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Connecticut School Shooting: Play Therapy Methods to Handle Dangerous Situations

Connecticut School Shooting: Play Therapy Methods to Handle Dangerous Situations

As reports of the horrific situation are coming in about the elementary school shooting this morning, I am deeply saddened for all of the families, children, teachers, staff and community affected. As we learn more details, I am sure we will continue to hear stories of heroism in big and small ways, and those who handled a tough situation with composure and strength.

As I read that some of the teachers told the children the shots were someone hammering to keep them calm while they moved them to a safer location, it reminded me of some play therapy approaches that are effective in critical situations. Hopefully, these can be implemented in your own homes but also through the academic system during practice drills for teachers and faculty as well.

1. Be clear and concise.

Too many words confuse children and the message gets lost in the verbiage. The more direct and to the point you can be when needing to demand quick action or setting a limit, the more the child can comprehend and therefore, comply. Try to keep your phrasing to less than 10 words.

2. Be honest but spare unnecessary details.

Many adults believe that lying is preferable to telling kids the truth if it is painful, difficult or scary. The reality is that children are far more intuitive and aware of things than we think. By protecting them from the truth, especially with saying something that isn’t true, leads to confusion, mistrust and resentment. It is best to speak honestly, but guardedly.

3. Be aware of your own emotions.

Children absorb feelings and attitudes of adults around them, whether they are spoken or not. Since the majority of our communication is nonverbal, our emotional presence is felt regardless of what we say. Keeping yourself focused and calm will create that sense in a larger group as well, which helps everyone. By maintaining control over your own emotions, you are also modeling self-control to children.

4. Be specific about safety.

When there is a situation that requires immediate attention, such as needing to move swiftly to another room (or on a less severe scale to make a child get down from the back of the couch), it is important to stress the safety element. Every child, once out of infancy, understands the concept of “being safe”. Adults get in the habit of giving detailed explanations for why rules exist or behavior needs to stop, but many limits revolve around keeping them safe. By saying, “You need to be safe”, you clearly communicate the importance of the rule or the request, and it is easily understood by the child.

A Play Therapy based response to dangerous situations

Obviously, in a situation such as this shooting in Connecticut today, the teachers were under extreme circumstances, and I’m in no way criticizing their response. I do believe that Play Therapy methods give a very effective way to respond in situations like this. I know that teachers are trained and conduct drills on school safety situations, and effective training hopefully kicks in when the need comes. I thought about how I would respond and what I would say to kids if I were in this situation, and the best response I could think of is “We need to move right now, because you need to be safe.” This response ties in all four points above and clearly communicates to children the action they should immediately take.

I would like to see the Play Therapy Community take a more involved role in school policy, as I feel that Play Therapy methods and techniques are the most effective ways to interact with children. I can imagine an education system where teachers are trained in Play Therapy and both teachers and children benefit.

Final thoughts

I am aware of the long-lasting effects that an event like this is going to have on the social, emotional and psychological health of the community, the children and the school. I encourage any and all play therapists trained to work with children and families to offer support and advice in any way they can. I also encourage all parents to take an awful situation like this and let it help us to monitor our approaches and interactions with our children on a daily basis so that we are assured we are creating the healthy and happy families that we want!

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