Therapy by Stealth

Written by Rodrigo Castellanos

“There is no point in trying.  I can’t do this…. I’m simply just not good at it” 

These were the constant words of a participant in one of the MAT Life Skill Programs running at a flexible learning centre in North Melbourne.    This young person was expressing her lack of sense of belonging in the form of “assumed inadequacy”, one of the typical “mistaken goals” proposed by Rudolf Dreikurs in his individual psychology model.  This model aims to understand challenging behaviour in young people expressed in different forms, including undue attention, need for power or control, desire for revenge and assumed inadequacy. 

Individual psychology, trauma informed practice, cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness are the therapeutic frameworks which underpin the work we do in our program.   We have found that the combination of engaging physical activities and challenges with a well-researched evidence based therapeutic frameworks delivers the best possible outcomes when aiming to engage with young people in managing mental or emotional difficulties. 


In the case of the North Melbourne program, the job of our facilitator, was to make this young person realise that while she had the perception of inadequacy, she was actually performing quire well the task at hand.  Now her next step was to be able to answer two critical questions:  What did I do well?  What can I improve? 

The task being practiced was based on a hand-eye coordination and reflexes exercise where the student had to move her arms and shoulders out of the way of a pool noodle in a sequential order.   After a bit of practice, the student replied: 

What did I do well? I can remember now the direction in which the pool noodle will move 

What can I improve? I need to stop being afraid of the pool noodle touching my arm! 

Progressively, through positive reinforcement and collaborative problem solving, the student began to reassess her perception of inadequacy and build a more positive, realistic and pro-active response to the presented challenge.   This form of empowerment restores the students with a sense of agency and self-control while reinforcing the capacity or self-responsibility. 

One of the challenges in today’s education sector, and society in general, is to provide students with programs that break the stigmas of mental health, gender perceptions, emotional regulation and relationships in a format that is engaging, memorable and that uses a combination of learning styles such as visual, verbal, auditive, kinaesthetic and reflective. 

As explained by the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority, “successful social and emotional learning programs move beyond giving information to explicitly teaching and providing opportunity for students to practise interpersonal skills.”

The main challenge in the delivery of these topics is the successful creation of engaging and safe environments that provide such an opportunity.

With a combination of active mindfulness, therapeutic martial arts techniques, physical exercises, storytelling and reflection sessions, the MAT Program aims to engage the students and create environments where the skills for self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness and respectful relationships can be learned, tested and practised.     

This is of course not unique to martial arts-based programs.   Our organisation has also started the delivery a program that links the Physical and Wellbeing curriculum with the Personal and Social Capabilities curriculum using standard physical education activities and we believe that any effort to engage students via experiential activities is invaluable in today’s highly technologized environment.

Physical activities have been shown to “develop important life skills while also boosting self-esteem, motivation, confidence and general wellbeing”.  In the case of improving the mental and emotional health of students, physical activity-based interventions such as MAT Life Skills Program provide an alternative that successfully complements other types of interventions based on conversational delivery models.

The MAT Life Skills Program, run by the non-for-profit organisation TESSA Inc., is delivered in more than 60 schools and community agencies across Victoria every week and has empowered over 17,000 young people who are disengaged or at risk of disengaging from education. 

The Program delivers the content of the Victorian Curriculum on Personal and Social Capabilities as well as the Respectful Relationships program including the key elements of emotional regulation, resilience and diversity.   

For more information please visit us, presenting in the Free PD Seminar Program at the National Education Summit Melbourne on 30 and 31 August 2019.

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