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Stop bullying? It's a SNAP!

Derian Arcand seems to be a typical nine-year-old boy: fast, strong, a little hyper and shy around his elders. But he also has a problem.

Derian Arcand seems to be a typical nine-year-old boy: fast, strong, a little hyper and shy around his elders.

But he also has a problem. Ever since Grade 1, he's been stirring up trouble around the schoolyard in Alexander, starting fights and pushing others around. Sometimes he ends up in the principal's office; other times, he gets suspended.

But that was 12 weeks ago. Now, his grandpa and teachers say he's a changed man and he hasn't been in the principal's office for weeks.

How'd he do it? He learned to snap his fingers, count to 10 and walk away. "I don't get into no more fights because SNAP helped me," he says.

Derian is a student at Alexander's Kipohtakaw Education Centre and one of the first Albertans to graduate from SNAP, or Stop Now And Plan. It's a three-year, $1.2-million pilot project that aims to keep kids out of jail, and it already has parents, students and staff talking. If it works, it could soon be rolled out in schools across the province, making bullying prevention a literal snap.

SNAPing bad habits

SNAP is an internationally recognized therapy program that started in 1985, says Leena Augimeri, director of the Toronto Child Development Institute and one of its creators. It's a 12-week course based on proven techniques meant to help at-risk youth aged six to 12. At its core is a cognitive behavioural model that teaches people to look at the assumptions behind their bad behaviours, dismantle them and replace them with more positive ones. "Not only do we challenge their behaviour, we challenge their thinking."

That core is reinforced by the program's mantra: stop now and plan. Students are taught ways to stop, think and plan their actions whenever they run into trouble. One of those ways is to snap their fingers whenever they feel stressed — a physical reminder to stop and plan.

Lights! Camera!

Alexander's SNAP kids pile into the classroom for their final lesson. In addition to Derian, there's Scott Mackinaw, Logan Auigbelle, Justus Kootenay, Jaelin LaFleche, and Brayden LaFleche. All seem pretty psyched for a therapy session: they're smiling, laughing and power-sliding across the floor.

Staff picked these students after much discussion, says principal Ray Soetaert. Some were ending up in his office more than once a day while others were students he'd never encountered.

Kids bully and fight at school because of strong emotions that make them lash out, says Patricia Mennie, one of the counsellors running SNAP at the school. "It's fine to tell a child to just walk away all the time, but they still have those feelings." SNAP uses talks, games, videos and prizes to help students analyze their thoughts and actions.

Each student starts SNAP with a specific goal, Mennie explains — "stop bullying" or "be more honest," for example. They begin each session by evaluating their progress towards it.

Justus is up first this week. He says he did pretty well, although he admits to pushing someone down a hill. Mennie praises him for his honesty and puts a colourful sticker on his chart.

His buddy Logan had a rougher week. "I kinda got in a fight," he admits. Mennie marks his scores on the wall chart. All six students have improved noticeably since the start of the program, the charts suggest.

Next, the kids cluster around the round table for the day's lesson. They're pretty rowdy at first, but then Cam Kootenay, the other counsellor, breaks out one of SNAP's secret weapons: positive reinforcement. "I really like the way Scott's listening," he says, singling out the one kid who's paying attention. It works: the others quiet down immediately.

Then comes the fun part: role-playing. Derian, Scott, and Brayden are on stage for today's scenario. "Lights! Camera! Quiet on the set!" says Mennie. One of the kids claps a clapperboard. The camera rolls and it's time for action.

Every kid knows that bullying is wrong Mennie says, but few will act on that knowledge in the heat of the moment without practice. She and Kootenay guide the students through scenarios where they have to use self-control to apply that day's lesson. They also film each session so they can show the students exactly when they made the right — or wrong — decisions.

Derian, obviously taking this very seriously, strolls up to his buds and gets body-checked to the floor. "Oh, my shoulder!" he says, grinning. He could go over and slug the guys, but what if they did it by accident? "I'm feeling really mad, but I don't want to get in trouble."

He steps back and takes a few deep, slow breaths to calm down.

"Do you feel calm?" Mennie asks. "You look calm. What's your plan?" Derian says he'll ask Scott and Logan if that was an accident. It turns out it wasn't, and they start shoving him back and forth. With the audience's help, he figures out that he should walk away and get a teacher.

The students are only half of SNAP, Mennie notes — the parents are involved too. "Every parent has that [problem] where you come into a room and, gasp! You're instantly angry at something [your kid] has done," she says. SNAP parents come in for separate sessions each week for lessons on child discipline, relaxation and other topics, all practised through role-play. They also get to watch their kids on film to see how they're improving.

Better parents, better kids

Kootenay gathers the kids in a circle for their graduation ceremony. They pick up their hand drums and play an honour song for their parents in the audience before receiving their certificates.

Larry Kootenay gives his grandson Derian a kiss on the head. Derian's temper always seemed to get him in trouble before, he says, but this program seems to have changed him. "He seemed to slow down and address the issue more," he says, and now spends more time listening to his parents.

Justus used to break things or fight when he didn't get his way, says his mother Melissa Harris, and had a habit of hanging out with the wrong crowd. "He wasn't a choice-maker. He'd just follow."

Now, he's making better choices for himself. "He knows he has a choice to hang out with the bad kids or be a good kid and ignore it all."

As for herself, she says she used to send Justus to his room whenever he acted up. Now, she knows to talk with him to give him a chance to explain how he feels. "I learned that the more support you give, the more you see change."

The lessons aren't perfect, of course: Kootenay has to talk two of the kids down after a near scuffle over grandparents, and some of the parents didn't attend all their lessons. The kids had near perfect attendance.

Still, Soetaert says he's already seen great improvement in the kids' behaviour. "I didn't see any of them in my office for a long time," he says. "Instead of someone else controlling their behaviour, they were in control."

This isn't the end for these six kids, Mennie says; they'll have weekly meetings for the rest of the year even as the next six students enter the program. The rest of the school will start learning SNAP in class as well.

Everyone could benefit from the lessons of SNAP, she says. "If every teacher, parent and kid can take something from this and improve how they handle situations ... we've made a difference."

It already has a thumbs-up from Derian's grandfather. "This is what I'm proud of: I don't hear any more of this going to the principal's office, or getting suspended for a day or so," he says. "I know he's going to go into a different way, a better way, and I'm going to be there for him."

Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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