Brock research pairs dance with behaviour therapy to benefit youth

Getting toes tapping makes a difference.

A new research collaboration between Brock and Pathstone Mental Health has yielded promising insight into using dance with behaviour therapy to foster the development of social skills and self-esteem in children with exceptionalities and behavioural challenges.

Under the supervision of Associate Professor Tricia Vause in the University’s Departments of Child and Youth Studies and Applied Disability Studies, Master of Arts in Disability Studies student Dana Kalil implemented the Dance with a B-E-A-T! (Behaviour Analysis and Therapy) program with a group of children who experience behavioural challenges in Pathstone’s structured, day-treatment setting.

The program was originally developed by Vause and previous graduate students to blend dance with behaviour analysis and therapy in order to address the physical, social and emotional challenges experienced by children with exceptionalities

For her master’s thesis research, Kalil ran Dance with a B-E-A-T! with children as young as seven who experience mental health and behavioural challenges that affect their ability to learn at school.

Word cloud in which the three largest words are “good,” “happy” and “fun”, the smallest word is “tired,” and medium-sized words are “okay,” “friend” and “work.”

The size of words in this word cloud reflects the most frequently chosen descriptions by participants when asked to circle the words that best described their time spent in dance classes with Dana Kalil.

Linda Morrice (MA ’13), Clinical Manager of Early Years, Day Treatment and School-based Services at Pathstone, says that while she was already a fan of the program, she was curious to see how it would work with Kalil’s participants.

But she and her staff quickly noticed children were not only picking up challenging new dance skills, but they were also very willing to take part — something Morrice says is a credit to Kalil’s rapport with them.

“Dana’s work complemented the skills the children learn in the day-treatment program, which suggests that anything they’ve learned through their therapist, counsellor or teacher can be generalized to another environment by doing a skill like dancing,” she says. “We’ve taught them skills in a rarified environment, but through this program, they learned to use those skills in an environment that’s more generalized, more typical. And they had fun, so, it was a wonderful opportunity.”

According to Kalil, children and youth with exceptionalities often experience challenges in accessing recreational physical activities, which can lead to health concerns such as decreased body awareness, reduced strength and balance, and decreased circulation.

Kalil was drawn to this research in part because dance is a recreational, physical activity that requires minimal equipment, so fostering an enjoyment of dance can “increase the likelihood of children using dance to foster self-esteem and form social relationships among their peers in present and future environments.”

Undertaking this research in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic led to some challenges, but also some unexpected benefits.

The study was originally planned to take place over the course of a few months but had to be compressed to five consecutive days to comply with public health restrictions on in-person interactions.

COVID-19 regulations also meant participants and staff had to maintain nine feet of distance between them, which required six-foot squares to be taped out on the gym floor to remind everyone to stay at an appropriate distance.

“The squares outlined with masking tape assisted with social distancing in the gymnasium but also seemed to positively affect the program by helping participants attend to instruction and maintain focus during the dance sessions,” says Kalil. “This is suggested to have occurred because the squares provided a visual outline of personal space for each participant.”

Kalil says she is grateful to Vause, her thesis examining committee (which included Morrice), research assistants and Pathstone staff members who contributed to the program’s success. She was also gratified by how much the participants reported enjoying the program.

“I was surprised that during the five-day intensive program, one of the participants mentioned they were practising part of the warm-up routine at home in their backyard and while watching television,” says Kalil. “I did not expect the participant to transfer the exercises from the program to new environments independently.”

Kalil presented her findings at the Mapping the New Knowledges conference earlier this spring and will share them again this weekend at the Association for Behaviour Analysis International Convention in Boston.

Morrice says research like this helps people realize there is more than one way for children and youth to be involved in mental health treatment.

“For kids who aren’t typical, where talking about problems or doing cognitive behaviour therapy is not the best option, this is a whole other way of learning skills and strategies,” she says. “It’s a great program, and I could see it being expanded in the future.”

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