This article originally appeared in Youth Today.
MELBOURNE, Australia– Cindy Mathers found herself at a loss. Tasked with engaging a group of young teenage boys identified as at-risk of transitioning poorly to secondary school, the community health nurse, who works with aboriginal communities in West Gippsland, Australia, was worried that conventional talk-based techniques would fall short with the boisterous boys.
DRUMBEAT, a group program that uses hand drumming to create a fun, safe space for social learning and self-reflection, provided her with a solution.
“Trying to contain those boys was like trying to contain a cyclone. Methods entirely based on talking wouldn’t have been effective,” said Mathers, who was able to successfully connect with the teens through this interactive program.
Renowned for its success in Australia as an innovative approach to juvenile justice and an effective intervention initiative for youth at risk of negative social outcomes such as substance abuse, criminal activity or isolation, DRUMBEAT (Discovering Relationships Using Music – Beliefs, Emotions, Attitudes and Thoughts), has been trialed in Florida and will return to the United States this October and November. Three-day training sessions will be run in Minneapolis, Minn., and in Albuquerque, N.M., for interested individuals and organizations. Once accredited, following the training, professionals and organizations will be qualified to facilitate the program and run it independently.
Capturing Kids’ Interest
Simon Faulkner developed DRUMBEAT in in 2003 through Holyoake, a non-for-profit counseling and drug and alcohol service in Western Australia. Faulkner incorporated hand drumming in order to engage young people with an attractive experiential element, while still delivering cognitive behavioral outcomes.
“Experiential methods, such as adventure courses and sports-based programs, tend to be expensive and don’t have a very strong cognitive focus,” said Faulkner. “We wanted to marry making young people feel interested and at ease with teaching them how to manage their thoughts and feelings.”
Running for 10 weeks and concluding with a group performance, the multi-faceted program uses a variety of games to facilitate social interaction and develop relationship skills. Drumming activities provide analogies for peer pressure and other topical issues, allowing for reflection and discussion, while improvisation validates individuality and promotes self-confidence.
“It works at a relational level, a cognitive level and a neuro-biological level,” said Faulkner, who designed the drum program intending to replicate the rhythmic patterns of early childhood that can be disturbed through trauma or neglect.
Communicating Through the Drumbeat
Developing the initiative after becoming frustrated with existing, strictly talk-based forms of therapy, Faulkner said DRUMBEAT’s positive nature, and its ability to return both observable and empirical results, restored his faith in youth work.
“For years, going to work every day felt like banging my head up against a brick wall because I was using an inappropriate strategy. Young people can be tough to work with, but a lot of the strategies that we have are fairly negative. When you’re doing something fun, and particularly when young people are responding, you feel better about the work you do.”
Faulkner said young people who have had negative experiences often find talk-based methods too confronting and tend to disengage. Alternatively, early DRUMBEAT sessions use the drum as the primary tool for communication. Faulkner said this creates a more relaxed atmosphere and helps to build trust, both of which necessary for therapeutic outcomes.
“If you ask people who are socially anxious direct personal questions before you have established a relationship, you get silence. But you can ask the same question and get a huge response back on the drums. People often end up talking more openly than in traditional counseling sessions,” he said.
Because the instrument is easy to master and fun to play, self-doubt and self-consciousness are also reduced, Faulkner said. “It’s incredible how quickly people start smiling. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be fun.”
Armed with this positive philosophy, Holyoake approaches juvenile justice with a refreshing perspective, emphasizing the need to empower young people and equip them with the life skills to actively make a change upon their release.
“Young people often say that the programs in detention centers are about looking at what they’ve done wrong, not how to change. DRUMBEAT is about helping them learn how not to fall back into those patterns,” said Faulkner.
“If everyone continues to treat you negatively there is not much potential for change, but if someone suddenly shows you that they [sic] believe in you, that can make all the difference,” he said.
DRUMBEAT’s outlook has also proven beneficial for school children with behavioral issues, offering kids who may have acquired a negative reputation with teachers and peers the opportunity to start fresh. Sacha Markham, a school family support worker at Frayne College who facilitates the DRUMBEAT program with late primary and early secondary boys and girls in northern Victoria, said constantly disciplining kids without working on the positives of their personality traps them in a problem cycle. “Kids will identify themselves to me as ‘the worst of the worst,’” Markham said. “They are already well aware of the negative things in their life – they live them everyday.”
DRUMBEAT’s encouraging approach considerably impacts students’ self-esteem, Markham said. “I always ask the boy in the group who has identified himself as ‘the worst of the worst’ to hold the central drumbeat, the heartbeat. Not once has he said no. You see him puff his little chest up, and he’ll keep the rhythm perfectly throughout the whole session.”
The program’s focus on life skills aims to assist young people to make good choices, better interact socially, and self-regulate their feelings and behavior – outcomes that Markham has observed at the school. She said DRUMBEAT also motivates students notorious for absences to attend. “Boys who would rarely come to school would be there for DRUMBEAT. I’d turn up in the morning and they’d be there waiting for me, excited,” she said.
Trust established through DRUMBEAT also increased Markham’s profile with the kids as the school’s support worker. She began to see a number of students regularly, including 8-year-old autistic student, Jack, when he was struggling to communicate.
“He was feeling really angry one day and he came to me. I handed him a drum and said, ‘Just play out your anger.’ He looked at me and said, ‘But I will break your drum.’ I told him I didn’t care. He banged and banged, and at the end he said, ‘That felt awesome.’”
Another student who consulted with Markham regularly, 11-year-old Sam, found DRUMBEAT’s relationship themes helpful in dealing with his parents’ divorce.
Exploring Positive Relationships
Faulkner deliberately designed DRUMBEAT to prioritize relationships themes, believing that healthy networks of support are crucial to preventing risks such as drug and alcohol abuse, and criminal activity. “If young people can recognize healthy relationships,” he said, “they can build positive relationships around them to nurture them when they need support. A lot of the young people we work with have been born into dysfunction and have never had or seen healthy relationships.”
By joining a community within the drum circle, cooperating as a team, playing in harmony, and working toward the common goal of delivering the final performance, DRUMBEAT participants constantly explore relationship themes. Faulkner said making music in a group requires all those same social skills that help foster healthy relationships.
“When they don’t play well together it’s nowhere near as strong, so immediately you have a very simple analogy about the benefits of being connected and working together,” said Faulkner.
Melbourne’s City Mission works with disadvantaged individuals, families and communities. City Mission’s David Crawford, an early intervention services team leader who works to prevent homelessness among youth, said DRUMBEAT is particularly effective for his organization because of its focus on relationships. Crawford recognizes strong, positive relationships as vital for keeping young people off the streets, as he advocates for reconnecting youth to family, friends, and school and employment communities. “DRUMBEAT begins to teach relationship skills and talks about their importance,” he said.
Evidence and Replication
The DRUMBEAT program has garnered interest and consistently positive responses from youth professionals, particularly because of its evidently positive results (five peer-reviewed journal articles and additional research reports have been published to date). The most recent report, published in the UK’s Journal of Public Mental Health, studied 19 schools participating in the program and found a 10 percent increase in student self-esteem, a decline in behavioural incidents in 29 percent of students, and an overall improvement in students’ relationship skills.
More than 3,000 professionals from a variety of fields are currently trained as DRUMBEAT facilitators. Despite being originally developed to prevent young people becoming involved in the justice system or with drugs and alcohol, the program is now run for a range of population groups and successfully operates in drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers, mental health and child trauma facilities, eating disorder clinics, adult prisons, and even aged care. Not exclusively reliant on verbal communication, DRUMBEAT can be modified to accommodate intellectual and cultural difference, and cater for language barriers which are often present among refugees and people with disabilities.
“We encourage people from different professional backgrounds to adapt it to their client groups and feed us back research. That’s how we’ve been able to align it so that it can apply in a whole range of contexts,” said Faulkner.
Melbourne City Mission’s David Crawford said Holyoake’s DRUMBEAT facilitator training is of a high level and sharpened his skills as a youth professional on the whole.
West Gippsland Healthcare Group’s Cindy Mathers said the training is demonstrative, interactive and caters to the needs of facilitators with a range of abilities. “I’ve done over 10 years of training, but DRUMBEAT was definitely the best because I could immediately see how relevant it is,” she said.
Now a senior facilitator, Mathers has mentored multiple aboriginal elders, community members and social workers in her local area who have also been trained in the program. “If we can skill people up within the community and help them become strong leaders, then we have got a hope,” she said.
Since engaging with her original group of boys, Mathers has remained connected to their families and has seen them drum on several occasions for their family and friends. “If you can engage the most difficult group of young people in your community and have them become confident enough to perform at local events, then that program is an absolute winner.”