health care,
education and
social services

health care,
education  and
social services

Help When It Matters Most: The School-Based Mental Health Program (Part 3 of 3)

In Parts 1 and 2 of Help When It Matters Most: The School-Based Mental Health Program, Marisa Parrella, Manager of Mary’s Center’s School-Based Mental Health (SBMH) Program, introduced the program through which our therapists help children in 12 DC public schools to overcome behavioral and emotional challenges and gain academic success.

What Techniques Do You Use To Help Your Participants?

One of the most common techniques we use, especially with our youngest clients, is play therapy. This is often how we get to know what is happening with the students.  They invite us into their play, and they play out their worries, hopes, and resolutions.

Some of our therapists have also become very knowledgeable in sand tray therapy. We use a sand box with all sorts of objects to select from (pictured at left), and our participants create scenes with animals, people, cars, bridges, guns, coffins, princesses – the objects must be able to represent all parts of their stories, their lives. 

One way of using the sand is to ask the children to create their world in sand; we tap into the cognitive side of the way they think about their problems, but also address the emotional side to see how they feel about themselves and their world. 

Often, they will create symbolic scenes, using fire and stop signs, bigger animals that look more dangerous and smaller animals that look more vulnerable. They will create a scene that’s very powerful emotionally, and it gives us a window into how they are feeling.  Sometimes, they discover something new about themselves through creating the sand tray.

We had a teenager who finished making a sand tray and revealed that she had experienced childhood sexual abuse; this was not something that she ever said when asked the question directly. I think the tray, the feelings, and the symbols, gave her the courage to say it. When engaging a client about trauma, we can’t capture it through words; traumatic experiences are remembered differently, through sensations. People experience trauma in their bodies and need alternative ways of communicating it. 

How Has Your Intervention Made A Difference?

First, having our therapists work with children in the school setting and harnessing the healing power of their community has made the biggest difference in the children we serve.  Second, engaging children’s parents and caregivers in the work recognizes that a child’s well-being is not separate from the family’s well-being. Children don’t exist in a vacuum. 

Finally, our team takes care of one another – we teach, learn, laugh, and play together.  We hold each other accountable and support each other unconditionally.  I believe that you must create a supportive environment among therapists if they are to create the same emotionally safe environment for the children and families they serve.  It’s a parallel process. The team recognizes that taking care of ourselves is the only way to take very good care of our students and that’s our mission!

If you’d like to make an appointment for your child or yourself, call 202-420-7122.

Read Help When It Matters Most: The School-Based Mental Health Program (Part 1 of 3)

Read Help When It Matters Most: The School-Based Mental Health Program (Part 2 of 3)


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