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Special School District of St. Louis County

Social Workers Use Play Therapy
to Speak Kids' Language

Listing everything that an SSD social worker does can take a while. Social workers conduct individual and group counseling, coordinate services with affiliated agencies and take part in meetings with a student’s academic team. It’s a job that is not confined to an office or a classroom, and often extends well beyond the normal business hours of a school.

“Our job is to help students access their education,” said SSD social worker Colleen Shaughnessy.

“If a student has social work counseling in their IEP, they have a social-emotional-behavioral goal,” she added. “All of our services correlate to goals and to addressing whatever behavior or challenge a student is experiencing that is preventing him or her from fully accessing their education.”

Shaughnessy, and the rest of the team that serve students in Normandy Schools, know that their work is crucial to ensuring students are able to succeed in the rest of their classes. However, a lot of that work takes place outside of traditional counseling and therapy sessions. 

“The majority of support students receive is in other, indirect activities,” said Shaughnessy.

One of the indirect activities could include play therapy. While it may sound like it’s just fun and games, play therapy is key a tool to help social workers and students communicate.

“Some students, and specifically younger students, don’t have the language to express why they feel a certain way and are unable to express themselves with words,” said SSD early childhood social worker Kathleen Criscione. “In play therapy, the toys are their words and the play is their language.”

The level of play and the type of tasks evolve as the students get older. For students in early childhood programs, the activities are often student-led to allow students to explore a space at their own pace.

“An activity centered around emotions would encourage students to represent different emotions out of playdough,” said Criscione. “Then, you can talk to the students about why each face looks a certain way.”

As students get older, social workers may introduce other directive activities. In some cases, an existing game can be customized to meet a student’s goals.

“We have the game 'Hedbanz' in which people wear a headband that holds cards and you have to ask yes or no questions to figure out the card on your head,” said Shaughnessy. “If I was playing this with a student, we’d use customized cards with emotions on the card and students would work on their social-emotional vocabulary. If we were working on coping skills or self-regulation, we might use cards to guess the right coping skill.”

These activities allow students to learn to communicate about their emotions and behaviors. They also allow students to explore their feelings in a way that allows the student to return seamlessly to the classroom at the end of the activity.

“Something like sand-tray therapy is done at the high school level,” said Shaughnessy. “It’s a way of addressing trauma on a subconscious level, which is appropriate for school, so that we’re not retraumatizing the student.”

No matter the student’s age or the specific activity being played, the goals remain similar.

“My job as the play therapist is to help the child learn how to communicate, find replacement behaviors for maladaptive behaviors, help develop problem-solving skills, accepting limits, express their feelings, identify emotions, and learn self-regulation strategies,” said Criscione.

Published March 2019

play therapy tools

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Special School District of St. Louis County (SSD) is a leader in providing special education services to students with disabilities and also provides a wide range of career and technical education programs.
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