Exclusive Interview with Professor Caroline Beauregard.

Professor Caroline Beauregard smiling

Exclusive Interview with Professor Caroline Beauregard.

We recently interviewed Dr. Caroline Beauregard, a CPI Advisory Board member who, as an art therapist, works with immigrant and refugee children to help them recover a sense of well-being. We wanted to know how she creates “safe spaces,” so that children feel free to talk about – and illustrate – traumatic episodes in their lives. Here is an edited transcript of our discussion.

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ChildsPlay International’s (CPI) Storytelling Program was created to share our experience with schools, NGOs, and community groups seeking to enrich play-based learning, stimulate children’s imagination, preserve local culture, and foster face-to-face interaction in an increasingly digital world. It is crucial for children to feel safe during storytelling sessions. To delve deeper into this topic, we interviewed CPI’s storytelling advisor, Dr. Caroline Beauregard, an authority on creating safe spaces for vulnerable children, including refugees.

~ ChildsPlay International

ChildsPlay International (CPI) — Does the ability to create a safe space vary depending on kids’ level of trauma, and/or vulnerability? Is it important to group kids together based on their level of trauma because, for example, they may feel better understood?

Caroline Beauregard (CB) — Well, my first thought is that you create the safe space to be safe for everybody, so it’s not dependent on the level of trauma. Creating a safe space is about people being comfortable to be themselves. And other people not laughing or rejecting them. If you have an environment that supports you, then this will help create a safe space. The children will learn that they can talk about anything, that it will be accepted, and that they are loved unconditionally. Then when they’re ready, they will share their trauma. I don’t think it matters if the other people around them have lived trauma for children to feel understood.

Children Use Metaphors and Symbols when Expressing Trauma.

“When you have experienced trauma, there’s one part of yourself that is kind of forgetting; the trauma is somewhere in your body, not directly accessible to memory, and you can’t talk about it though it tries to assert itself. That’s really stressful.”

~Dr. Caroline Beauregard
Girls in CPI storytelling program in Kenya with their drawings
Girls in Kenya with drawings they produced during a storytelling session.

CPI — How do you prevent kids from becoming disturbed by other kids’ stories, for example, because such stories remind them of their trauma?

CB — I think children know intuitively what they can share with others. Children use mainly metaphors and symbols. It’s not as direct as using words. But if in the intervention, we have created a safe space and children know that they are safe, then it could be a good thing to recall the trauma in this reassuring context. 

When you experienced trauma, there’s one part of yourself that is kind of forgetting; the trauma is somewhere in your body, not directly accessible to memory, and you can’t talk about it though it tries to assert itself. That’s really stressful. But if you’re able to make it whole and part of who you are, while feeling safe, then talking about it could be a good thing. So again, it’s all about creating the safe space.

Students in Kenya sitting in a circle during storytelling session

The Importance of the Safe Space for Children.

CPI — You differentiate between where you are now in the safe space, and the memory of what you experienced, so that contrast may make you feel even safer right now.  

What are the goals of creating a safe space? To help kids express themselves, feel understood, take risks, develop empathy, and create community? 

CB – All of the above.  I don’t think something can happen, or change or transformation can happen, if there’s no safe space. Children will shut down, and won’t participate. They will not take advantage of everything that is offered. Or develop empathy. If you don’t feel that your neighbor or your peer understands you, or feel that he or she will laugh at you, you will not develop empathy. And same for everything. So creating a safe space is the first thing you do before anything else because everything happens as a result of creating the safe space and can’t happen unless you create a safe space.

Opening and Closing Rituals Help Define the Safe Space in Children’s Education.

CPI — Do you suggest opening and closing rituals, that define a safe space. What do these rituals include? And how do you explain them to kids and teachers?

CB — Actually, rituals can be anything. Like singing a song, or it could be like moving to a special room. It can be anything, but something that you repeat from time to time. It creates a routine, something predictable and it marks the beginning (or ending), a different emotional space.

CPI — Do you tell them that they’re doing something that is intended to mark off the storytelling from the rest of their day?

CB — It helps to clarify. I think it’s especially so with children, so that they understand the objective of it. But with very small, very young children, even if you do explain to them that okay, you do a ritual to mark the beginning, it’s abstract. It’s more like they understand that there is something different, that their teacher is still their teacher, but that he or she takes more of a welcoming stance rather than being in a transmission of knowledge mode.

Children Participate in a Discussion Following the Storytelling Session

Drawing is an integral part of CPI's Storytelling Program.
Drawing and painting are an important part of CPI’s Storytelling Program. Photos are from CPI’s Storytelling sessions in Ghana, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

CPI — During the discussion, do some kids feel they are on display, rather than welcoming the group interaction? How do you overcome self-consciousness? How do you control a discussion so that questions do not seem intrusive, or comments judgmental?

CB — Well, I’m not sure about “controlling” the discussion. It depends. If you have just one event, and people know themselves just for this one event, it’s not the same as if they participate in a recurring event, where they will try to push the limits, and learn from one workshop to the next how it works and what they can say. They can grow. They see that others are serious, and are not so self-conscious. So, it’s kind of practicing, you know? 

Children’s Self-Assurance Builds Over Time.

Girl Sri Lanka with the painting she made during a storytelling session
Girl Sri Lanka drawing during storytelling session

CPI — Self-assurance, which I use opposite to self-consciousness, builds over time. That it’s good, therefore, to have some follow-up sessions where the kids eventually build up a certain confidence and lose that self-consciousness that they might have if they just suddenly jumped into a one-time thing that they had to figure out all at once.

CB – Yes, because it’s all part of the safe space that needs to be built. You don’t know at the beginning what is expected of you. So, you create a ritual, a routine, so it’s done on a regular basis and children are expecting to meet a on a specific day at a specific time. Okay, so the workshop is ending, but “I know there will be another.” It’s a work in progress.

CPI — So you’re saying ritual is very important to the kids, and helps to build a sense of the entire process. 

So how far is it safe, to encourage kids to recall traumatic events, to discuss them and even interpret them in drawing?

CB — As I said at the beginning, children know somewhere in themselves what they can say, what they can share. The danger is that someone will push the children to recall it or talk about it. A key component of the safe space is that children will follow their own rhythm. The child may not even talk about something. But maybe even showing an image to someone that is external will mean something, and the work could get started. But I would not push for disclosure. This is very important.

“A key component of the safe space is that children will follow their own rhythm. The child may not even talk about something. But maybe even showing an image to someone external will mean something, and the work could get started.”

~ Dr. Caroline Beauregard

CPI – There is a paradox in creating a safe space, if the kids want to be in the safe space, and they’re afraid when they go outside.

CB – Well . . . you’re in this safe space. When you move out of that space, you will say okay, it’s not too bad. But the more you go out and the more you’re confident and the more you know, then it’s going be okay. You could go and one day you won’t need to go back.

CPI — What about intra-family safe spaces, like between a mother and child, in war-torn areas?  This concerns CPI right now.

CB — It’s hard if everyone is traumatized. It’s hard to set up a safe space for your small family, but what I would say is how we can learn to have fun together. To be children and mothers, like we were before. “So, how should we play together? How could we just draw and take this time to enjoy ourselves and maybe be in a relationship?” It might not be a totally safe space, but this little space between a mother and her children is, I think, valuable. And maybe what could be useful, they are able to have a creative journal in which they are able to share – possibly even with a school psychologist. 

CPI – How do we deploy our storytelling program outside of school? How do we create safe spaces and have rituals outside of the classroom?

CPI’s Storytelling Partner in Zambia, Richard Salunoka, with a drawing of Dr. Caroline Beauregard, made by a 12-year-old boy in honor of International Women’s Day.

Cover storytelling manual

Interested in CPI’s Storytelling Program?

If you are interested in learning more about CPI’s Storytelling Program, please reach out to us via e-mail: Office@childsplayintl.org.

Link to CPI’s full interview with Dr. Caroline Beauregard here.

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