Risë VanFleet

Combining Nondirective and Directive Play Counseling in Schools


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School settings present many unique challenges to counselors using play counseling methods.   Space and time are often limited.  Counselors may work in several schools and therefore must carry their toys and materials with them.  Children usually must return to the structure of a classroom immediately after sessions.  Time can be seriously limited, and counselors may be responsible for large numbers of children.  This brief article addresses issues in the selection of play counseling methods, given these considerations.

Short-term, directive play counseling methods are increasingly popular because they are effective and they fit more readily within the restrictions imposed by the school setting.  There are times, however, when it would be beneficial to use nondirective play approaches, such as when the counselor is unsure of what’s really going on with the child, when children resist the direction of the counselor, when there are serious “control” issues, etc.  Many have found nondirective techniques valuable in establishing rapport with “hard-to-reach” children.  Some school counselors have found the following ideas that combine nondirective and directive approaches to be feasible and effective.

If time is limited with a child, e.g., if a counselor usually has only 6 half-hour sessions allotted per child, it is best to let the child know that at the start.  (The counselor must decide if the needed work can be accomplished within that time frame or if an outside referral is needed.)  Using poker chips, check marks on a chart, or tickets to show the child how many sessions are left each time helps make it concrete and more understandable for the child.  Children often have a remarkable ability to do their “work” within boundaries such as these.  At the very least, this gives the child the option to determine how much to reveal/work through during the allotted time.

When combining nondirective and directive play counseling methods, it’s extremely important to ensure that the child knows the difference.  This prevents confusion for the child and keeps their play communication as open as possible.  Ideally, it’s best to hold nondirective play counseling in a different area from the directive play counseling, but very few school counselors have that luxury.  Another way to handle this it to tell the child something like, “For the first part of today, YOU may select the toys and how you’d like to play with them; in the last part of today, I will select the activities.”  When changing from nondirective to more directive play, it’s helpful to give the child a chance for closure in their nondirected play (“Laura, you have one more minute left in your playtime before I select an activity for us.”) and then to reiterate, “Now we’re going to do something I’ve selected.” when starting the directive portion of the session.  Most children seem to respond well to this arrangement.

Is it better to start with the nondirective or with the directive techniques?  Although there might be exceptions, I generally suggest that school counselors start with nondirective, child-centered play counseling and end their sessions with more directive play counseling.  There are two main reasons for this:  (1) Starting with the nondirective play gives children a chance to relax and permits freer expression of their own issues at the start of the session. It’s the child equivalent of the adult counseling lead-in, “Tell me how things have been going for you lately.” (2) Children usually must return from counseling sessions to quite structured classroom settings.  Ending with more directive play interventions helps them make that transition more easily.

With the difficult problems school counselors face these days, it’s important that they have access to as full a range of counseling methods as possible.  Although circumstances sometimes prohibit the use of nondirective (child-centered) play counseling, counselors usually can incorporate it as needed using some of the suggestions above.

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