Play your way to better behavior

Sobson, Lorraine - Off the Shelf

Challenging behavior can disrupt the learning of everyone in a classroom, so finding the right method to address it is of utmost importance.

Unfortunately, doing that isn’t always easy. Methods for addressing challenging behaviors have evolved out of a complex history of inquiry in the areas of neuroscience, child psychology, behavior analysis, and counseling.

That’s a lot of information for teachers to absorb! And teachers can’t be expected to keep abreast of changes in every one of these fields. CEC’s book, “Addressing Challenging Behaviors in Early Childhood,” addresses a literature gap on mental health in early childhood education to help teachers bring these many elements together.

When I recently spoke with author Mojdeh Bayat about her book, I decided to keep it simple and ask her about just one method for addressing challenging behavior with young children: play therapy.


Lorraine Sobson
Editor and Manager, CEC Professional Publications

L: There’s a common perception among educators that play therapy is a relatively new method for addressing challenging behaviors. Is this true?

M: That’s an interesting question. In fact, play therapy isn’t a new phenomenon or even a new therapy format.  You can find discussions about the use of play to teach children in almost every culture around the world. In Western culture, we see it in early philosophical writings of thinkers like Plato and Rousseau.

As a therapeutic intervention, however, we can see its beginnings with a psychoanalyst who was a contemporary of Freud’s named Hermine Hug-Hellmuth.  Hermine wrote the first papers on the use of play to help children deal with emotional and behavioral challenges.

L: Did Freud also use play therapy?

M: He did, but in a really limited way. He used it informally with his daughter, Anna who also grew up to be a psychoanalyst. It was actually one of Anna’s contemporaries, Melanie Klein, who introduced the use of toys into psychoanalysis and legitimized play therapy as a tool for working with children. She used it with children who had been separated from their families during WWII.  Since then, play therapy has become an effective tool for improving mental and behavioral health in young children.

L: And what does that look like – or could you define play therapy for us?

M: Play therapy is simply a situation where an adult plays with a child to form and maintain a trusting relationship. The relationship and the playful context allow the child to feel safe and secure which can help him or her to process complex feelings and emotions.

L: Why is play therapy so appealing as a means of working with young children?

M: Well, play comes naturally to most children in the same way that talking feels natural to adults. So just as adults make meaning out of important events in their lives by talking about them, children feel better after having the chance to process their thoughts in a healthy way through play.

L: That makes a lot of sense. So for children, playing can be like talking.

M: Right. And in a trusting relationship with a capable and responsive adult, children can learn about the self through play and gain the strength needed to regulate their own emotions and thoughts.  

L: That leads me to another question about the role of the adult in all this. Could you tell us the difference between directive and nondirective play therapy?

M: Sure. I’m going to use the adult example again. When we trust someone to be a friend, a good listener, a supporter, and not a judge, we know that this person will allow us to dictate when we feel comfortable to share our feelings and when we don’t.  It’s the same way with children. We need to allow them to decide what they want to play with, when they want to play, how they want to play– and when they want us to join them.

L: So nondirective play therapy allows the child to feel they have agency, or autonomy?

M: Yes. Don’t forget, adults are typically telling children what to do all day long.  So by letting them direct their own play for just 20 minutes, we help them realize their own capabilities in a limited timeframe.

L: Capabilities: that’s one of the “crucial Cs,” correct?

M: Yes! The crucial Cs are four things that should always be observed in play therapy. They are: 1) be sure to connect at the child’s emotional level, 2) allow the child to feel capable, 3) show the child that he or she counts, and 4) acknowledge and appreciate the child’s courage.

Together these things build trust and confidence to help children share their feelings and work to find their own solutions to problems.

About the author:

Mojdeh Bayat is Associate Professor of Education at DePaul University, USA. She has a BA in Law and Society from The American University, an MA in Early Childhood Special Education from Northeastern Illinois University, and a PhD in Child Development from Erikson Institute in Chicago.

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