Matthew’s Story

Let’s be honest. We all make assumptions based on what we see or hear about another person. It’s human nature. Often, these first assumptions make us look for evidence to confirm our belief, which in turn may lead to negative labels that can stick with a person – especially students. This is what happened to 10-yr old Matthew who had the “naughty kid” reputation at his school.

When Matthew was referred to our Expressive Therapy program, his referral advised that he was prone to erratic outbursts of challenging behaviour, he’s low in some key learning areas, he struggles maintaining friendships with his peers and he exhibits aggressive behaviour often losing his temper and becoming very dysregulated. Overall, Matthew’s reputation amongst the school staff and his peers was poor.

But just like the iceberg analogy, hidden beneath this ‘tip’ of behaviours lies a large glacial mass of adversity that no-one could see. Matthew’s parents are no longer together and his father is not a stable presence in his life. He currently lives alone with his mother who also has two older daughters. One of them has serious mental ill-health and has attempted suicide multiple times – of which Matthew is aware. His mother also reports that another child has been bullying him at school and there was an incident of inappropriate touching of private parts at the school toilets.

It was clear that Matthew could benefit from therapeutic intervention. His mother was keen and had signed all the consent forms well in advance. Yet Matthew resisted and carried around the forms in his bag, maintaining that his mother hadn’t given her written approval.

Our therapist engaged with Matthew primarily observing him in the playground, and then approaching him during an observation in art class, gently suggesting he come along and see how expressive therapy feels, reassuring him that he did not have to return if he did not like it.  He initially presented slightly anxiously, he was engaging and polite, stating that he would only stay for half of the session. So our therapist set her alarm to assure him that the session would end when he wanted to, thus enabling him to be in control.

The following day, Matthew turned up to this first session, insisting he would only stay for half of it. He maintained this narrative for subsequent sessions, but invariably Matthew soon became engrossed in his work, time passed quickly, and he always ended up staying for the whole session.

Our therapy program uses structure and routine to help create a predictable and safe environment. So each week our therapist used emotion words or emoji cards to check in with how Matthew’s week had been and how he was on the day.  If Matthew expressed that he was feeling angry or troubled he’d be taken outside to play handball, shoot hoops or throw the rugby ball. If he was feeling calm, he would often choose to start with playing the piano, drumming, or we would play a balancing game with uneven blocks.  The therapist worked creatively in the middle part of the session and then ended sessions with a game of his choice.  This became the routine and Matthew thrived knowing this. He also embraced the knowledge that he was in control of his sessions and there was no right or wrong way of expressing himself – provided he did so with respect to himself, to the therapist and to the room he was in. Teachers had told us that Matthew is resistant to learning and so our therapist explained that the KidsXpress space was different to the usual school space, and she wasn’t teaching him in the way his teachers do.

Every week, while Matthew worked and sat beside the therapist, he soon started talking about his life, his worries, his family, his hopes and aspirations.  He was encouraged to speak authentically, without any judgement on the part of the therapist who often reflected back to him what he’d said. This in turn led Matthew to feeling that this was a safe space with a safe person in which he could fully express himself.  Working with Matthew in this way allowed our therapist to see him in a different way to that perceived by his caregivers, teachers and peers.

In the sessions Matthew displayed a gently sensitive, curious and creative side of his personality.  With encouragement and validation of how he was, this side of him seemed to become more and more present and this was reported back to his teachers, who were pleased and surprised to hear that there is a different side to Matthew.  The teachers in turn reported back that he came back from our sessions presenting in a more settled fashion.

The therapist discussed with Matthew times where he felt angry and wanted to act out on his feelings.  In an age-appropriate manner, the therapist spoke to Matthew about the brain science behind these neurological processes, offering him some psychoeducation about what happens to our brains when we are triggered. This information was also shared with Matthews’s carers so they could learn together.  Matthew and the therapist identified where we feel different feeling in our bodies, and how to cope with those feelings in a safer way, talking with Matthew about removing himself from situations and taking time out, whilst also validating that this can be very hard to do at times.

Figure 1 relates to Matthew’s experiences of emotions, thus allowing Matthew to express that he does feel negative emotions and where in his body he feels these emotions. He was shown how to express this in a safer way whilst engaging in verbal communication with an adult who holds Matthew in unconditional positive regard.

Figure 2 shows some pottery that Matthew made, showing his more sensitive and gentler side. Matthew was originally reluctant to play with clay, thinking he ‘wouldn’t be good at it’, he did not want to get clay on his hands, wanting to wash them frequently.  Once Matthew became engaged in the task, he forgot about washing his hands, or watching the time, and made mugs that he wrote special messages on for his family.  These were later glazed so they could be used.  Matthew was very proud of his cups and excited to give the mugs to his family members, who were in turn surprised to receive such a sensitive gift from Matthew.

Matthew was absent from school fairly frequently so he did miss some sessions over his two terms of participation, however Matthew’s mother reported that having KidsXpress to look forward to meant that he missed fewer school as compared to previous years.

Matthew’s carers and teachers have noticed positive change in Matthew.  It has understandably taken time to build the relationship with Matthew. The negative labels that Matthew had been given had set into motion a cascade of diminished expectations and self-fulfilling prophecies. After all, why bother being ‘good’ if you’re the ‘naughty kid’? Through creating a safe environment and encouraging him to focus on a more positive sense of self, Matthew has felt comfortable enough showing his gentler side – thus interrupting the labelling cycle so that it doesn’t follow him into high school next year.

Figure 1

Figure 2

*At KidsXpress we respect the privacy of the children and families we support. So while their stories are true, stock images of children have been used and client names have been changed.