When a parent gets regular calls from the school about playground fights and classroom outbursts, it’s easy for them to feel helpless. It’s hard to see why your kid would start acting out and even harder to know what to do about it.
Disruptive behaviour problems are not uncommon—up to 20 percent of Canadian children have them, and Leena Augimeri says some children may not grow out of it. That’s why she helped start a program to teach kids learn to control their emotions and make better choices.
The program, called SNAP, which stands for Stop Now and Plan, is a science-backed children’s mental health program that helps kids learn how to stop and think before they act to make better choices in the moment. It has been proven to improve emotional regulation, self-control and problem-solving skills in kids, and it’s available through community organizations and child health centres across Canada. “We started it because there was a gap in services to meet the needs of kids with serious disruptive behaviour problems,” says Augimeri, who was named one of Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s (CAMH) 150 Difference Makers for her work developing the program. Research on SNAP has shown that it reduces rule-breaking, conduct problems and aggression in kids, as well as reducing criminal convictions down the road.
Augimeri says early interventions to promote positive mental health in kids is key. “For kids under the age of 12, their brains are still in development,” she explains. “The brain is built from the bottom up. Your ability to really stop and think is in that top part of your brain, your executive functioning, so kids are processing from their fight or flight. We needed to teach kids a simple strategy to help them gain that sense of self-control.”
What does SNAP look like? Kids who are under age 12 and have behaviour problems attend a 90-minute session once a week for 13 weeks, during which they work with two facilitators among a small group of no more than seven kids.
In the first few minutes, kids get to play and do whatever activity they want—they even get prizes for attendance, which Augimeri says helps to reinforce them coming. Then, they spend some time talking about feelings. “They’re doing an exploration of the topic: What does it feel like when you’re getting angry? How do you know when somebody else is getting angry? What things happen to your body when you’re getting angry?”
The group will run through scenarios—when you’re out in the playground and somebody takes your favourite ball, how does that make you feel? Facilitators teach kids to pay attention to body cues like their fists tightening, their faces getting flushed and their heart and breath racing. Then they teach kids how to stop in the moment and calm their bodies—relaxing their hands, taking deep breaths or counting to 10. Facilitators talk to the kids about changing their thoughts that fuel that anger as well. Rather than thinking This kid is doing this to make me mad, Augimeri says they can change it to I can ignore him; I can handle this.
The final step is to come up with a plan. When kids are deciding how to react, they’re coached to find a solution that will make their problem smaller instead of bigger, will not hurt themselves or others, and will still let them feel OK with the situation.
After talking out these scenarios, kids role-play real-life situations and get video-taped so they can watch how they did and get constructive feedback or other ideas from their peers. Then, they play a game, like basketball or floor hockey, where these types of conflicts are bound to come up, so they can use their new strategies in real time. And before they go home, they do a mindfulness exercise where they learn to calm their bodies down.
As kids practise these skills over the course of several weeks, Augimeri says they actually change the way their brains respond to conflict. “They’re exercising their brains. They’re building those synapses and new pathways of what works.” Studies of brain images of kids who have gone through the 13-week program found that they went from using the fight or flight part of their brain to using the part responsible for executive functioning. Anxiety and depression are also decreased among kids who have been through SNAP.
And as kids are learning their new skills, parents have their own hour and a half parenting group in which they learn new child management techniques, like how to choose discipline appropriately, how to set up effective routines or even how to better listen to their kids. Facilitators also address the stress parents face when they have a disruptive or angry child. “The parents are challenged because they get a lot of phone calls from the school, so what can they do to decrease their own anxiety?”
If, after 13 weeks, parents feel that kids still need help, the family can continue with SNAP programming by participating in the other SNAP components, such as individual mentoring or counselling, family counselling, or school support and advocacy. There is even a SNAP youth leadership component once they turn 12. “We continue to work with them especially during that turbulent time between elementary and high school which can be a slippery phase for some kids,” says Augimeri. “It’s really about keeping them engaged so if they start to slip or have issues, we can work to disrupt that and get them back on path.”
Think it could help your kid? You don’t need any special referral to sign your kid up—just find out if it’s available in your area. Though the program started in Toronto, it has been expanding across the country in recent years. Augimeri says there are plans to scale SNAP to 140 Canadian communities in the next five years.
SNAP is totally free, but there are sometimes wait lists and your kid has to qualify—they use a standardized checklist to measure behaviour issues.
“The key message to parents is it’s not too late,” says Augimeri. “Yes, it can be hard, but change is absolutely possible. And you as a parent are in the best position to ask for help and advocate for your child.”