The Power of Sand Tray in School-Based Counseling

APT’s newly established credential of School-Based Registered Play Therapist is a clear sign that play therapy is becoming more widely accepted and used in the context of school-based counseling.  “School Based-Registered Play Therapists (SB-RPT) are school counselors or school psychologists who hold a license from their state's department of education, and who have satisfied the criteria described in the SB-RPT Guide” (www.a4pt.org).   

Being a play therapist who has practiced in a school context for eleven years, I have found that the sand tray is one of my most important and effective tools, as it is adaptable across ages, presenting issues, cultures, and intervention approaches.  Here are just a few examples of the power of sand tray that I have experienced as a school-based counselor.

A second grade child, referred by the school administration because of extensive acting out and dysregulation during the after school program, uses the sand tray in a traditional non-directive sand tray process.  Week after week he creates and works through intense and chaotic battles that are laced with humorous and playful interactions as I engage with him and attune to his stories.  After about two months of weekly sand tray sessions, we notice in the school office that he is no longer receiving discipline referrals from the after school director.  I observe this with him, and wonder what has changed that he is not having the problems he used to have.  His reply is simple and direct: “Oh, I just decided I didn’t need to do that anymore.”   Not surprisingly, since then he has also not needed to have as many or as intense of battles in the sand tray.  His play is becoming more normalized, and most recently he created a sand world of various sports being played at a park.  Through sand play, he has found the place of more consistent self-regulation within himself.

A fourth grade child comes to the guidance office on her own because of problems with friends.  Rather than just talking about the recent playground conflict, she uses the sand tray to demonstrate the situation.  As she acts it out “in miniature”, the situation seems less overwhelming to her because the tray gives her the perspective of being bigger than the problem she sees in front of her.  This allows her, with guidance, to explore possible solutions, role-play various responses, and decide how she wants to address the problem with her friend.  Once it is worked out with the miniatures in the sand tray world, I invite her to translate this into the bigger world by role playing with me and practicing the words that she wants to use with her friends.  She leaves the guidance office that day with new confidence and skills to navigate her next step through the difficult social world of fourth grade.

A sixth grade child with a mild autism spectrum disorder has recently begun having heightened anxiety and occasional panic attacks.  The sand tray has become his “go-to method” for self-regulating during an anxiety attack in school.   We begin with me burying his arms and hands in the sand and then applying pressure on top of the sand with my hands while he takes deep breaths.  The softness and coolness of the sand, along with the pressure on his arms, allows his breathing to slow and deepen as his “reacting brain” begins to calm and regulate.  Then, as an exercise to bring his “thinking brain” back online, I invite him to lift his fingers up out of the sand one by one, which takes concentration, and then to gently lift his arms and let the sand flow off of them.  His anxiety has subsided, he feels back in control of himself, and he is able to return to class in a calm and relaxed state.

As these examples illustrate, sand trays and school counseling are a perfect match!  School counselors, as well as clinical therapists working in school settings, have many opportunities to utilize the power of the sand and sand tray therapy with the many and varied children they serve. 

Peace to all who serve as counselors in schools!  I hope you will consider training in sand tray and pursuing the new APT credential of School Based Registered Play Therapist.

Roban Kubic              

 

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