recall afterwards that they "lost it" but often cannot describe or remember what their body did. Words are important when thinking through the consequences of their actions, but what about the impact of bodily-felt sensations that arise with anger and the possibility of responding through the language of the body?

Many schools have "no-touch" policies to protect children from potential harm and teachers from litigation. But would a less rigid approach would be more useful? Touch can be used and experienced as violating; but are we throwing the baby out with the bath water?

In my experience, all teachers need training and support to reflect upon when and what kind of touch is appropriate. They need to understand the difference between restraining a child and their own need to control - the boundary between comforting a child or satisfying their own need. In relation to children's expressions of anger, the dilemma for new teachers is: are they confident they can help children to control their impulses and feel they have made the right decisions?

In dance movement therapy, the issue of touch and physical contact is a constant theme. Rather than simply stating "no touch", the sessions can help children understand appropriate boundaries; when, where and how to touch, and how to look after themselves and others. For many children the struggle to get attention, care and support always involves an element of physical contact. In addition, those who lose control can make an important contribution about what type of touch would be most effective in preventing them from harming themselves or others.

Dance movement therapy aims to foster integration and understanding within a safe and supportive environment. It provides a safe place to explore and think about physical options while also empowering the child.

One boy who lost his temper often in class, could only remember kicking furniture and was oblivious to the fact that he screamed and thrashed around on the floor with his limbs flailing madly in all directions, often hitting other children. We swapped roles to help him and at first he laughed when he saw me mirror his movement. Eventually he decided it helped if he sat down and held his legs with his arms, and that I could gently place my arms over his so he could feel contained. When he was in a rage he blocked people out as they shouted at him to stop. With movement he realised that placing a hand lightly on his shoulder cued him into the awareness of an adult and that if they said his name softly he could hear it.

We decided he could try this in the classroom though it might take time to work. He wrote out his plan and asked me to show his teacher, as well as the special needs co-ordinator, to whom he was often sent. The next week the Senco said that in one of his rages he stormed into her office and sat on the floor holding his legs. She held his arms while he calmed down.

These attempts may not work each time, but children do respond to the process of being involved and coming to trust that an adult is on their side, working with them, rather than seeming punitive.

Adopting an approach that is child-centred and child-negotiated can be empowering to pupils and staff alike.

To go to extremes with a no-touch policy denies both pupils and teachers the opportunity to find confidence in managing emotional material and joint responsibility for successful strategies.

Sue Curtis is a senior registered dance movement therapist working with children and adolescents within mainstream and special education

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