Theraplay Goes to the Classroom

In a recent article, Rachel Simeone-Russell, of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, explains how incorporating Theraplay into a classroom setting can provide tremendous benefits for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and their peers. Theraplay, a form of counseling that integrates play activities with therapy, is effective at strengthening attachment relationships. For children with ASD, developing functional teacher-student relationships, as well as peer interactions, is imperative for social and academic success. Theraplay was created by Dr. Ann Jernberg in the 1960’s, and was influenced by Des Lauriers’ studies on ASD and how particular therapeutic approaches increased communication and social skills for children with ASD. Therefore, conclusions have been drawn linking Theraplay to effective treatment for ASD.

Theraplay relies on a model that includes structure, engagement, nurturing and challenge related activities. These dimensions play key roles in the development of the child. “Structure, for example, provides children with clear rules and can promote children’s sense of security,” said Simeone-Russell. “Structure-related activities work toward allowing children to comply with simple directions from the therapist, teacher, or caregiver.” She added, “Nurture is perhaps one of the most important dimensions of Theraplay. Most importantly, as children feel more and more accepted, self-esteem develops and strengthens.”

Simeone-Russell believes that Theraplay can be integrated into kindergarten with relative ease by employing resources that already exist. “Group Theraplay can be implemented with multiple children in a classroom setting with a mental health professional (e.g., school counselor, social worker, etc.) and teacher present,” she said. “By providing a practical approach to implementing Theraplay and Group Theraplay, the mental health professional is able to help mainstreamed children with ASD to form healthy attachments to their teacher. Additionally, children with ASD can work toward academic and developmental success in the classroom setting, development of supportive relationships with teachers and the mental health professional, and improvement in social interactions with peers.”

Simeone-Russell, R. (2011, August 15). A Practical Approach to Implementing Theraplay for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder. International Journal of Play Therapy. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0024823

© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Rae


    August 23rd, 2011 at 12:33 PM

    It is about time that someone thought to bring therapy to the classroom. I highly believe that in situations where kids need help our teachers are being under utilized. They are the ones who sometimes see more of the problems with how the kids relate to others even better than they are witnessed at home. And think of how much time they spend with the kids and what an influence so many of them make in the lives of their students. Excellent idea that I really hope catches on nationwide.

  • GINA


    August 24th, 2011 at 7:31 AM

    The earlier a problem is identified and treated,the better it is. So it makes perfect sense to have therapy in the classroom for young children.

  • dale hoffman

    dale hoffman

    August 27th, 2011 at 7:09 PM

    @Gina – That applies to so many things I wish we could add it to a manual for parents to read. If you don’t take a child with autism or ADHD to get help early on, then it just becomes harder to sort it out every passing year. They can be helped at any age but it is best for that to be addressed in the formative years for optimal benefit.

    What’s difficult is for the average parent that’s not online, and therefore doesn’t have easy access to information on the disorders, to recognize the condition for what it is. Schools could do so much more in helping raise awareness among so many. A single flyer sent home with every child for example would inform hundreds of parents in one fell swoop.

  • Joyce French

    Joyce French

    August 29th, 2011 at 3:06 PM

    @dale hoffman: Since early intervention is that important it’s a good thing that we can diagnose autism early and often. I hear so many screaming about it being an epidemic when in truth we’re just catching it early enough to help kids who need it more than we ever did in the past.

    Theraplay is a very welcome development for school age autistics.

  • Rosalee Franklin

    Rosalee Franklin

    August 29th, 2011 at 3:54 PM

    There’s a small issue with this I can see. Unless it’s a special needs school, one individual getting more attention than the others can backfire. Kids get jealous easily and that could result in them being bullied or harassed by their peers. That is not a good thing.

  • M.D.C.


    August 29th, 2011 at 5:39 PM

    I think I’ve been in one of these “theraplay” things before although it didn’t have a name back then. I myself have Asperger’s Syndrome and to this day I remain extremely skeptical about its effectiveness. I feel that I have personally done more to help myself than the education system ever did to help me.

    Of course that was ten years ago and much may have changed as all schools appear a lot more informed on autistic spectrum disorders than they were back then.

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