The problem with talking therapies for children

Two dramatherapists discuss how using non-verbal and creative-arts therapies can sometimes be the most effective form of counselling
In 2015, the Children’s Commissioner for England called for every school in England to provide counselling for pupils, noting that children had repeatedly told her that they wanted people in their schools with whom they could talk.
An increasing number of creative arts therapists, however, have already been working successfully in schools for a number of years; therapists such as myself and Penny McFarlane. Between us, we have over 30 years of experience supporting children and young people across the South West of England.

The British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) suggests counselling "offer(s) troubled and/or distressed children and young people an opportunity to talk about their difficulties, within a relationship of agreed confidentiality." While this may be helpful to those who have the language to describe their thoughts and feelings, this isn’t always possible.

Making use of non-verbal methods

Creative arts such as drama and play therapy enable younger children – and young people who lack certain language skills - to safely access their feelings without the need for words. Instead of speaking, children can express feelings through symbol and metaphor. This creates a ‘safe’ distance between them and their often overwhelming feelings resulting from loss, abuse, neglect and trauma.
I work in primary schools and specialist social, mental health and emotional needs (SMHE) settings as a play therapist and have been pioneering play therapy in outdoor environments. Penny currently works as a dramatherapist and started the Catipila project in 2001, which enabled primary schools across Plymouth to access creative arts therapists.
While both of us recognise the value of counselling at secondary level, what’s also clear is the need to offer support as early as possible to children. This way, we can avoid difficulties becoming entrenched, meaning they’d have an even greater impact on their education and emotional wellbeing.
Since exclusion from school can be the result of unresolved difficulties, those children who are vulnerable require comprehensive support.

Age-appropriate support

Importantly, this support must be appropriate to their age and stage of development. This, at primary level, is unlikely to be a talking therapy. Many primary schools have already recognised this, and have been commissioning independent therapists. Many schools are now prepared to fund the longer-term work required to resolve certain issues – such is the impact of mental health on education.
However, any form of counselling or creative arts therapy should not be seen merely as a bolt-on activity.  It needs to be part of a continuum of support, reflected and embedded in a whole-school nurturing ethos.
We need to recognise that developing secure emotional wellbeing can be just as important as academic interventions in providing a positive, holistic development.
Effective schools understand that good social, mental and emotional wellbeing are the bedrock for all-round achievement, including, but not only, academic progress.

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