Head Start is a national program designed to provide emotional, physical, and academic support to children in need. The majority of children served by Head Start are minority children, and many live in poverty. Aside from the emotional problems they may face, these children are at increased risk for behavioral problems. Research shows that children exposed to violence and impoverished conditions are more vulnerable to aggressive behavior, drug and alcohol abuse, and other psychological problems than children from higher socioeconomic statuses. Although Head Start provides many resources to impoverished children, Sue C. Bratton of the Department of Counseling and Higher Education at the University of North Texas believes that integrating play therapy with Head Start could improve children’s chances of academic and emotional success.
In a recent study, Bratton enrolled 54 preschoolers into child-centered play therapy (CCPT) or a control condition. The children were Hispanic, African-American, and Caucasian, and were all from disadvantaged communities. The teachers, who were unaware of which condition each child was in, rated the children’s behavior before and after the study. The results revealed that the CCPT significantly improved the children’s behavior. Specifically, disruptive behavior and aggression decreased dramatically. Additionally, those in the CCPT had increases in attention that were not seen in the control group. Another positive outcome was that most of the children in the CCPT group, 21 out of 27, were no longer in the clinical range for behavioral concern after the intervention.
Bratton believes these findings show that CCPT, an approach that has been proven to be effective at minimizing externalizing problems in children, is particularly beneficial for underprivileged children, especially preschoolers. Many of these children do not have the resources for private therapy, and often don’t have parents who are willing and able to participate in their treatment. Therefore, these results demonstrate that adding CCPT to Head Start, a program available to all demographics and ethnicities, is a viable treatment strategy for children in need. “Further, it offers hope as an intervention that can be successfully used by school mental health professionals when parental involvement is not possible,” Bratton added.
Bratton, S. C., Ceballos, P. L., Sheely-Moore, A. I., Meany-Walen, K., Pronchenko, Y., Jones, L. D. (2012). Head Start early mental health intervention: Effects of child-centered play therapy on disruptive behaviors. International Journal of Play Therapy. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0030318
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