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Replacing Fear With Trust

Play Therapy Center blocks
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MNU Profs Train Kansas Social Workers 

When a child is taken from home and placed in foster care, the initial shock can be difficult to process. For most children around the country, the transition time between their home and being placed with a foster family is four to six hours – time often spent in a social worker’s office watching a movie or eating snacks while paperwork is filled out by the adults. Dr. Todd Frye and Rebecca Chow, LCPC, professors in MNU’s play therapy certificate program, are working to make that time an opportunity for children to begin to open up.

“The whole experience is traumatic, and we want to provide something more therapeutic in approach,” says Frye.

Frye and Chow were asked by the Kansas Department of Children and Family Services to train social workers on play therapy specifically for those four to six hours of transition. They have developed a training course and a portable kit for workers to take into settings with the children. The program is being adopted statewide, and the professors are leading six-hour workshops in person and via video conference. The training is split into two sections. The first part is about attachment theory and how the workers can understand what the child is feeling.

“Often, big change moments are accompanied by big fear,” says Frye. “Those moments we look back on as life-changing are usually filled with fear. Children often don’t have the words to explain what they’re feeling, but with toys, they can.”

The second half of the training is focused on the actual play therapy. Workers are taught the basic principles of play therapy and how to connect with the child through play.

“It’s important that the worker be there with the child, engaged in the process,” says Chow. “The adult has to be present and show up for the child to begin to build trust.”

The kits include a wide variety of toys from bubbles, to play houses with family figurines, to kitchen sets, to things like plastic handcuffs or a toy gun. The workers are trained to analyze the choices the children make. Choosing something like the bubbles can be a self-soothing decision, because the slow, steady breathing in and out can be calming. Playing with the house and family figurines can give the adult insight into the environment in the child’s home. Children who go for the handcuffs or gun can be acting out aggression or anxiety. Those who choose kitchen toys or want to play doctor are expressing a need to be a nurturer, as well as a need to be nurtured.

“They’re saying ‘I know how to take care of your wounds, and you know how to take care of mine,’” Chow says. “Each of the toys in the kit is there to help them feel free to express whatever is inside them.”

The social workers get to spend time role playing with Frye and Chow to see the kinds of scenarios that can arise. Frye said what they emphasize is helping the child learn to expect adults to show up for them.

resizedToddFrye_RebecaChow_SocialWork.jpg“For many of these children, this can be the first time to experience an exception to their worldview where adults can’t be trusted. We’re really hoping this can help social workers change the way these children view the world.”

Social workers aren’t the only ones to benefit from this system. MNU offers a post-graduate certificate in play therapy whereby therapists and mental health professionals learn play therapy in a 10-month program. Frye said the Department of Children and Family Services is discussing expanding their partnership with MNU to share the program with other states and take steps toward nationwide adoption.

“They know MNU has one of the best play therapy programs in the country. That’s why they came to us in the first place,” says Frye. “This really relates to our mission as a school – going out into the community to provide for the most vulnerable.”


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