Toys talk when kids can’t
Play therapy helps children and families treated at CSUEB’s student-staffed Community Counseling Center
BY SARAH STANEK
For graduate students earning degrees in counseling at CSUEB, hands-on sometimes means “hands-in” — in a puppet, in a tray of sand or in a bowl of finger paint.
The Department of Educational Psychology established the Community Counseling Center as a professional training lab for school counseling/marriage and family therapists-in-training and school psychology/marriage and family therapists-in-training, and its unique service-based curriculum has drawn students to CSUEB for more than 30 years. Operating three days a week out of a suite in the Art and Education building on the Hayward
Campus, each year the center offers low-cost mental health services to some 250 clients from underserved areas, including individuals, couples, families and children, some as young as 6 months old.
Associate Professor Janet Logan, director of the center, shares her office with the dolls, stuffed toys and bins of plastic animals that are the tools of the trade. “Theory into practice is key,” she says. “Reading about (best practices) does a lot, but it has to be lived” by our students.
Throughout the years of training and time spent with clients — who may include new parents, multigenerational families or separating couples — students learn what it’s like to “enter the client’s world.”
But how does an adult enter the world of an infant, or a child who can’t explain what’s wrong? “As adults, we forget what it’s like to be 1 year old,” Logan explains, and can’t remember experiencing the world the way a child does. But infants are always communicating in their own way.
It’s the job of therapists-in-training to learn the child’s language and translate it for his or her caregivers.
In classes and sessions focused on effective parenting, trainees in the CCC use solution-focused therapy techniques to help families learn to listen and respond to one another, to resolve conflicts and build on their individual strengths. Dr. Phil, Dr. Drew and other television gurus to the contrary, effective counseling is not about giving advice or orders.
“We want people to know how to solve their own problems,” says Hamilton Baylon ’98, MS ’10, the center’s assistant director and community liaison, also a counselor and graduate of the program.
One of the programs for parents of very young children is Watch, Wait and Wonder, a type of therapy that helps parents understand how play can be a form of communication with pre-verbal children. CSUEB is one of only a few programs to offer such thorough training.
“The idea is to watch (the infant play), but don’t intervene, and then wait for how the child invites the parent to play or join in,” explains Logan, adding that wonder comes in the final step: “What does this mean for your child?”
Third-year school psychology student Ashley McDaid received extra training in WWW therapy during her two years at the clinic, working with a mother and her 18-month-old son. They had a healthy relationship, McDaid says, but “even good parents think they might be doing something wrong.”
After therapy, McDaid said, regular playtime for her client’s family was more positive and productive, helping the child feel nurtured and giving the mother clues to her son’s development. For McDaid, it drove home the importance of non-verbal communication for therapy. “You can read emotions without words, and I knew that, but this reinforced that.”
WWW uses a child-led approach; rather than presenting a toy or object to see what a child will do with it, parents and counselors step back, allowing the child to explore and choose what to interact with — whether that means crawling or walking to an item or signaling for it. As they play, parents are encouraged to get down on the floor to watch and interact with their infants — what Logan calls a “transformational moment,” literally allowing an adult to see the world from the baby’s perspective.
While they play, counselors keep the focus on the infant’s actions and show parents how to pay attention to different cues, rather than interpreting for them. “The parents make the connections, not us,” says Maya Taylor ’11, a recent school counseling graduate who plans to continue working in the CCC as a volunteer in 2013.
Many young clients need help coping with a family crisis, like death or divorce, or modifying their behavior to succeed in school. But just as with adults, the counselors are not tasked with telling children what to do; they listen, help look for strengths and solutions and respect the individual’s experiences.
“We want trainees to have a deep respect for people from all walks of life, to hear their stories whether they are 6 months old or 80 years old,” Logan says.
With slightly older children, a therapist may introduce a sand tray, with toys and action figures that children can use to set up a scene, no talking required. Expression through play is a natural part of a child’s learning process and can be a teaching tool as well.
Puppet therapy is another common way to help children express thoughts and emotions through conversation or roleplaying. And they can’t all be friendly faces — scarier animals like a dinosaur or snake are important to give kids access to a full range of emotions.
McDaid says she’s noticed that as children get older, they can also incorporate art and creative activities like drawing into therapy or discussions. “They don’t have the vocabulary to say what’s wrong,” even though their feelings can be very complex. Using familiar toys and objects “supplements what they can tell you,” she says.
Service in schools
The impact of the center extends beyond the doors of the suite. Following their work in the CCC, graduates go on to have significant impact in regional schools and communities. Guided by teachers and administrators, school counselors and school psychologists help with district testing, offer personal, social and academic guidance to students and support students with special needs.
McDaid is interning as a school psychologist at three schools in Mt. Diablo Unified School District. Along with concerns about classes and tests, or anxiety about starting a new school, she’s noticing more students with economic and financial worries. “Kids as young as 5 or 6 are talking about money,” she says, because they’ve heard their parents talking about it. “I’m hearing that resonating through all clients.”
At her post as a school counselor in a San Lorenzo middle school, Taylor sees students confronting bullying and social pressures. She’s also hoping she can set students up for long-term success, encouraging them to plan for college and careers. And her time in the CCC has enhanced her ability to help students who come to her with more personal or serious situations. “I have the background to work through it with them,” she says.
The department and the CCC are also participating in the Hayward Promise Neighborhood Partnership (see story, page 6), providing solution-focused training for schools and families. “Behavior and interpersonal skills are just as important as reading and math,” Logan says.
At the Promise Neighborhood festival in October, the CCC brought their sand trays out, and students and faculty chatted with parents while children shared toys, played and built scenes in the sand trays. Third year school psychology student Don Pacheco and Vanessa Varrelman, a second year school counseling student, introduced a dinosaur puppet to passing children, saying hello from behind a small stage.
Promoting greater health means increasing awareness of mental health issues and reducing the stigma that still accompanies therapy in many communities. The message, Baylon says, is: “There is help, and it’s okay to struggle. We can create a culture where it’s safe to talk about anything.”