“Child-Centered Counselling: Psychosocial Support for Children”
by Magdalene Jeyarathnam
Chennai’s Center for Counselling has developed a series of four-day counselling skill - building workshops in Child-Centered Counselling. In the past year, AIDS Alliance has had 50 of its counsellors from the CHAHA project experience these workshops in Ooty, Vijayawada and Warangal. World Vision has sent many of their counsellors and we have conducted 2 workshops exclusively for the World vision staff. We have also trained many counsellors from various parts of the country on this topic.
Child-Centered Counselling lays a basic foundation for counsellors working with children by first-of-all helping counsellors to remember what it is to be a child. Counsellors learn ways of interacting with children in a medium which is native to children, the medium of play. Play can occur through storytelling, drama (“playing make-believe”), games, puppets, dolls, masks, drawing, painting, sculpture, etc. Counsellors are exposed to numerous exercises involving the use of imagination and improvisation. In conjunction with these play and expressive activities, counsellors learn ways of engaging a child in conversation regarding issues that may have appeared through the play activities, thus enabling the child to discuss what is going on with him/her.
“Talk therapy” is the main method used by many counsellors whose mission it is to provide children with emotional support and to facilitate children’s self-understanding. “Talk therapy” alone may help adults, but does it work for children? A child may find it difficult to express him/herself in analytical words alone, and all the more so when asked to talk directly about his/her problems with an adult. Asking a child to communicate through analytical talk alone, may miss utilising the child’s primary expressive and communicative abilities. This could lead to a counsellor assuming what is happening with a child, instead of actually discovering what is happening.
Counselling is generally about helping a client to understand what is going on in his/her life, and to consider options of how to cope with or overcome any difficulties. Play can be used to help the child express emotions, overcome fears, and grow out of inappropriate behaviours. Bringing out emotions through play is in itself the beginning of healing, and is followed by discussion, enabling integration and understanding by the child.
In India, colleges tend to offer very generic training in counselling, and this training is almost always geared towards counselling adults. In countries like the USA, UK and Australia, Masters Degree programs in play therapy, art therapy, music therapy and drama therapy are available, but in India very few of our child counsellors are trained in, or are even aware of, the play-based methods. The Center for Counselling has thus taken on the project of gathering many of the play-based approaches in a systematic and rigorous manner, and making them available in easily-understandable ways for counsellors in India.
All play-based therapies revolve around storytelling. Stories give meaning to life, express values, and convey culture. Three kinds of stories are personal stories, traditional stories and created stories. Created stories often involve a mix of elements from personal and traditional stories.
We teach counsellors ways of finding, creating and modifying stories which may help individual children to cope with certain situations in life. Counsellors learn ways of becoming more effective storytellers. Counsellors also learn ways of helping children themselves to make up and tell stories which will help them work through their issues.
The story of a cocoon, for example, can be used to illustrate the continuity of life, death and rebirth, and to help a child understand that the death of an individual can be seen as a stage in the ongoing life of a family and community. Such stories can help a child to understand death especially in the HIV/AIDS context, in which a child may be exposed to the death of parents or siblings, or may have a lot of queries about the possibility of his/her own death due to HIV/AIDS.
Art therapy is not about creating great works of art. Rather it is just about shaping clay, making collages, making stick figures, or doodling, just letting your hand intuitively pick colours and paint designs. What a child chooses to paint, and the way he/she paints, can give the therapist an excellent window into the child’s world. As the saying goes, a picture can be worth a thousand words.
Making art can help children come to terms with loss, and transform their anger and aggression. This activity can also make children feel good, by giving them a sense of accomplishment.
We teach several drawing exercises which can help children to express their emotions and thoughts, and tell a story. We also teach simple ways of using puppets.
Drama therapy is often utilised to help a client solve a practical social problem, and explore and resolve unhealthy patterns of interaction. One form of drama therapy is Psycho-drama, which involves improvising imagined dialogue between various people in the client’s life, and even between various aspects within the client.
Dance/Movement therapy is the use of movement and dance for discovering, expressing and working through emotional, cognitive, social, behavioural and physical difficulties. Some of the exercises involve styles of walking and gesturing. Some exercises include music and speech, and some are done in silence.
The focus of the workshops is on teaching exercises to counsellors that counsellors can then use with the children with whom they are working. Workshop participants get opportunities to share their experiences and thoughts with other counsellors -- both in the immediate workshop and beyond. They draw up individual and collective action plans to implement Child-Centered Counselling in the institutions in which they work. Finally, workshops participant are given suggestions regarding follow-up evaluation and development of the methods.
Magdalene Jeyarathnam is the founder-director of Center for Counselling, Chennai.
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