In Sydney’s north, a group of people plays, dances, sings and paints with hundreds of children each year to give them a better chance to reach their potential. However, they aren’t just artists but rather trained expressive therapists who use art and play to help children who have had difficult experiences. Since 2006, KidsXpress has been using expressive therapists to work with children, aged 4 to 14, who have been affected by trauma. Last year, the organisation won the Mental Health Month Excellence in Service or Program Delivery Award for the strength of their work with these children.
Following the win, KidsXpress told WayAhead that they were delighted to be awarded for their work because the “hard work and behind-the-scenes effort that goes into not-for-profit service delivery isn’t always recognised, so when it is applauded and receives an award, it truly makes you stand tall and take pride in your work.” To find about more about their work and their approach, we spoke to Dr Ben Rockett, the General Manager of KidsXpress.
“I think one of the exciting points that we’re at is that there is more focus, there is more attention being given to expressive therapies as a way of engaging in a therapeutic relationship, particularly with insights around how trauma actually impacts the development, but also the ongoing performance, [of children] or the workings of the brain and the social relationships that result,” said Dr Rockett.
“The use of the expressive therapy that we have in our program is remarkable for helping children experience their pasts and be able to understand, engage and process [their past] in ways that help them tell their stories, but importantly tell their story in their way. That may be that they do it through words, they engage with their group peers or with their therapists themselves in spoken dialogue, [or] using the modalities to create new environments which are rich in opportunity for them to experience the physical…so using the art, the music and the play to experience different states – physiological states and psychological states – to engage with themselves, but also their stories, and start to tell their story in their way through various modalities. It’s an exciting program which allows the child to engage, in the child’s language, with their past to make sense of it.”
Children who engage with KidsXpress programs may have experienced trauma or significant stress in situations of abuse or neglect, grief or loss, domestic violence, family breakdown, or other issues due to family members’ experiences of mental ill health or substance abuse. The program has demonstrated significant positive benefits. On a cost-benefit basis alone, research conducted by Deloitte in 2016 found that KidsXpress decreased the number of visits to GPs, psychologists and psychiatrists, with cost decreases of 42.6%, 36.8% and 36.6%, respectively.
“When people ask about performance, and what kind of evidence we have, we choose to call them transformation indicators because although we do see some remarkable positive stories – I don’t want to use success because, in my mind, it’s not about being successful – but the program and the therapists are successful at supporting change, not necessarily finalising or reaching an endpoint. We refer to them as transformation indicators, as an indication of change occurring for these children and for the families and the schools that they are in,” said Dr Rockett.
“We have eight key metrics that we follow and they include things such as self-awareness, self-regulation, connection to others, self-expression. What we’re looking for there are aspects of wellbeing and aspects of psychosocial health, which are typically impacted by trauma responses. Those are the elements that we look at for indicators of change to suggest that the child is starting to feel more safe, or more regulated, or more connected. That’s really what informs the program on a week-by-week basis. It’s a really rich environment of planning and evaluation after every session. And that’s the beauty of the program.”
The program has been developed so that children can engage in the way that best suits them and in which they are most comfortable. The need to make the program responsive to the needs of each child, based on information that KidsXpress gathers, is constant.
“We try and track our clients for up to a year afterwards and to see what change is occurring but also, importantly, where is that change occurring. To get more understanding, what we do from a research perspective is look at it from a multistakeholder perspective, so we get the client’s view, our therapists’ view, we get the referrer’s view, we get the family’s view and we capture the date on as many time points as can throughout the program and…three, six and twelve months after the program has been completed to see who has seen change, because if, say, four out of five have been changed, but one has not, it could be that the area where that is not being noticed is an area that needs resourcing,” said Dr Rockett.
“So we can say, “well, we’re not seeing change in this particular area, what support can we put in place to help that relationship?” Or if we’re interested in one area, why are these changes that we see in therapy not necessarily translating into school or home life as well, so what support could from there? So the data is very much live. It’s not about saying what can we show did happen, it’s very much about saying “well, what’s going on and what needs to happen?””
For Dr Rockett and the team at KidsXpress, the changes that take place for children engaged with their programs can take time. Often those changes can seem small, or not be apparent for a number of years. However, the benefits into the future can be significant in changing the lives of children, and the strengths of the relationships that they form, as they grow into adulthood.
“It takes time for those relationships to be tested and for those relationships to change and so it may be that some of the work which happens in our program, if we can also change the caregiving environment, we may not see some of the change really being…successful until a year, two years, three years, five years down the line, or even, some of the times, it’s the aggregate of all of the support that goes in that we don’t even necessarily see play out until they, the children, find themselves in care-giving roles themselves. There’s a beauty in that as well because we know that through early intervention, we’re trying to do something today that changes the future. In some ways, we’re being reactive but we’re also trying to take that future orientation and say, “what can we do now…to try and create change?””
KidsXpress was one of the 2017 Mental Health Month Award winners. Find out more about all the winners online.
If you know of any individuals or organisations doing great work supporting better mental health and wellbeing, nominate them now: http://mentalhealthmonth.wayahead.org.au/about-the-awards/nomination/
More information about KidsXpress, including referral pathways, is available on their website.
By Tasnim Hossain