Purposeful Play Therapy Yields Results (#91)

Almost every school counselor would like to have more time with students. That’s because we know, as our guest Donna Brooks reminds us this week, that the purposeful use of time and evidenced-based practices with students can truly yield positive results.

Inspiring School Counselors
Inspiring School Counselors
Purposeful Play Therapy Yields Results (#91)

This Week's Storyteller

Donna Brooks knew from an early age that she wanted to work with young children who struggled with emotional issues. Her education includes a degree from the University of Connecticut in Child Development and Family Relations and an M. Ed. in the field of Counseling from the University of New Hampshire. For the past 28 years she has been a public school counselor in Noblesville, Indiana schools working with children ages 3-8. Donna and her husband are avid travelers and gardeners. They have four children and a granddaughter.

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Matt Fleck:
It’s the month of May and in most K-12 schools, the race is on to get everything completed before the end of the school year – so good luck – and welcome to the Encouraging Words for School Counselors podcast.  I’m Matt Fleck – your host and one of the five team members here at our vibrant non-profit called Inspire Success.

Time – or the lack of time – is a huge challenge at the end of the school year but – if we’re honest – time is a resource that school counselors would almost always like to have more of. Fortunately, there ARE some schools where dedicating TIME to work with students ages 3 to 8 IS the purposeful focus. School counselor Donna Brooks works with this age group at Hinkle Creek Elementary School where intentional play therapy, combined with time, is an amazing tool.

Donna Brooks:
I am very client centered, child centered if you will. I set up a playroom and I use, uh, Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences as sort of my, uh, format. So I have something for those children that might be people smart or body smart, art smart, nature smart. You know, that the aid intelligence is I have something for everybody in here. I’m looking around the room. Now I have a sandbox. I have, uh, Legos, a dollhouse, an art center, a variety of manipulatives. And I let the child lead me. 

I mean, there was a time when I first started counseling that I would do like a six week curriculum. That is nowhere, for me, near as effective as letting the child gravitate toward the toy that speaks to them. And then listening very carefully to the way they play. And then trying to sort of interpret what they’re saying or trying to figure out. And I have found that if you trust that process and let the child know that you’re just going to accept them no matter where they take you get through whatever it is. Somehow those toys will help them speak.

Helping students ‘find their voice’ – so to speak – at these early ages can make a WORLD of difference, as Donna knows all too well.

Ellen was an extremely shy little girl. She was seven when I met her and her family was from Russia, her grandmother in the home, they only spoke Russian. She was bilingual, but super shy in my room. I would play music and I had scarves and I noticed her just dancing around the room. She just seemed to love music so much. And she sort of became a different person when she had that scarf and, and the music going. 

Well, one day she started singing. She just broke out in opera music and I was floored. Her beautiful voice just filled this room. And I said, oh my heavens does the music teacher know that you can sing like this? And of course she said, no, no, no, I don’t sing in music class <laugh>. So I said, well, we have to tell her, and she didn’t wanna do that. And I, I promised her, I said, let’s do it in a way where the teacher won’t see you. I’ll put you behind something. She won’t even know it’s you. And she was okay with that. 

Well, we went into the music room. I hid her. So the teacher didn’t know, and she broke out in song and the teacher was astounded as I had been. And little by little, this girl became more and more confident, came out of her shell, realized she had talents really that no one else did. And she was a special little girl.  

This was ten years ago and Donna says Ellen is now a vibrant young lady. But she has other success stories too, like the one about a very small kindergarten boy.

Mike, a little kindergartner, extremely shy. The teacher was beside herself, did not know what to do. He wouldn’t make eye contact with anybody. He’s an only child, uh, had not been in social situations until he got to kindergarten. So I brought him down to the playroom. He looked around and he saw the jar full of little dinosaurs. And he got those out and started categorizing them and talking about them and telling me who the herbivores and carnivores and all of that telling me the story about the dinosaurs. Well, little by little, each week, we would play with the dinosaurs. And I started raising my hand to ask him questions and I’d let him call on me and then I’d have him do it. Now you ask me a question and we just would practice this I about the dinosaur talking about something he was interested in, and that was the dinosaur.  

So I took a picture of him raising his hand, asking a question, and I printed it off. We went to the printer and I showed it to him and he was really proud of that picture. So I taped it to his cubby in his classroom and we showed it to the teacher and we showed it to the other kid. Some, oh, here is Mike raising his hand. 

And lo and behold, Mike started interacting, raising his hand in class, making eye contact. About three months after I started working with him, he decided to enter the school science fair, just this little tiny kiddo, bright boy, uh, had his science fair project all ready to go. And he asked me to go with him to present it, but I just sort of sat on the sidelines and he spoke with these strangers, the judges, and placed second place in the science fair and nothing has stopped him since he’s, <laugh> a different little boy. <laugh>

Some of you might remember in your master’s degree programs learning about Carl Rogers’ techniques of active listening and reflection and trying hard to truly HEAR what students are saying, sometimes in between or behind the words. It can be surprisingly effective but it takes TIME, so the strategy – in the hectic, busy, school environment – is often replaced with kinder versions of, “what do you need?” And trying to get students out the door as soon as possible. 

I think every child is a puzzle. I, you know, I don’t think there’s a perfect answer that we know ahead of time. And so getting as many pieces, a puzzle, as you can talking with parents, talking with teachers, observing them in different places and just trying to piece things together and again, trusting them. So they will have the answers. The answers are within the children.

Thanks to Donna Brooks for taking time to share HER wonderful stories with us. She’s another example of the amazing work that goes on – often behind the scenes – in school counselor offices all across the country.

One reason we – here at Inspire Success – have spent the last two years developing an online portal for school counselors called RAMP Ready is to help MORE school counselors find MORE time to work with students. One of the tools you can use to get more time is by implementing a comprehensive school counseling program – and we have a new tool to help you do that called RAMP Ready. You can take a look on our website inspiresuccess.org/rampready. Enrollment for the 2022-23 school year is now underway, so check us out at inspiresuccess.org/rampready

One more thing before we go – we would LOVE to hear from any of you who create and sell your own handiwork….such as jewelry, or clothing…decorative items, crafts, food – whatever it is – drop us a line with a description or a link to what it is you create at matt@inspiresuccess.org. We’ll fill you in with more details about all of this very soon.   

Good luck with the end of school year rush…and be sure to join us again next week.