What the Thunder Said: theatre-based intervention for children who have witnessed violent events

Natasha KirkhamThis post was contributed by Dr Natasha Kirkham from Birkbeck’s Department of Psychological Sciences.

In 2012, I took part in a research project looking into children’s reaction to witnessing violent events. Working with a playwright from Theatre Centre, I conducted workshops in 10 primary schools, located in areas with high levels of violence. The workshops fed into the writing of a new play, which then toured primary schools across the UK. We handed out questionnaires to the children and their teachers about  responses to and understanding of violent behaviour and bullying before and after seeing the play.

Until now, my research has been solidly experimental, investigating theories on attention and learning. This project opened my eyes to just how important it is for developmental scientists to get out of the lab and into the field, to shake up their methods, and to listen to individual children.  And to remind ourselves that development does not happen in a vacuum. These children were extraordinary – tough, interesting, heart-breaking, and funny – and all of them had thoughtful, strong opinions about the very real bullying in their environments. I learned about ‘circle of friends’ (peer-groups assigned to befriend and look out for each other), I learned about the role of humour in the lives of these children (both appropriate and inappropriate), and I learned how easily these children shift between reality and fantasy (seamlessly moving from laughing about parents in prison to discussing Xbox characters). Importantly, I learned that with bullying, ‘walking away’ does not always work.

This experience was personally and professionally cathartic for me, offering new insights into modern-day parenting, coping strategies (for children and teachers), and developmental resilience. Ultimately, it proved to me that a lot of our ideas about how to deal with bullying need to be re-worked.

We hope that the pre and post play surveys will show a significant shift in people’s perspective on community violence and the effects of bullying, and provide some evidence for theatre-based intervention in areas rife with violence and trouble.

Dr Kirkham’s review of her experience with this project was originally published in The Psychologist magazine.

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Silent Witnesses: Children’s Experiences of Community Violence

This post was contributed by Edward D. Barker, PhD and Natasha Z. Kirkham, PhD from Birkbeck’s Department of Psychological Sciences.

High poverty neighbourhoods are rife with high rates of violence and crime. Scientific research shows that, in certain neighbourhoods, there exists a “subculture of violence”, where a person’s reputation is based on his or her ability to use aggression to solve disagreements with others. Against this backdrop, children have increased potential to behave aggressively, as these children not only experience violence in the community and schools, but also often do not have adults with whom they can discuss victimization experiences. Importantly, within high poverty neighbourhoods, children (on average) receive less supervision from parents, and hence are more exposed to violence and behave more violently. Informing parents of the role they can play in supervising children is a critical first step in raising community awareness of children’s safety and wellbeing. Yet, to our knowledge, little research exists in which children’s experiences of violence, in schools and communities, are recorded via interviews with children – and importantly, the roles that adult care-givers have played in protecting children against such experiences

In the project named, “Silent Witnesses”, a collaboration between Birkbeck, the Theatre Centre, and Actorshop Limited, we will interview a group of high poverty inner city primary school children accross the UK. The children will discuss their community violence experiences. These discussions will be used to create a bespoke theatrical production, which will be shown to parents, teachers and children at targeted primary schools.  The parents will receive pre-play and post-play evaluations of their attitudes towards aggression with respect to children. A documentary will track the full duration of the project – from the child interviews, the final production, and the responses of the teachers, parents, and children.

Updates about this project will be published on this blog.

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