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Free To Be Me

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The jungle gym at recess was a busy place. Kids shouting in excitement, running around, laughing and playing together on the swings, drawing stick figures on the pavement with thick pieces of coloured chalk. But Markus, 11, watched from the sidelines. The jungle gym at recess belonged to them, the children said. Markus crumbled inside as the children teased and tormented him because of his difficulties.

Things were no different in the classroom. Markus dreaded being laughed at by the other kids when his Learning Disability got in his way and he gave a wrong answer. He hated not being able to share his thoughts, and would frequently yell and curse back at them, and his teacher, which only made things worse.

At home, Markus’s grandmother, Lily, was busy helping Markus and caring for his baby brother. She saw how much Markus struggled and was frustrated that she didn’t know how to best help him cope with his big feelings, especially when she couldn’t be there. Markus was also frustrated, and frequently felt lonely and discouraged.

Shortly after, Markus joined CDI’s Young Warriors (YW) program. YW is an activity-based therapy program for children ages 9-11 with learning disabilities and mental health issues (LDMH). It focuses on improving emotion regulation and self-mastery through mindfulness skills, therapeutic practices and martial arts training.

As soon as Markus began the 19-week program, he clicked with his instructor. For the first time, Markus felt understood and safe among the other kids.

As the weeks went on, Markus started noticing the butterflies in his stomach and the way his muscles would tighten when he was feeling nervous, angry, or scared. Markus worked on responding to his feelings skillfully, instead of lashing out. Using his breathing and focus, honed through his martial arts training, Markus practiced being with his frustration, and then using skills like asking others for help. His instructor supported Markus by recognizing his growth, building his confidence, and challenging Markus and his peers to continue demonstrating their new skills each class.

At YW, Markus found a place where he felt accepted. When his grandmother picked up him up from class, he would excitedly talk about all of his new YW friends. As he began to form new friendships and practice what he learned from the program at home with his grandmother, as well as at school, his grandmother noticed an improvement in his schoolwork and their family relationship. Markus even started to practice his breathing skills when his baby brother would get upset.

With each day that passes, the jungle gym at recess has become a distant memory for Markus. Not every day is perfect but Markus is taking steps to build positive friendships with his classmates, manage his temper, and raise his hand to answer questions in class. Markus is now excited about joining Mindfulness Martial Arts, the next LDMH program for his age, which builds upon YW skills as well as teaching new ones. Markus’s grandmother now has the right tools to effectively respond to Markus, and has felt a huge weight lift from her shoulders knowing her grandson is happier and more at ease than ever before.

For more information on CDI’s Integra Learning Disabilities and Mental Health services, click here.