Taking a different approach

Program helps kids learn to help themselves


Mandy Burrell


Seven teenage girls straggle into a common room at Maryville Academy’s B Home, some chatty and excited, some reserved, some feigning indifference. One girl wears a System of a Down T-shirt; another wears a cotton candy pink one with a glittery red iron-on that declares “I [heart] Bad Boys.” Everyone is a bit antsy: It’s the tail end of another long Monday, and dinner’s not for an hour.

Maryville is Illinois’ largest residential childcare facility, serving children who have suffered physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect, as well as kids with developmental delays. Maryville has nine Chicago-area locations, including a long-term care campus in suburban Bartlett.

The girls at B Home are gathering for their weekly group session with Susan Voigt. As an alternative approach to conventional therapy, Voigt’s Kids Movement program aims to help kids learn coping skills. Many would consider the techniques she uses, which include meditation and focusing exercises, out of the ordinary. Voigt and others say that’s one of the reasons they work.

“When people are emotionally out of control, you can’t always reach them cognitively, which is typically the case with children or adolescents whose cognitive structures are not yet fully developed,” says Jerry Wesch, who directs a hospital-based psychology program in Chicago. “Relaxation techniques give a person a manual override on their stress or emotional reaction system so they can keep themselves in self-control.”

Studies show that these techniques calm both mind and body by decreasing heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tension.

These tools “are older than dirt, and fitting them into an overall treatment plan is important and quite useful,” Wesch adds.

Maryville has taken note of such research. “Children who have cognitive delays or a history of family trauma may be more open to expressive therapies,” says Steve Givens, director of the Bartlett campus. “Maryville has always been progressive and a leader in these types of services.”  

Back at B Home, Voigt asks the girls to settle down. They do, slouching further into the nooks and crannies of the couches. Voigt asks one of the girls to pass out mirrors. The girls groan. Voigt doesn’t skip a beat as she reminds the group, which has practiced this exercise many times, to hold the mirrors and silently gaze into their own eyes. 

“This is hard,” says one of the girls.

It’s worth the effort, Voigt says. “We have to fill ourselves with love and kindness if we expect to have anything to give anyone else.” 

After a few minutes, Voigt tells the girls to repeat three times aloud: “I am strong and independent.” 

“I am strong and independent,” the girls mumble, whisper and declare in a loose union.

“I have to do my eyebrows,” one girl pipes up, prompting Voigt to change the affirmation.

“I am divinely patient,” Voigt says in mock exasperation. The joke is not lost on the girls, who giggle.

Voigt then unpacks six crystal bowls, each with a wand. She easily recruits two girls to help her “play” the bowls, which they do by running the wands around the rims, much the way a finger dipped in water plays a wine glass.

The bowls vibrate in unison, and the room fills with a rich, deep, multi-layered sound, which resonates, dips, climbs and captivates the girls.   

“I can feel the vibration,” says one.

And she could, in more ways than one. “Crystal bowls are another way of ‘tricking’ the brain into being quiet by triggering specific brain rhythms,” says Wesch.

After 10 minutes, Susan signals her bowl players to taper off. She taps a bowl gently, three rings signaling the end of the session. The change in the room is notable: Many of the girls have left the couches and stretched out on the floor. As they head to dinner, they’re relaxed and calm.

Voigt’s ability to help the girls shift their moods has not gone unnoticed. “I don’t think this works for all kids, but there are plenty of kids who don’t respond to talk therapy,” says Amanda Rankin, clinical therapist at B Home. “Some of the girls are seeking it out, so I know it does them some good.”

Under the radar

Voigt, who has two college-age daughters, launched Kids Movement in 2003 after 14 years of working in daycare and seven years of training in Reiki, hypnotherapy and other holistic methods. Her programs aim to help tots, tweens and teens focus, relax and feel confident. She and her instructors teach at park districts, churches and libraries across Illinois, mixing meditation with creative and physical activities, including art, drumming, dance and yoga.

Maryville began contracting with Voigt in 2004. She initially was hired to visit one Bartlett home. She now visits each home at least once a week. 

Kids at Maryville homes face a variety of challenges. “I want to help them see that these challenges are opportunities for lessons learned and growth potential,” says Voigt. “They are not victims, they are warriors.”

To do that, Voigt first has to connect with students. That’s not easy, says Don Martin Peterson, who spent 22 years as a social worker for the North Suburban Special Education Organization. “Sometimes to get to kids—and even adults—you have to get under their radar of the rational mind and all the chatter that’s going on there,” he says. “[Voigt’s approach] is similar to using humor: You don’t come straight at the person. You let the person come to you.”

Sahara,* 16, says Voigt’s techniques help. “At first, I had so much going on in my head, and I couldn’t concentrate to meditate, or to go to the space between my thoughts,” she says. “But the bowls gave me a yummy feeling.”

Voigt admits that the bowls “are like toys, but toys with a purpose.” She also brings play into her work with private clients, such as Justin Prenta, 13. Justin’s mom, Donna, hired Voigt to help her son with nervous tension.

The first time Voigt and Justin “hung out,” they played air hockey. Eventually, Voigt helped Justin develop an affirmation (“I’m safe, I’m loved, I’m happy”), which calms his fears. 

Sometimes, particularly with kids in Voigt’s MetaKids and MetaTots classes, play does the teaching. 

“I think the secret [to MetaTots] is that the instructors repeat core lessons in different ways, so the kids don’t feel they’re learning the same thing—and it’s fun,” says Mary Ellen Theisen, mother of Samantha, 4½.

Taking responsibility

While Voigt’s approach might seem roundabout, it allows kids some breathing room. “We’re not breaking and entering,” she says. “It’s a free-will planet.”

But they must be willing to change. Voigt helps her students pay attention to their actions and the actions of others, and to take responsibility for their experiences.

“The point is to bring everything to our conscious awareness so we’re not acting and living as if we’re sleepwalking,” says Voigt. “We’re not victims of our experiences. When we become aware of our power to create our own experiences, we can take responsibility both for what we’ve been creating and what we want to create.”

“Responsibility then becomes a lovely word,” she adds. “Instead of a burden, it’s an opportunity.”

Justin discovered that most of his fears were unfounded, and that it made no sense to dwell on “what ifs.” He also gained control over his emotions by learning to think and feel simultaneously, Wesch says. 

Sahara learned that she can rise above the fray when others try to bring her down.

“It used to be when my dad called me stupid, I believed him. Now I know that he was just projecting his own problems on to me,” says Sahara. And she now avoids the clamor when the other girls at B Home bicker.

Voigt teaches similar concepts to even the smallest children. During a MetaTots class, Samantha learned to quiet herself and think.

“Not all of her thoughts are happy, and that’s reality,” says Theisen. “So she’s learned how to think about sad thoughts, too. She’ll come up and say, ‘Mommy, I’m very sad right now because . . .,’ whereas in the past, she may have just cried and not been able to put words to it.” 

“I feel it in my heart”

At first, Sahara couldn’t put her finger on how Voigt was helping.

“It’s a scary thing when you don’t understand it,” says Sahara. “Then I realized that most of the stuff I already knew deep down inside, but then someone came to my side and told me it was OK to feel that.”

That’s what Voigt hopes to accomplish. “I want to be able to give these kids a way to calm down, allow some of the information to come forward, and then they can process it.”

In the E Home at Maryville, where all of the girls are developmentally delayed, Voigt challenges negative thinking by “filling” two balloons—one with happy thoughts (“I’m beautiful, I stay positive”) and one with “stinkin’ thinkin’” (“I’m dirt, I’m mean”).

As Voigt inflates each balloon, she points out that what we focus on expands. While she blows into the happy balloon, the girls shout out affirmations:

“I’m a cool kid,” says one.

“I love myself!” says another.

“I’m not going to let anybody stop me from getting my education.”

When Voigt pops the “stinkin’ thinkin’” balloon, the girls let out satisfied shrieks.

Then it’s time for the crystal bowls. The girls shut off the lights and curl up on comforters. As Voigt starts to play, the crescendo grows and one girl tiptoes closer. She rocks back and forth, her eyes closed and her hands over her chest.

“I feel it, Susan,” she says. “I feel it in my heart.”      * Name changed to preserve Sahara’s anonymity.

Chicago Parent Playdate Spring 2016

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