Relationship-Based Play Therapy: A Q&A with Director of Children’s Services Danielle Tschirhart

At Ethos Wellness, we’re proud to provide behavioral health care to people of all ages, including children 11 and under. Our Director of Children’s Services, Licensed Professional Counselor-Supervisor and Registered Play Therapist-Supervisor Danielle Tschirhart, utilizes her extensive experience supporting children through teaching, counseling and play therapy to oversee these offerings while continuing to work with kids and their families each day.

We sat down to ask Danielle a few questions about relationship-based play therapy: How does it work? What sets it apart? What might a typical session look like? Keep reading to learn more, or scroll down to see if our services might be the right fit for your child by reaching out to our care team.

Q: What led you to pursue the field of child therapy?

A: I started my career as a teacher and always felt like my best quality was the connection and relationships I had with my students, so I made the choice to further my education and become a school counselor. Back in school, I was exposed to the clinical side of that work, along with some amazing mentors. I fell in love and made the pivot to child therapy.

"Relationship-based play therapy means ... working with the whole child, the whole family and the whole context."

Q: What is relationship-based play therapy?

A: Well, relationship-based play therapy means honoring the person (here, we’re talking about children, but this type of therapy can be beneficial for adults, too!) and their developmental and individual differences. It’s working with the whole child, the whole family and the whole context rather than focusing on teaching a set of skills for one specific condition. We’re forging a caring relationship that can be used to integrate life-long skills so children can gain social context and learn to communicate in a prosocial manner, even when things don’t happen as expected.

Q: What are the benefits of relationship-based play therapy, and what sets it apart from other types of child therapy?

A: Especially for developmental issues—autism, for example—what makes a relationship-based method different from a behavior-based method is honoring the personhood of the client. While teaching skills in response to certain behaviors or experiences can be beneficial, oftentimes the child doesn’t know what to do when things go off-script; when things don’t go according to plan. Honoring the person and who they are, creating a meaningful relationship and taking into account the full context of emotions and behaviors may take longer, but I believe it ultimately sets a sturdier foundation. 

Q: How involved should families be in their child’s therapy?

A: Very! As clinicians, we only see your child for one hour, once a week; parents are the heartbeat of the family. You know what’s best for your child, and the best way to set them up for success. We work together as a team to help empower children and their families to take the best steps forward. 

"When children come in, they have one job, they have one job,

Q: What might an appointment look like with you or your team?

A: When children come in, they have one job, and that’s to play. But before our typical sessions begin, we start by setting up an intake appointment with a senior clinician, where we’ll get to know the family a bit more and work to understand what their needs are. We’ll discuss together, as a team, what would be the best course of action moving forward. We utilize a very individual-based and collaborative model.

Q: How do parents know when it’s time to seek professional help?

A: That’s a great question. When they start to notice that the things their child enjoys are being affected. Worries, fears or behaviors… Everyone has a bad day, but when home life, school, friendships, relationships and other things they usually enjoy are starting to be affected, that’s when it’s time to call—when it’s more than just having a bad day.

Q: Any tips for parents having a hard time getting their child to attend therapy?

A: The honest answer here is that, if we’re doing our job right, they should want to come in, play and have a good time. When that stops happening, it’s a good indicator for us that something needs to change, or maybe even that the child has worked through their issues. Outside of separation anxiety, in which case we usually invite parents to join us in the play room until the child is comfortable, we don’t come across this problem often. Children enjoy coming in each week and having fun in play therapy; many feel there is less pressure than with other types of therapy. Here, they rule the roost, so to speak. We try to differentiate between the rules in the playroom versus the rules at home so the playroom feels special. They get to decide what they want to do—within reason and safety. Another part of why it feels special is that we try to keep it interesting with new and exciting toys. 

Q: What other services do you and your team provide at Ethos Wellness?

A: Parents can visit our website to find a list of services provided, but the bottom line is that we’re willing to adjust and work with you to provide the help your child needs. A few examples might be teacher consultations, school observations, parent coaching and support with parent-teacher or Admission, Review and Dismissal (ARD) meetings. Parents should feel welcome to reach out anytime to ask questions, find out more, etc.

Q: How can parents learn more about relationship-based play therapy?

A: The Association for Play Therapy is a great resource for parents and caregivers. Zero To Three is another great organization; their journal provides a lot of great literature on early child development and infant mental health.

Q: Are you working on anything new or interesting you’d like to share about?

A: I’m so glad you asked! I’m currently collaborating with a group of clinicians out of Fielding University. We’re working on innovating a new way to reach families in what we’re calling the “therapy desert.” It’s a transdisciplinary approach; a team consisting of a play therapist, a social worker, a speech therapist, an occupational therapist and a local clinician from the area. Across the country, what we’re doing is using a virtual format to work with the whole family in the interest of the child’s socio-cognitive improvement. Each team is virtually supporting local clinicians, who are working directly with the family and giving them direction on how to, say, play with their autistic, non-verbal child. With these platforms, we can reach families in a more economic way, especially those that have limited access to care. We’re still in the process of gathering data, but preliminary results are in, and they look great.

Q: Why did you choose to come on board with Ethos Wellness? 

A: I had my own practice prior to this, and what I liked about Ethos was the collaboration with other clinicians, as well as the resources to be able to provide additional support and services aside from just one-on-one therapy.

Learn more about Danielle and the services we offer for children here, or reach out to our care team in confidence to find out if Ethos Wellness might be the right fit for your family.

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