The use of Juggling as a Therapeutic Approach in Work with Traumatized Children. By Rita Baptista.

This is a final assignment paper written for the Mulberry Bush Foundation Degree in ‘Therapeutic work with children and young people’ accredited by UWE. Rita Baptista is a Therapeutic Care Practitioner at the School. References to individual children have been anonymised.  

Introduction

The present assignment consists of the final project of the Foundation Degree in Therapeutic Work with Children and Young People (FdA), which is a contractual obligation of my work place, the Mulberry Bush School (MBS). The MBS ‘is a school that exists specifically to provide care, education and residential treatment for seriously emotionally damaged boys and girls, aged five to twelve, who have failed to develop a secure sense of ego integration and identity’ (Diamond, 1998, p.199).

I have worked at the MBS for almost two and half years as a Therapeutic Childcare Practitioner. As part of my role I initiated a Juggling Club. I have chosen to dedicate this final project to writing about this. In the first section I will explain the reasons why I have chosen this element of my practice as the center of my assignment and what the motivations were behind the creation of a Juggling Club in a therapeutic school. In the second part, I will explore the suitability of teaching and learning techniques, specifically applicable to the Juggling Club. Finally, in the third section of this project I will explain how the Juggling Club became visible and accessible to the whole community.

Within the body of this project I will attempt to summarize how I integrate my theoretical understanding in my practice, based on the reflection of my work in the Juggling Club. I will refer to some examples of my reflective journal to illustrate how effective it has been in developing my direct practice, particularly in reference to the Juggling Club. For reasons of confidentiality, I have altered the children’s name and any possible identifying elements.

Part I – Why Juggling?!

I learned how to juggle fifteen years ago, in a Circus Summer Camp, with the intent of performing at “Immaginarus”, the International Street Theatre Festival of Santa Maria da Feira (a Portuguese city). Over the years my passion for the art of juggling has grown and I have attempted to share this passion with others at every opportunity. When I was in training as a Social Pedagogue, I realized that juggling was and would always be part of my professional life as well as a pastime. I found I could use juggling to help people to believe in themselves and to support them in discovering how to achieve their full potential. During the fifteen years I have been juggling, I have taught others how to juggle in multiple contexts, such medieval fairs, street theatre festivals, children’s parties, universities, children’s homes, cruise ships and in social projects in some developing countries.

I am not alone in recognizing how the art of juggling can be a beneficial tool. In the documentary ‘Juggling for Success at Hazel Dell School` (1992), the benefits of providing juggling breaks for their students is explored. In the documentary, the teachers agree that such an initiative contributed towards the improvement of their students’ academic results. Another example is Performers without Borders (PWB). This UK-based charity supports vulnerable children in developing countries through circus and performing. Ball (2013, p.23) believes that ‘through engaging with and learning performance and circus skills, children can develop their social skills, teamwork and confidence, overcome social barriers and realize their full potential’. Finnigan (1979, p.1) adds that ‘juggling it is not an art form reserved for circus people, but it is a physically and mentally relaxing form of recreation which can help us to discover and nurture our innate coordination’. In addition, the Hungarian juggler Gora (2011), when asked about the meaning of teaching children how to juggle, mentions that ‘it is nice to give a hobby to them to train their body and mind with the language of play, but the most important message is: nothing is impossible’ (Gora, 2011, p.33).

With this all in mind, when I started working at the MBS I investigated the possibility of creating a Juggling Club. It was implemented six months later. The creation of the Juggling Club coincided with the beginning of my studies in the FdA. Early on I realized that the Juggling Club would make a good topic for my final project. As I developed my theoretical understanding of my practice through the FdA, I became more and more aware of the relevance much of my research had in relation to my experience within the Juggling Club.

Michael Gelb and Tony Buzan (1994) describe how Michael Gelb developed a technique of using juggling to communicate his ideas on learning how to learn. He called this the Juggling Metaphor method. This method was one I favored when teaching in the MBS Juggling Club. At the MBS children have the opportunity to learn or improve many skills such as singing, swimming, football, basketball, gymnastic, tennis, dancing, drawing and painting. Multiple concepts of any of these subjects could be applied in any learning process, including the ones that happen inside a classroom. Nevertheless, according to Gelb and Buzan (1994), juggling offers something distinct, as it involves keeping a number of things “up in the air” at the same time, and the inevitable drops provide a supreme opportunity for children to learn and accept that everyone needs to do wrong in order to do right afterwards.

Additionally, I believe in teaching the children I work with a new skill (in this context, juggling) as this activity has the potential to become the “the golden key” to helping them understand that they are able to be proud of themselves and consequently to increase their self-esteem and resilience. When reflecting on my work in the Juggling Club, I am very aware of the severe trauma experienced by the children and its impact on their learning. As Archer & Gordon (2006, p.16) clarify when referring to traumatized children, `sadly their first language, their ‘mother tongue’, is the language of trauma and hurt, based on models of an unsafe and unpredictable world`. Related to this idea, Gerhardt (2015) explains that being the object of others negative attention or being ignored, acts like an acid that eats away the self-esteem. Similarly, when referring specifically to the children who study at the MBS, one of the MBS’s psychotherapists highlights that ‘anxiety is high as previous school experiences and permanent exclusions have left the children with low self-esteem and little capacity to think of themselves as learners’ (Onions, 2013, p.14). In this sense, Brooks (1994) defines self-esteem as the ability of recognizing our own value, being capable to answer for ourselves and to act sensibly towards others`. Daniel and Wassell (2002) consider self-esteem as one of the fundamental building blocks of resilience. In this way, Gillian (1997), considers resilience as the capacity to transcend adversity. The same author explains that resilience ‘may be seen as the essential quality which care planning and provision should seek to stimulate as a key outcome of the care offered’ (Gilligan, 1997, p.14). My understanding of these concepts which helped to inspire and motivate me to teach juggling at MBS.

Part II – The exploration of suitable teaching and learning techniques

The first time I saw someone juggling, I asked him to teach me. The instructions I received were: “Take these three juggling balls home. Practice juggling two balls with one hand and when you get good at it, use both hands to practice with three balls”. I tried to follow the instructions and for one year I wasn’t able to succeed juggling three balls. As I didn’t believe I was making good progress, my motivation was very low and I would practice very rarely and never longer than ten minutes. One year later I participated in a Circus Summer Camp and the juggling teacher taught me how to throw one juggling ball with my dominant hand and to catch it with the other hand. Instantly I was successful in the task and the teacher taught me how to do exactly the same but using two juggling balls, one in each hand. After watching the teacher and trying a few times, I was also successful. Finally, I was taught to do the same using three balls. It took some patience, but a few tries after I was capable. What had seemed impossible for an entire year was suddenly achievable and started to be part of my daily routine.

Although I know now that to start juggling with two balls in one hand is a teaching technique used for some jugglers (perhaps it was also how they learned it), it wasn’t the method suitable for me. I learned that when it comes to learning, an individual approach is important. This is something we practice in general at MBS. It is understood that each child needs different strategies to be motivated and engaged. Ken Robinson (2011) explores the importance of creativity in education and argues that learning is personal, and so learning should be personalized for every student.

Looking back on my reflective journal there is one example of a child that challenged me to be creative in my approach to encouragement.

24th March 2017: … Catia has been attending to the Juggling Club once a week for six months and for the entire time, she used to choose watching others to juggle. Every time I approached Catia to teach her, she declined the opportunity of trying. I thought that it might be because Catia was too scared of failing in front of other children, so I asked Catia individually a few times, outside the Juggling Club and she always said “no”. As I knew what Catia’s favorite film was, I one day brought three Disney juggling balls to Juggling Club (the balls were decorated with pictures of the film). When Catia was looking at all juggling equipment, she saw these pictures juggling balls and smiled, knowing that they had not been present at previous sessions. She picked up the balls and sat in the corner, watching other children juggling. At the end of the session, I felt that if I asked Catia if she would like to take the balls with her, she would say “no”. So, I waited until later on in the day and with no one witnessing, I left those juggling balls in the corridor near Catia’s bedroom door. The next time I saw those balls again was two weeks later in the Juggling Club, when Catia was juggling until four. Using the positive association Catia had with that film, I was able to encourage her to fully participate in the juggling club.

Positivity is an important part of teaching and learning. Another element I consider central while teaching juggling involves providing, in a positive manner, immediate and precise feedback to the children. I strongly agree that there is always something positive to mention about their practice, and not only when children achieve what they perceive as high levels of competence. Robert Pangrazi (1997) agrees, stating that specific feedback regarding performance encourages continued participation and it can stimulate children to extend their participation habits on their own. Gelb and Buzan (1994) also agree that in order to access our potential for learning, our brain needs clear goals and accurate feedback. Therefore, in the Juggling Club, despite the verbal feedback I always offer the children, they also get what I named Juggling Certificates. When children juggle with three balls for the first time, I tell them what they need to achieve to get their first certificate. Although frequently children get their first certificate when they first juggle until ten, this is not a fixed rule, as I adapt the requirements to the specific learning rhythms of different children. When offering feedback to children, I often discuss with them their next targets or goals. In this sense, I keep a record of each child’s progress. In the juggling cupboard, each child has a book with their name on it and in the first page says: ‘Don’t worry about the catch, remember, a throw is more important than a catch, because if you don’t throw it you cannot catch it’ (Finnigan, 1993, p.20).

Robert Pangrazi (1997), when referring to methods on how to teach physical education to children, agrees that the physical activities should be perceived by children as challenging but not threatening. According to the same author, if an activity is perceived as difficult but achievable it is considered to be challenging. However, if the activity is perceived as an impossible task, it is threatening. In conformance with this idea, I agree that for most children at MBS juggling could be perceived as a threatening activity, as it first appears in their eyes as an impossible task. I therefore consider it fundamental when teaching juggling to simplify each complex move down into its smallest possible components and build it up again, step by step. Carolyn Webster-Stratton (1999) agrees with this approach, writing about how to in promoting children’s emotional competence, it is important for teachers to give realistic commands which they believe their students are able to accomplish. I incorporated these ideas into my teaching and was careful to ensure the instructions I gave were not perceived by the children as unachievable. I feared that to not do this would result in the children not wanting to even try, convinced that they will fail. I was aware that if I were to start my first lesson by sitting on a chair, juggling three balls, increasing the speed and moving my legs up and down while telling the children “this is what you will be doing at the end of this lesson”, the children would probably give up before even trying. By making the task seem too complex, I would likely guarantee that the learning process would start with a sequence of disappointments. Instead, I agree that the beginning of any learning activity, including juggling, should comprise of a series of inspiring successes (for instance to throw one ball with one hand and to catch it with the other hand). I believe that while learning a new skill, each time we succeed, our confidence grows, inspiring us onward to greater success. In addition, I support the view that a juggling lesson should finish on a high note, as to ensure the strongest memory is a positive one until the next practice session. Gelb and Buzan (1994) approve of such a strategy, agreeing this technique will contribute to building the confidence that nurtures a positive learning cycle.

Moreover, Gelb and Buzan (1994) also advocates that juggling and any other learning activity always embraces three different stages: plateaus, declines and periods of sharp improvement. While teaching children how to juggle I transmit this idea explaining that even the best jugglers in the world have moments where it seems that they are getting worse, despite their consistent practice. Usually, after clarifying this to children, they often reply something under the lines of “Ah, that’s why in the other day I juggled until seven and today the best I can do it’s four”. Nevertheless, regardless of any encouraging words, these moments are frequently directed by feelings of frustration, hopelessness and desolation, causing children to give up. In every context I have taught juggling, these moments of the learning process are always characterized by similar phrases, such as “I told you that juggling wasn’t my thing”, “I knew I am bad at coordination”, “I just can’t”. One strategy that I found valuable in such moments was to ask the children to pretend they are just starting to learn to juggle. I ask them to go back to the first step. Through the repetition of the simplest movements that they have already acquired, children often experience improvements without expecting it.

On the other hand, Gelb and Buzan (1994, p.27) also argue that ‘by stretching yourself beyond your perceived level of competence you accelerate your development of competence`. It is common in these situations (and the MBS children are not an exception) that there will be some protest: “How will I be able to juggle three if I can’t do it properly with two”? or “How can you expect me to make ten throws if I still find it difficult to juggle until five?”. Nevertheless, despite all the protests I found this strategy quite efficient.

While my academic research had been very beneficial to developing my teaching methods within the juggling club, I also found that the use of my reflective journal also contributed towards my understanding of learning and development.

18 th January 2017: … Three weeks ago, as soon as the juggling session started, Fábio asked me if we could play while juggling. Fábio then stood up, started juggling while smiling and jumping. A few minutes later, without stopping juggling, Fábio mentioned that juggling shouldn’t be serious. I agreed and decided that from that moment on, I would include games in the juggling sessions. As I knew that Fábio loves jokes, I suggested that we would finish each juggling session sharing a few jokes, which Fábio was very happy about. Last week, three children who had never participated in the Juggling Club before showed up, saying that they heard the Juggling Club was fun. Those children seemed to enjoy their first session and although they couldn’t juggle at the end of the session, they left expressing the wish to come back and keep on trying.

When reading through my reflective journal, I realized that introducing play to the Juggling Club contributed to strengthening the relationships between the participants.  On this matter Schaefer (1993, p.12) observes that ‘the role of play in facilitating a positive relationship is related to the nature of playful interactions that are fun filled and concerned with enjoyment rather than achievement’. I believe that my playful attitude, as a juggler teacher, is something children notice, even before I started teaching them. Then sometimes, I feel a connection in both directions (myself and the child) straight away, just by smiling and being playful. I strongly agree with Barton, Gonzalez and Tomlinson (2012, p. 165) when they say that ‘a playful attitude is one that encourages relationships to be fun and acknowledges the children’s interests and personalities in an affirming way’. Consequently, I`m confident that a playful attitude improved the Juggling Club.

Part III – A Juggling Club visible and accessible to the whole community

From the outset of the Juggling Club, it was clear in my mind that the Club wasn’t just about teaching children how to juggle. I was also trying to create what I named of “Juggling Culture”, within our therapeutic community. I wanted this Club to be a space where people would feel welcome, and while the common interest was learning to juggle, I was also aware that this Club had the potential to be a platform for much more.

One of the first projects the Juggling Club did together was to make a poster advertising the Juggling Club to everyone in the community. Through e-mail I also explained to all adults what the Juggling Club was about, inviting anyone who wish to participate. Adults as well as children started to get involved: some brought their juggling equipment to work and started to share their skills with children and work colleagues, some came to the juggling lessons and learned together with the children and others voiced an interest to collaborate with future initiatives of the Club.

During the two years the Club has been in operation, there have been various community events at the MBS, such as the Easter celebration and the Fun Day where the Juggling Club has hosted a Juggling workshop for anyone who wants to give it a try. During Family Weekends and Open Days, the Juggling Workshops are extended to the childrens’ families as well. In these events, there are multiple occasions where children teach their parents, siblings, teachers or house managers how to juggle. I believe these opportunities that allow the children to teach their skills are hugely beneficial. Not only are they strengthening positive relationships with others, but in demonstrating and sharing their skills they feel a great sense of achievement.

One of the early Juggling Club initiatives consisted of putting together a juggling show for the school concert, which happens once a term. It was agreed with the Juggling Club’s participants that only children who participate in the juggling sessions would perform in the juggling show. However, I highlighted in every single juggling session, that if anyone did not want to juggle on stage, they could still be part of the Club and to learn how to juggle.

I recorded my experience of some juggling shows in my reflective journal, and looking back, I realize what was achieved there.

29th March 2017: … Today at the school concert I performed with four children from the Juggling Club. Yesterday, I went to see Maria who had missed the final rehearsal and asked her why she had missed it. She told me “I’m not going on stage tomorrow”. I could see her anxiety in her face and through her words. During the three months Maria was at the Juggling Club, she told me every single session she would like to participate in our show. However, I know now that Maria didn’t believe she would ever make it. For the two years she has been at the MBS she has never participated in a school concert, despite encouragement from staff.  I realized I had an enormous challenge on my hands. So, from that moment (5pm) to the next morning (11 am) I used all the strategies I could think of to empower this girl to overcome her fears of failing! I did a rehearsal just with her; I wrote her a bedtime note saying “you are amazing, you will make it”; we met in the morning and went over all the juggling routine…And at 11am there was Maria on stage! I was so proud of her and the entire school was as well…but most important of all is what she said later in that day: “I’m so proud of myself”!

20th December 2017: … Today the juggling show felt even more special, particularly because Joaquim is leaving the school tomorrow, due to the end of his placement. Joaquim learned how to juggle in the Juggling Club one year ago and he became a proficient juggler. As today it was going to be his last juggling show at the MBS, Joaquim asked me if he could perform one small juggling act with me on the stage. So, for the last four weeks, we’ve been practicing. As part of the planning for our juggling act, we watched the DVD of “Alegria”, one of Cirque du Soliel’s shows. Joaquim seemed amazed by watching the professional jugglers and at some point, Joaquim exclaimed: “I would love to be like one of them, when I grow up”. The Clown’s act of that DVD inspired us for our small juggling act. So, for four weeks, Joaquim practiced to go beyond his abilities, because he wanted to juggle with juggling scarves, juggling rings and juggling clubs, which he never had juggled with before. And after the show, it was visible how extremely proud Joaquim was. At the end, when we were both on the stage receiving the audience’s applause, I thought: “This is why the Juggling Club exists!”

These episodes are examples of how performing in the juggling show is another opportunity for children to experience feelings of success and realize that they are able to do something that others recognize as valuable. Additionally, after the first juggling show, some of the children who participated suggested that in the next show, the adults who know how to juggle, could join the Juggling Club on stage, as a way to motivate other children and adults to learn to juggle. So, ever since, in every school concert, after the juggling act, all jugglers are invited on to the stage to juggle together.

The creation of this Juggling Culture has also been beneficial for the childrens’ key workers and teams. At MBS all of the achievements or difficulties that children experience are communicated among all professionals relevant in their treatment. As the MBS systemic family psychotherapist and network adviser believes, ‘encouraging communication and open conversation within the wider system can help develop a shared sense of purpose and avoid the risk of detracting from the agreed therapeutic task’ (Agudelo, 2017, p.21). This systemic thinking is considered crucial at MBS. The Mulberry Bush School provides a multidisciplinary treatment team (teacher, key worker, house manager, psychotherapist, family and network practitioner, head teacher), who monitors each child’s individual needs and progress. As well as these individuals, all professionals relevant in the progress of a child work in synchronization, believing that how well one single professional performs their job has an impact on everyone else job performances. ‘(…) The behavior of one component of the system is seen as affecting, and being affected by, the behavior of others’ (Dowling, 1985, p.6). This viewpoint also extends to the wider child’s network (family, Social Worker, local authority, etc.). Therefore, what I observed and did during the juggling sessions was known by a much greater team and influenced the approach of the entire professional body.

One example of this can be found in my reflective journal.

8th May 2018: … Today I had a conversation with António’s teacher where she voiced that she really believes that since António participates in the Juggling Club, his learning inside the classroom had improved. According to his teacher, António had invested more in his learning and doesn’t give up as easily as he used to. A few days ago, António’s teacher participated in one of António’s Treatment Team meetings, where all the professionals were aware of António’s achievements in the Juggling Club. On that meeting, António’s Key Worker mentioned that António’s Mum bought him three juggling balls, so he could juggle while at home. Apparently, all the professionals present in the meeting shared the opinion that António’s learning improvement is associated to the fact that he learned through juggle how to believe on his abilities. António’s teacher also stated that in a few occasions, when António was feeling frustrated with his learning, she reminded him of his latest juggling record and it made him smile and carry on with his class work.

 Conclusion

Within the writing of this project I hope I made it clear how juggling is important for me as person and as a professional. I always have three juggling balls near me and whenever I feel stressed, I take a few minutes to juggle and calm myself. As Finnigan states (1987, p.519), `juggling, once mastered, cuts through stress like a hot knife through butter`. I have found this is completely applicable to me and hope that one day will also benefit the children who have been participating in the Juggling Club.

When I started the Juggling Club I wanted to provide the children at MBS with a skill that would increase their self-esteem and allow them to feel proud. As the Juggling Club evolved I began to realize the benefits of the Club were more far reaching that this. Not only had juggling itself a therapeutic intent for some participants, but the Club itself was no longer an isolated, stand-alone club. It became a space where children could share their skills, achieve goals and where therapy could take place in other ways. It also allowed me to grow as a Therapeutic Childcare Practitioner, challenging me to adapt my approach to each child and each different situation. With the support and help of my wider team, along with my use of my reflective journal, I too was able to grow and better help the children in my care. We often use juggling as a metaphor for doing multiple things at the same time, and that is precisely what this Club became; a place for personal growth, a place of learning and a part of a much wider community.

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