A bell rings at Albert Hill Middle School and a small group of sixth-grade girls comes bounding into a large wood-floored auditorium, gravitating toward chairs in front of seven African conga drums arranged in a circle.
The girls are talkative, and casually begin slapping the drums’ skins intermittently, as if looking for a beat to register their midday, post-lunch energy.
Today, they’ll be working on processing emotions and anger using rhythms. It’s all part of KicDrum, a therapeutic-intervention program instituted by teacher and percussionist Chris Yeatts and his wife, Rachel, based on an award-winning Australian program, Drumbeat.
“How many people think their feelings and emotions affect other people?” Yeatts asks them, before starting the group on a familiar rhythm. “Now bang on your drum if you had a bad day.” The room explodes into a cacophony of beats.
Yeatts has the kids play their emotions on the drums, while others guess the feeling.
“Have you ever got mad at someone then realized that they weren’t mad at you, they were just having a bad day?” he asks.
Yes, several kids shout. “I got in trouble just for being upset, once,” one girl answers.
The conversation soon turns to handling anger in their communities; one girl says she heard that a local 11-year-old “got abducted and raped and when they finished, they threw her in a ditch.”
Among the issues that Yeatts explores are post-traumatic stress, bullying, peer pressure, social responsibility, emotions and teamwork. The couple is working with roughly 200 at-risk kids at six schools including Boushall Middle, L.C. Brown Middle, Henderson Middle, Hill Middle, Martin Luther King Jr. Middle and Overby Sheppard Elementary.
A common factor at all the schools, Yeatts says, is the presence of childhood trauma. “We talk about it indirectly: things such as harmony in their neighborhoods. And the kids are honest. They tell me there was a shooting, and they had to duck under their bed, or weren’t able to go outside.”
One blog post on the KicDrum site describes an October shooting in a housing project across the street from one of the middle schools in the program. An 11-year-old and 13-year-old were wounded during a drive-by while playing outside.
“When discussing the shooting, one of the female students said, ‘that could have been me,’ another student said that last year one of her friends was shot and killed in the community,” Yeatts wrote. “I can only imagine what it must be like for a sixth-grader to carry the heavy burden of knowing that at any moment the rhythms of life can change so dramatically.”
The trauma comes out in unexpected ways, Yeatts says, with a lot of anger and lashing out. “A lot of the kids have a flight-or-fight survival thing. A lot of impulse, which gets them in trouble sometimes. But that’s how they survive.”
Charles Meadows, Community in Schools site coordinator at Henderson, helped start the program at Chimborazo Elementary three years ago.
“What I really like is that it enhances the kids’ cognitive thinking, they have to focus on the beats,” he says, adding that teachers say the kids who participate start to pay attention better. Meadows notes that students are also learning about the culture behind African drums, which leads to a big performance at the end of the year. “These kids become a unit and group and start respecting each other,” he says.
The program is in its second year at Overby-Sheppard Elementary School and students there perform during monthly parent nights and school assemblies. Principal Kara Lancaster-Gaye says the program has facilitated an increase in teamwork, social awareness and responsibility and has reduced disciplinary infractions.
Yeatts was mentored and certified by the original founder of the Australian program and he keeps meticulous notes on student changes after the program. The couple scored an initial grant from the Richmond Memorial Children’s Foundation and has picked up a few more individual grants. The KicDrum program falls under the umbrella of the couple’s nonprofit, Kids in Crisis, which also works part of the year in Nicaragua raising money for kids with special needs.
“We partner with other groups down there to prevent the kids from becoming orphans,” says Rachel Yeatts, a pediatric nurse at Virginia Commonwealth University and also the president of Kids in Crisis. The couple has adopted three special needs children from China, one with a severe heart defect.
The goal with KicDrum is to replicate the program and it’s looking for interns to help. Yeatts says some students repeat the 10-week program and become leaders, while others continue simply by pursuing music in any form. “
There’s an exercise today where a student leaves the room and returns blindfolded to different rhythms from each drum. The student must pick out a predetermined beat and, after careful listening, all the kids manage to weed out the correct beat on the first attempt.
“At the beginning they don’t want to work together,” Yeatts says. “But each of these drums is tuned to a different pitch. And as soon as they discover what it sounds like playing together, they like it.” S
Contact Chris Yeatts at email@example.com to learn about the internship program and opportunities. kidsincrisis.us.