From Exclusion to Inclusion – the power of play therapy

Some children in primary schools are struggling to manage being in school for the whole day and are clearly demonstrating this through their behaviour. Josh aged 11 was referred for play therapy as he was frequently challenging school staff, refusing to work and disrupting his class. He was lashing out at other children, often when unprovoked and had poor peer relationships. At times he would run out of the classroom and hide around the school. The school was becoming increasingly concerned about Josh’s safety and the emotional wellbeing of the other children in his class who were being adversely affected by his behaviour. He was attending school part time and was finding this hard. At home Josh was also difficult for his mum who was a single parent since separating from his dad when he was 7 after experiencing years of domestic violence. Josh had not had any contact with his dad since then and had four older sisters all in their twenties. His mum shared with me that she was finding his angry outbursts unmanageable and was worried that he would soon be excluded from school.

I spoke to Josh about his difficulties at home and school and offered him weekly play therapy sessions. I talked about him seeing his dad hitting his mum, acknowledged how terrifying this must have been and that it may be hard for him as he no longer saw his dad. I said that sometimes things can happen that make us have lots of feelings like anger and sadness and that he could bring these to our sessions if he wanted to. The relief on Josh’s face when I attempted to put his experience in to words for him was enormous and he readily engaged with the play therapy. At first he was wary and mistrustful of me, and kept trying to persuade me to have longer sessions or let him take something home with him. This was an important testing opportunity for Josh as he was to see if I could be trusted and would stick to my boundaries around him. Play therapy can help children to explore and make sense of their feelings and experiences so they are able to work through them and change their behaviour. Josh’s initial sessions with me featured play about aggression, dominance and control. There was often a powerful dinosaur that manipulated and bullied the others until it finally got its comeuppance when they all ganged up against him and made him leave. This symbolic play enabled Josh to revisit the experience of his dad living in and eventually leaving the family home, in a more positive and accepting way. Josh gradually became able to share his worries about his dad and his fears that he would be like him. “Everyone says I look like him but I don’t want to be like him.” We explored his feelings and I suggested I could talk to his mum about this so that she could also support him. He willingly agreed.

Working with his mum
A fundamental aspect of play therapy is the parent’s willingness to work with the therapist and attend regular review meetings along with supporting the child through any changes they are making. It involves sharing a full history of the child’s life to enable the play therapist to gain an understanding of the issues the child may be dealing with.
I had regular meetings with Josh’s mum to support her with his behaviour at home and help her understand what he was trying to communicate by his behaviour. She agreed that Josh did look like his dad and that at times this was hard for her as he was a reminder of the difficult relationship she had with him. She shared her feelings of guilt that it had taken her a long time to separate from his dad and she could see that it had a negative impact on Josh. She felt she hadn’t bonded with Josh in the same way as she had with her daughters and felt he was aware of this. I acknowledged that it had been an extremely hard time for her and that she had needed to be focused on their physical safety at this time.
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We spent time discussing positive aspects of Josh’s personality, which can be challenging to do when there are many negative aspects on a daily basis, but it helped that I could share my experiences of him. Josh told me he loved cooking so I encouraged her to spend some time cooking and she agreed to do a cooking activity at home with him each week. Josh was delighted with this and discussed how they would plan what to cook and then shop together for the ingredients. This time together was clearly beneficial for both of them as his mum reported that his angry outbursts had lessened and she was enjoying spending time with him.

Alongside working with Josh’s mum I also talked to his teacher each week to suggest strategies she could try with him in class and to develop her understanding of his experiences and how they had impacted on his behaviour. This information was shared with consent from his mum and in discussion with Josh about what I was planning to say to his teacher. This is a crucial aspect of the trusting relationship that I had worked hard to develop with him, and I regularly reassured him that I did not share with anyone what he actually did in our sessions, although he could if he chose to. This weekly review enabled his class teacher to become more confident at identifying the triggers for his behaviour and to understand that at times he was showing the opposite of what he was feeling. For example, he would respond with “I’m not bothered” when faced with doing something that scared him or he felt unconfident about. This deeper knowledge of him enabled her to support him and his feelings more easily. I implemented a training session on attachment for the school staff and used Josh as an example to enable them to empathise with and comprehend the devastating impact that traumatic experiences within the family can have on a child’s ability to engage with school and access their learning. This resulted in all school staff having a more positive approach to Josh, enabling him to feel happier and settled at school.

Josh attended play therapy sessions on a weekly basis for nearly a year. He worked incredibly hard in the sessions, as did his mum, class teacher and whole staff team. He was able to understand and talk about his experiences and recognise and express his feelings more easily. His peer relationships improved as he felt better about himself and more accepted and cared for at home and school. He did well in his SATS and was back in school full time after a term. He is now in Year 8 at high school, is doing well and wants to be chef when he leaves school.

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