Brookings Register | SDSU’s play therapy program works to improve children’s mental health

BROOKINGS – Mental health problems, both for adults and children, are on the rise in the United States.

The US Department of Health and Human Services released a study this spring indicating that the number of children diagnosed with anxiety increased by 29% and the number diagnosed with depression grew by 27% between 2016 and 2020. And that it’s just the diagnosed children. Thousands more have undiagnosed mental health problems that go untreated.

In addition, the rise in mental health problems is adding to the shortage of mental health professionals in South Dakota: Nearly every county has an inadequate number of mental health professionals.

The play therapy program at South Dakota State University’s School of Education, Counseling, and Human Development, the Institute for Play Therapy Education, is working to address these challenges.

But what is play therapy?

“Play therapy is a therapeutic modality to help children use play,” said Staci Born, associate professor, registered play therapist, supervisor and graduate course leader for the program.

Children, especially those between the ages of 3 and 12, may not be able to process their emotions, discuss their personal challenges, or communicate effectively with their parents, caregivers, teachers, or other adults. Instead of using words, children often express themselves through play. Born said that play is a child’s first language and when a child plays, she expresses thoughts and feelings that might otherwise remain unexpressed.

Play therapists are trained to detect a child’s nonverbal cues, helping them understand what emotions or challenges the child may be experiencing, all through the simple act of play. This can be done through toys, arts and crafts, puppetry, music, or even creative dance; the type of game varies depending on the case.

“When you add the skills of being a play therapist, we really focus not only on what is said verbally, but also on non-verbal behaviors,” Born said. “Play, although there may be words involved, as children act out a scene or experience something they are trying to understand, it is expressive, so it uses the right side of the brain that does not require language.”

Play therapy can be directive, nondirective, or a combination of the two, he said.

“In a nondirective play therapy environment, I really follow the lead of the child,” Born said. “They are kind of a guide to where the game should go.”

In the directive posture, Born will have the child work on therapeutic activities or use specific toys. Therapists will often combine directive and nondirective activities, depending on the child’s treatment goals, she said.

During treatment, Born will narrate the child’s play, taking verbal and non-verbal cues and converting their actions into language. For example, if Born notices a child’s clenched teeth and tense muscles during play, she can describe aloud the tension she is observing to support children’s ability to integrate internal physiological states with external behaviors and relationships.

“We’re helping them develop emotional literacy,” Born said.

Born can help a child deal with emotions through role modeling. For example, if a boy expresses that he is angry, she will show him what he does when he is angry, which might involve taking deep breaths.

“It is very powerful for the child to see me regulate my anger in those moments. That’s much more visceral and vivid, which comes into the game experience,” Born said.

Play therapy is often a one-on-one counseling session between the therapist and the child, and the parents can often be involved; It really varies from case to case. It can also help children with social/emotional, behavioral, and developmental disorders, including attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder, learn to communicate and interact with others while also developing problem-solving skills.

Other issues play therapy can help with include grief, school refusal, parental separation, and traumatic childhood events.

Born’s path to play therapy

Growing up, Born was surrounded by children because one of her parents was in early childhood education.

“My mom always said, ‘kids learn through play, kids learn through play,’ so I was drawn to working with kids through her,” Born said.

Born took his mother’s words to heart. At Minnesota State University, Mankato, she received bachelor’s degrees in Spanish and psychology. While working toward a graduate degree, she began studying with a faculty member, John Seymour, who introduced her to play therapy.

“Dr. Seymour inspired me to teach play therapy,” Born said. “I have been able to create it and, in my opinion, also advance the field of play therapy and education.”

After completing her master’s degree in mental health and counseling and her doctorate in counseling education and supervision, Born began working at SDSU in 2016 and found an immediate interest in play therapy. At the time, there were about 10 registered play therapists in the state. Born was asked to offer a class, but then he was also asked to offer all the courses necessary to become a registered play therapist.

“I just talked about the need,” Born said. “So, I wrote the curriculum to meet the needs of people getting all the education and supervision necessary to become registered play therapists.”

Two years of classes, including clinical supervision and direct contact play therapy services, are required to complete the program. Aspiring play therapists require 150 educational hours and 350 hours of supervised clinical experience. SDSU is one of the few universities in the country to offer all play therapy resources in one unit, within one university.

“What Dr. Born has been able to accomplish since coming to South Dakota State University a little over six years ago is incredible,” said Jay Trenhaile, a professor in the School of Education, Counseling and Human Development and a member of the South Dakota Board of Trustees. Examiners. “Most colleges that become nationally recognized have had specific play therapy programs and facilities for several years prior to that level of recognition.”

In the spring of 2020, the Association for Play Therapy, the national professional society for the field, approved the SDSU Institute of Play Therapy Education as an approved center for play therapy education, research, and training. SDSU’s program is unique in the region and the first in the state to be approved by the APT.

In South Dakota, there are now 30 registered play therapists, half of whom came directly from the Born program. Another 20 to 25 people are working to become registered play therapists, she said.

“The work that Dr. Born has done will have a positive impact on the mental health of the citizens of our state forever,” added Trenhaile.

research efforts

In 2018, Born received a five-year, $2.2 million grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration to improve early childhood mental health in South Dakota. Born and Christin Carotta, an assistant professor at the school, are working in partnership with Southeastern Behavioral Health in Sioux Falls and Inter-Lakes Head Start to ensure increased access to mental health services for low-income children, ages 0-5. and their caregivers, in rural areas of South Dakota.

“We are measuring the progress of the children we serve through those grant dollars, because it not only funds training efforts, but it also funds the provision of play therapy services in South Dakota,” Born said. .

Born also recently finished editing a textbook on play therapy supervision, which should be published later this year. In it, Born devotes a chapter to self-compassion, something she has been exploring with her play therapy students.

“Self-compassion is a kind of self-care on steroids, in my opinion,” Born said. “We can do all these good things for ourselves, but not if we are hard on ourselves while doing it. For example, if I choose to take a bubble bath to honor my self-care, but while I’m in the tub I criticize myself for all the things I might be doing, I’m not being very compassionate.”

Born describes self-compassion as showing compassion to ourselves by treating ourselves with kindness and understanding when we experience a personal struggle. After acknowledging our difficult emotions, we can move on to resolution and problem solving. This mindful attention to our struggles has been shown to greatly benefit mental health.

Born is beginning to examine the ways in which self-compassion develops. One of the things he has found so far is that more experienced doctors have more self-compassion and novice doctors have less.

“How can we instill more self-compassion in our novice doctors so that they can get to the experienced state and perhaps prevent them from leaving the field due to their own deteriorating mental health?” Born said. “As a play therapy educator, I want to make sure our play therapists are doing well because they are part of that system as well.”

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