Jared Tonks a clinician at Valley View School, in North Brookfield, Massachusetts – a therapeutic boarding school for boys ages 8-10. Valley View a small school, anywhere from 30-40 students at one time. Most of our boys come to the school with ADD/ADHD, high anxiety, depression.

Q: Tell us about the work you do.

Jared: I’m a clinician at Valley View School in North Brookfield, Massachusetts. It’s a therapeutic boarding school for boys ages 10-18. It’s a small school, anywhere from 30-40 students at one time. Most of our boys come to us with ADD/ADHD, high anxiety, depression. Another characteristic of our students is that many of them are highly verbal but have low processing speed, which can lead to feeling like they don’t fit into a classroom. If you visited the campus, you would probably say, “This is just a small boarding school for boys.” We try to normalize the boarding school experience as much as possible, but the school is actually highly therapeutic. The students have lots of support. Most of our classes have at most six students. We have four clinicians here on campus who do individual therapy and groups, and then we have three visiting clinicians who do outpatient therapy and family work.

Question: How are students referred to Valley View?

 Jared: We are a nonprofit, but it is private pay, so we don’t take insurance. Most of our clients come through a private referral system, usually through private education consultants who are hired by the parents to help them find resources for boys who’ve been struggling in either the public school system, private school system, or another boarding school.

Question: Do school systems ever pay?

 Jared: We do have a pretty good record of parents going to their kid’s school and saying, “Our student requires services you aren’t able to provide.” And then the parents can go through the process of applying for the school district to pay for tuition. Sometimes they get full tuition reimbursement, sometimes partial. 

Question: How did you find out about Mightier?

 Jared: We realized it would be nice to have some sort of biofeedback mechanism for our students—a way to enhance their ability to recognize how their body and emotions are connected to feeling okay as well as feeling dysregulated emotionally. We started looking into what’s available in terms of traditional biofeedback. A lot of what we found was cost-prohibitive. Some of the programs made sense, but we weren’t sure how we would actually incorporate them into what we do and not have it be a disruption. Our executive director, who’s been a psychologist in the area for over 30 years, started asking colleagues about biofeedback, and Mightier came up. His wife, who’s a pediatrician, asked her contacts, too, and people kept mentioning Mightier. So, our director reached out to your team to get more information about what Mightier is and how it works. We have quite a few kids on campus who are into gaming, but we regulate technology use and they don’t really have access to computers or phones. We ultimately decided that Mightier was something students would be excited about and that we could easily incorporate into our therapeutic work.

Question: How do you incorporate Mightier into the school?

 Jared: The student body is divided up between the four clinicians who are here on campus every day. We each meet with our students on a regular basis. These meetings could be a scheduled appointment, a student in crisis at the school, a student in crisis at the residence, a student having a bad day. We have a lot of impromptu meetings where we talk to them about what’s happening with them in the here and now. I like to use Mightier with students in those moments when they are struggling and having a difficult time. I’ll say, “Let’s do Mightier for a few minutes.” It gives them an opportunity to see how their heart rate is elevated, how they’re emotionally dysregulated. Honestly, if I told a kid, “Let’s do some mindfulness right now, let’s do some deep breathing,” I would probably get some resistance. Mightier, on the other hand, is tied to a game, to something they enjoy. I’ve never had a student say, “I’m not going to to do it.”

Question: How long have you had Mightier at the school?

 Jared: We started with Mightier last fall with a group of students, and then in the spring we started trying to track data. We keep a wide range of behavioral data on our students, including the language they’re using and whether they’re antagonizing other students. Based on students’ behavior, they get a rating and can also get checkmarks, which are kind of like demerits. They can also get merits. With the kids using Mightier, I started tracking whether they were running out of class, using poor language, or antagonizing others. What I found with one student was that, following weeks when he used Mightier close to the recommended amount of time, 45 minutes, his disruptive behavior went down. On the other hand, following weeks when he spent less time on Mightier, his behavior started to increase again. I’m hoping to get more of this kind of data this year. 

Question: Can you think of any success stories?

 Jared: There are a couple. I have one student who used to be very easily dysregulated. In fact, for a period of time he was sent to a wilderness therapy program to help gain better control and emotional regulation. As he started using Mightier, he really felt proud of the practices he was doing each week and the number of times he was able to control his emotions and get the lavalings to disappear. One day, this student came to me and said he needed to confront another student about his behavior towards him and that he was really nervous about doing it. So, we role-played and we practiced. And then the student said, “Can I do Mightier for 10 minutes? That always helps me calm down. I think that after I do that, I’ll be able to confront my classmate.” This was a huge step for this student because he would avoid confronting other students in the proper way. He would just wait until things became too much and then explode. So, he used Mightier to self-regulate and put himself in the right mindset and emotional state to confront this other student.

Question: That’s amazing! I know the types of kids you’re talking about, but I’m not sure everybody does. These are the kids who have never in their lives been able to say, “I need something to help myself calm down.”

 Jared: They go from zero to 100 miles per hour in a heartbeat and have a hard time recognizing that or asking for help. Mightier has given them a way to do that. My kids got especially excited when they were able to unlock skills besides the deep breathing exercise, like muscle relaxation, tracing, and crossing the center. They were excited to learn other things they could do that were going to help. They each found what worked for them. For some of them, it was still the deep breathing. For others, it was tracing. Muscle relaxation and crossing the center are a little harder for them to grasp. They’ll need some more practice with those.

Question: Are there any other stories that come to mind?

 Jared: I had a student who struggled responding to traditional talk therapy and skills practice. We would practice skills all the time, but they never seemed to be translated outside the office or without prompting from a staff member. It was something he seemed unable to do on his own. As he practiced Mightier and muscle memory solidified, we saw a decrease in his disruptive behavior and in his being emotionally dysregulated. He would start to do [relaxation skills] on his own instead of having to be prompted all the time. I saw him close his eyes and start to do deep breathing in session. I once asked him what was going on in his mind and he said, “I’m playing the game in my mind.” 

Question: If you had to describe Mightier to another professional who’s never heard of it, what would you say?

 Jared: I would say, “If you want a tool, that’s going to connect kids to how they’re feeling and allow you to talk to a kid about how they’re feeling and how they can regulate their emotions, Mightier is the tool to do that.”

Question: Is there anything else you’d want people to know about your experience with Mightier?

 Jared: It’s easier than it looks. It’s easy to implement. For some of my more resistant clients who don’t like to talk a lot, they’ll talk a lot about Mightier. It opens the door to conversations that will really help them. What I also like is that I can share it with parents. I’m not sure if any of them have actually purchased it or not, but they’re interested in what I’m doing in my office, and when their student leaves the school, they say, “What was that program you’re using again? We want to use that in our home.” If you have the means to purchase Mightier, it can connect the work we’re doing in the office to the home. With traditional therapy, many times that connection is lost. They come into your office, do their 45- or 50-minute session, and then they go home and you may not hear from them for another week.

Question: Do you have any thoughts on how Mightier could work with kids with trauma?

 Jared: The student I mentioned earlier had a trauma history. That was part of what made it really difficult to connect with him. Even though he struggled in being able to talk about trauma, the emotions would still come out. More traditional ways of trying to talk about the trauma and the about the emotions coming up didn’t always work for him. That’s why Mightier was a success. As he grows and develops, he’ll hopefully find more words to put to what happened. In the meantime, Mightier gave him an emotional outlet.

Question: So, you’re saying that for kids who have a hard time talking about trauma, Mightier gives them a way to regulate their emotions without having to talk. 

 Jared: And hopefully it can also work in reverse, where if they’re able to regulate their emotions, they can begin to open up and talk about the trauma without feeling like they’re going to lose control.