Balthazor works with child in play therapy session

Play therapy helps students express their experiences and feelings

School counselor gives students a safe space for sharing, learning and healing

We hear a knock at the door and see three little faces peering through the window. Elementary school counselor, Elizabeth Balthazor, pauses our interview and ushers the kids into her office at A.C. Moore Elementary School in Columbia, South Carolina. They eagerly ask a question; she clarifies an issue and sends them back to class.

“Sorry about that interruption,” she tells me. “Those students help me distribute bags of food that a local church donates to some of our children to make sure they have full bellies over the weekend.”

Hunger is a real issue for some of her students. Sending them home with food is a fairly easy way she can help. But in the 21 years that she’s been a school counselor, Balthazor has worked with other students whose emotional – and sometimes physical – wounds are much harder to heal.

Play is natural for children. It’s how they begin to learn about the world...By watching a child play, you can learn a lot about what’s going on in his life.

Elizabeth Balthazor, school counselor and alumna

“I’ve worried about many children throughout my career,” Balthazor says. “The hardest part of my job is knowing a student is in a dangerous or unhealthy situation.”

The statistics involving childhood trauma are alarming. Two-thirds of children report at least one traumatic event by 16 years old, and 26 percent of children witness or experience a traumatic event by the time they turn 4. One in seven children are abused, and that rate is five times higher for children living in lower socioeconomic households. Balthazor sees firsthand the impact these traumas have on children.

“I’ve counseled children experiencing horrific sexual abuse. I’ve seen students whose parents are addicted to drugs, in and out of jail or who have been murdered. We can’t expect students to thrive academically when they are experiencing traumas like these. And as a school counselor, my role is to be a safe and trusted person for them to talk to and then do all I can to help them.”

Before she can help, Balthazor must figure out what’s wrong and that can be hard with children who don’t fully know how to express their emotions or verbalize their trauma.

“Children just don’t sit down and talk like an adult might who was in counseling,” she says. “That’s why we turn to something that children are comfortable doing — playing.”

Counselors and mental health professionals have been using forms of play therapy for centuries, but formalized approaches were developed in the 1930s. Play therapy is a form of counseling or psychotherapy that uses play to communicate with children, typically between 3 and 11 years old, and allows them to express their experiences and feelings.

Children are given the chance to play with three types of toys: aggressive toys such as swords or soldiers; creative toys such as crayons or puppets; and real-life toys such as a doll, money or an animal.

“Play is natural for children. It’s how they begin to learn about the world and how they identify the role they play in the world. By watching a child play, you can learn a lot about what’s going on in his life,” Balthazor says.

For example, Balthazor may ask a child to draw a picture of everyone who lives in his or her house.

“In that case, I may just look to see if there is someone else living at the house besides the child’s parent or guardian. I may then ask who that person is to learn more about the home-life situation in a non-threatening way. Or if a child wants to play with a doll, I observe how they interact with it. Are they violent with the doll perhaps? Maybe they are trying to express something. Over time, children tend to show you their feelings if given the control to do so through play.”

Balthazor first learned about play therapy while earning a master’s degree in school counseling from the University of South Carolina’s College of Education in 1999. In October, she came back to campus for what she calls a “refresher course” when the counselor education program offered a professional development workshop on play therapy.

The daylong workshop was led by professor and licensed therapist, Jessie Guest. More than 60 educators, school counselors, social workers, family and marriage counselors as well as clinical-mental health professionals attended.

“The response from the event was outstanding. It became clear that professionals in our area are interested in enhancing their play therapy knowledge and technique so they can better serve children,” Guest says.

South Carolina is the only university in the state that offers a graduate certificate in play therapy, and nearly 30 students are enrolled in the courses. Now, Guest hopes to offer more learning opportunities, like the recent workshop, that will allow professionals to earn state-required continuing education credits while honing their skills.

“When I was in private practice, nearly 80 percent of the referrals I received were children or adolescents. The need is great, and play therapy is an age-appropriate way to help children navigate their experiences and the healing process,” Guest says.

Through the “Play Buddy Program” – an internship-like program that provides play services to the community – eight students in the graduate advanced play therapy class work with children at A.C. Moore Elementary to gain experience.

“I am learning as much from the graduate students as they are from this experience, for sure,” Balthazor says. “The children enjoy spending time with the university students, and they allow me to serve more children through play therapy. It’s a wonderful partnership with the university.”

Though Balthazor says watching children navigate through trauma can be heartbreaking and stressful, the reason she chose to be a school counselor remains clear.

“The most rewarding part of my job is helping children and, in many cases, their families heal.”

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