Oct 18

Intermountain Moment: Helping the trauma-affected child succeed at play, with Kathleen Slack, M.S.

Play time can be hard for any child, but is especially difficult for trauma-affected children. Children that have been affected by early childhood trauma and severe stress are often given any number of labels to describe the symptoms of that trauma or adverse childhood experience: PTSD, ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder), ADD/ADHD (Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder), and even RAD (Reactive-Attachment Disorder). Whether caused by early childhood trauma, adversity, or a physical and/or mental health issue, a child with special emotional needs struggles with playtime, especially that with peers.

Kathleen Slack, our K-3 Special Education Teacher at Intermountain’s Residential Campus in Helena, Montana, has a wealth of experience in helping special needs children work through the relational minefield that is playtime, recess, or unstructured play. Any church or faith-based organization that wishes to reach out to adoption and foster parents should consider these tips when helping children with emotional special needs in their community. Play can be a wonderful tool for building self-confidence and relational aptitude in little ones, so we want to set up everyone in our fellowship for success! Here’s what Kathleen suggests, both from the video clip above and from our conversations:

  • Let the child know what to expect. “Free time” might sound wonderful to us as adults, but the concept of unstructured free play can be paralyzing for the child that is afraid to misstep, has difficulty initiating conversation, or struggles with conflict. Until the child is comfortable making their own choices around play, suggesting two or three options gives the child the freedom within boundaries that will develop trust and security.
  • Let the child know where you will be and what they can expect from you. Sometimes what we take for granted as a given–“I will keep you safe and allow you to have fun.”–is very reassuring for a child from a trauma-history to hear. What are the physical boundaries (“We’ll be in this room, or in this fenced area, or on this playground equipment…”)? How long will play last and how will they know when it’s time to wrap it up? (“We have 10 minutes to swing or play in the sand-box, and I’ll let you know when there are two minutes left, and I’ll ring the bell when it’s time to line up to go back inside“). As the adult, you provide safety and security for the child. They need to “borrow” your sense of confidence to face the challenge of play and negotiating the expectations of peers. Keep your eyes open and your ears attuned to their play, so if they look to you to see if something is “safe” you can reassure them.
  • Consistency is very important. The anxious child can be made a little less anxious if she or he knows that the same routine is followed for recess, free play time, or game time in whatever setting they find themselves in. Visual schedules and charts for classrooms are helpful in this regard, as are routines for lining up or quieting down for transitions.

This list is by no means exhaustive, and I would encourage you to speak to the primary caregivers for the children in your community that might need a little help around playtime when they are participating in church or children’s/youth activities. They will be the experts in what can calm or sooth their anxious children, and you will honor them with your humility and willingness to learn from them!