Before you take your child to play therapy - What parents should know

Is Play Therapy What You Need for Your Child?

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School has started and you are beginning to wonder if you child needs play therapy. Reports are coming home and teachers are sharing their concerns.  But before you jump into play therapy, here are some things you should know. 

Parents feel stressed

Back to school means stress goes up. Schedules are tighter, homework starts up, and tempers get short. It’s no coincidence that kids and parents can feel like they’re clashing. Adding to that stress a few weeks into the school year is that sinking feeling the honeymoon is over with this year’s teacher--your child is bringing home more problem behavior reports than good grades. The school is pressuring you to (fill in the blank) “talk to your child,” “ask what’s going on at school,” “put some consequences into place,” and “remind your child to make good choices.” You feel like you have all of the responsibility and none of the control.

Kids feel Stressed

Guess what? Kids get stressed, too! They’re adjusting and they know it’s not going great. They’re worried that they’re in trouble with you, and home starts feeling like a battlefield, not a respite that you all need after a long day. And kids communicate differently than adults. When they’re stressed, they’re not likely to sit us down over a glass of milk and talk it out. They fight with their siblings, they test limits, they don’t want to go to bed.

It Takes a Village

First, teachers and schools need ALL our support. We need to talk, to listen, to help our kids understand that they are at school to learn and why. Hearing from parents that they are working at home to support school expectations can go a long way toward helping everyone.

BUT, the unfortunate truth is that consequences that we implement at home usually don’t help kids do better hours later. It’s also confusing and unhelpful to punish for something that happened hours ago, especially for really young children.

“What do I DO?” The most common question parents ask themselves when considering play therapy.


We can write a new story. We can actually coach our kids to better behavior (versus punishing them after the fact). The number one mistake we make as parents is that we don’t often enough let our kids know what we want them to do. There’s a fix for that. It’s called structuring. Because here’s what. Kids DO NOT want to get in trouble. And a lot of time they are not “making bad choices.” They are incapable of making a choice in the moment because they’re confused or overwhelmed by their emotions (this is why naming their emotions for them is so helpful—watch for more about that in future posts).

Structuring Tips for Parenting:

  1. Be more specific (“make your bed, then pick up your clothes and put them in hamper” vs. “clean your room”)

  2. Give them some advance notice (“in five minutes it will be time to take your bath”)

  3. Give them some small, appropriate choices (“would you like to brush your teeth in two or four minutes”)

Basically, tell your kids what you want them to do in ways they understand, and give them some choice about how to comply with what you want them to do. 

Why do kids not do what’s expected of them at school? 

  1. They may not KNOW what’s expected! 

  2. They may be distracted, overwhelmed, or upset by something that’s happened at school

  3. They may be distracted, overwhelmed, or upset by something that’s happened outside of school

  4. They may have some difficulties we don’t know about

Despite all the understandable reasons your child can have for not doing the “right” thing at school, it still leaves you dreading the next email, phone call, or your child’s face as they get in the car and tell you they got another red today. 

You CAN be on both teams--your child’s and their teacher’s. But how?

  1. TRY not to be defensive when you get “negative” reports from school.

  2. Be a detective. Ask your child’s teacher the questions you need to understand what’s expected of your child and where they’re NOT getting it right.

  3. Find out what your child SHOULD BE DOING at school (and what it would help for parents to do, as well).

  4. Let the teacher and administrators know you’re working on it.

  5. If your child has difficulties with something, let the teacher know or ask the school for help.

  6. Once you understand what’s expected, communicate it to your child, along with your parental values about why it’s important that they comply.

Now, the Fun Part!

You get to be creative now. Your assignment is to write a story. Here are the important elements to include:

  1. Identify the Situation
    What’s tricky? What needs to be different (e.g., your little one is not sitting down at circle time at school and is going straight to centers to play. Because they’re right. It is very fun.) 

  2. Decide on the Structure
    What would you like to have happen? Be sure to set a goal of a limit we can actually enforce. (Playing at centers is not allowed during circle time.)

  3. Identify the Details
    What are all the events that lead up to and surround this situation? No detail is too small to include. Don’t forget event-based timelines! (the drive to school, walking to the classroom, putting items in your cubby, you can sit on the floor or chair at circle, you’ll see centers, you’ll want to play there, FIRST you’ll need to sit at circle time) 

  4. Write the Story
    Now we’re going to put it all together and create the story that you’ll tell your child to help them practice AHEAD OF TIME for the tricky situation at school. This is coaching them. Be sure to let them know you understand why the situation is hard for them (It’s really hard for you to sit in the circle and wait to play at centers.). Include what the structure is (AND you need to sit in circle first, because Ms. Gina starts class that way. AFTER circle you can play in centers.) 

Here’s an example.

Ms. Gina told me it’s been tricky for you to sit at circle time. I think it’s really hard for you to sit down and not go play at centers right away. After a while you’ll be a kid who can do it. Let’s talk about your day so you know how it will go. I’ll come and wake you up and you’ll get to pick toast or cereal for breakfast. After breakfast you’ll brush your teeth while I get your uniform out for you to put on. First you’ll put on your clothes, then your socks, and then your shoes. You’ll grab your backpack and lunch box, I’ll get my keys, and we’ll go out to get in the car. I’ll buckle your seat--click! We’ll see the playground, the grocery store, and the crossing guard (wave!), and then we’ll be at your school. Ms. Susan will be there to help you get out of the car, and you’ll go into school. You’ll see Mr. Fred (wave!), and the first classroom, and then you’ll be at your room. Ms. Gina will tell you hi, and you can put your lunchbox and backpack in your cubby. Time for coloring at your desk, and then Ms. Gina will tell you it’s time to come sit at circle. You can sit on the floor or in a chair, whichever you choose--Ms. Gina can help you if you need it. You’ll see centers, and you might want to really play with the blocks. You WILL get to play with the blocks, AFTER circle. Ms. Gina will help kids talk about the calendar, the weather, and what’s for lunch. Then, she will start asking each kid where they would like to play at centers. It might be hard to wait for your turn, and I KNOW you’re a kid who can do it. Ms. Gina can help you. After you’ve waited, you WILL get to play at centers. You did it!

Start telling the story you’ve written. Repetition will help them master the hard stuff. The story can be at bedtime, then on the way to school. Tell it the same way each time.

Add some fun and don’t forget the encouragement. Ham it up if it helps your kid. It can feel silly to be dramatic, but most kids absolutely buy into it. Add your verbal acknowledgment that you KNOW your child can do this. Don’t let your worry for them seep into your assurances. Kids tend to rise to our expectations of them, and they flourish when we let them know we believe in them.

End of School Day DOs & DON’Ts

DO

  1. Greet your child warmly. You want to be the one your child is glad to see.

  2. Follow your regular routine

  3. Enjoy being with one of your favorite humans

  4. Encourage their efforts. This is versus praising their accomplishments. They are practicing. You’re their coach. Notice their progress. Out loud. Tell them you can see how hard they’re working on this.

  5. Let them talk. They may really want to let you in on how it went. Accept this without diving in headfirst and making suggestions about how it could have gone better. JUST LISTEN.

DON’T

  1. Ask if they got in trouble. You don’t want them to feel like a walking color chart. Rely on the teacher to inform you of how things went, and if it feels helpful, reach out to inquire.

  2. Overly focus on their behavior report, good or bad.

  3. Let them see you sweat. This is hard stuff, and you might be dying to know how it went. Try to relax and enjoy being with them.

What if things don’t get better? Is this when my child needs play therapy?

When it’s not working, here are some things to consider:

  1. What else might be happening for your child? Are they stressed about other things?

  2. Are there areas where they’re not achieving what we would expect them to for their age? Talking with a child counselor might help you determine if they’re progressing as they should.

  3. Is the setting the right one for your child and family? The school that seems perfect in October may not be a great fit for your child the next August. Look at this with curiosity.

  4. What experts might help you figure out more? Parent coaching can help you fine tune your approach. Play therapy can help support a child who is struggling emotionally. There are caring folks who can join your team.

  5. NOTHING IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN YOUR RELATIONSHIP. Remember that your little person is working really hard at mastering big tasks. Give them the benefit of the doubt and know that your anxiety/anger/irritation won’t help. Take a breath, step away, and when you’re calm, come back and figure out where practice can help. YOU ARE YOUR CHILD’S BEST COACH.

There is a lot to cover when it comes to helping your child. We are here to help. We are happy to meet with you and your child to see if play therapy is the next step to getting back on track. Click here to get started.