How play therapy can help primary school pupils who have emotional, behavioural and mental health problems
Many children of primary school age who have mental health issues, or problems with behaviour and their emotions, either don’t want to or cannot talk about these issues. These children need support to find different ways to express themselves and address the problems they are facing.
Play therapy can help children with a wide range of issues, such as changes to the family, bullying, transitions, difficulties with friendships or peers, problems at school, anxiety, stress, coping with loss or bereavement and suffering arising from trauma, neglect or abuse.
Play therapy works with children’s unconscious processes as well as their conscious ones. The children choose to play or work with the particular objects or mediums, such as drawing or sand play. However, the choices they make and the way they use objects often arise from their unconscious.
Play therapists work mostly non-directively – focusing closely on the child – managing boundaries and providing verbal comments only when the therapist feels they will add to the process for the child. Unlike most educational experiences, some sessions can be almost entirely silent. In some instances, where there is a budget constraint or if the child brings issues to a conscious level, the therapist is trained to work directively using cognitive methods.
Delivered to professionally recognised standards, play therapy can show a positive change in the vast majority of cases; children are happier, behave well and learn more effectively. Indeed, the more severe the problems, the greater the change tends to be.
Although the information provided with the child’s referral is taken into account, the play therapist accepts the child as they present in the first few sessions. For example, a child referred or labelled with ADHD may show good concentration skills in play therapy. This could suggests that the issues affecting the child may lie in the child’s environment and not with the child him/herself.
Following the child’s lead
Play therapy should always be child led. As every child is different, a wide range of creative arts media is offered, including clay modelling, drama and role play, drawing and painting, movement, music, puppets, sand play and therapeutic story telling. This wide choice increases the chances of active participation, provided that the therapist is well trained to communicate using whichever media the child chooses.
However, it is risky to undertake play therapy, without adequate training and clinical supervision. It is not sufficient to just have a CRB/ DBS check. The first register for working therapeutically specifically with children was accredited in April 2013 by the Professional Standards Authority, the regulator of health regulators, under the new Approved Voluntary Register (AVR) scheme. This has increased the credibility of practitioners, and assured the quality of registrants’ work, thereby minimising risks for schools.
The AVR has also opened up excellent career opportunities for therapists. Play Therapy UK estimates that there is a need for over 16,000 play therapists in England and Wales, while there are currently less than 2000 qualified practitioners who meet the required standards on the Register in the whole of the UK. Teaching staff, with over two years’ experience, have an ideal background for training and it can be a great way for staff to extend their professional capabilities.
Jeff Thomas is Registrar and Director of Research at Play Therapy UK, the society for play and creative arts therapies:
The register of Play and Creative Arts Therapists can be found at: