The games can be used in many different settings: in classrooms; with targeted groups of children; and therapeutically with individual children.
In the Classroom
At a classroom level, the games can be used to reinforce and support the teaching of socio-emotional skills in classroom lessons. By teaching the class how to play the games it is possible to teach the social or emotional skills embedded in the games.
Pinning the boards to a magnetic board (or using products like ‘Blutac’), allows the games to be played as a whole class with teams taking turns to have a go.
Most children are able to play these games by themselves after instruction, with minimal supervision. Parents, teacher’s aides and older peers can also play the games with groups of children as a way of teaching and practicing anger management, dealing with teasing and friendships. By playing the games with children, adults learn a repertoire of skills and scripts to suggest to children, or use themselves. By teaching, we learn.
The games can also be played as part of a playground program where a passive games area is set up for students. Peer leaders are able to act as game leaders in these settings.
Play in small groups of 3-5 players who have social difficulties.
Children with temper problems or who are involved in teasing or have difficulty making and keeping friends usually benefit from inclusion in a therapeutic games program. Leaders could be psychologists, teachers, specialist behavior teachers or teacher’s aides. Specific games are used to target particular skills.
Playing the games at lunchtime as part of a whole school response to playground problems is an effective strategy for selected children. With direct instruction, modeling and guided practice, most children will adopt at least some of the emotional management strategies presented to them. Most children identified to be at risk of social and emotional failure will respond to the intense, small group attention received while playing a course of games with a skilled game leader. By playing therapeutic games with a skilled game leader, children in need of further intervention can be identified.
Therapeutic games may also be used with small groups of children (4 or 5) who have significant social difficulties. In this setting, it is useful to seed the group with a child who has well developed social skills to act as a peer model. At this level of intervention, clinical observations are made and hypotheses formulated about the children’s difficulties. If appropriate skills have not been gained after a period of instruction and guided practice, then other interventions should be attempted. Having played the games, one can confidently presume that the child has been exposed to prosocial skills in an intensive and motivating manner. Further investigation of medical problems, mental health disorders, family dynamics or child protection issues may be required. Children who bully or are extremely disruptive or violent are not appropriate for this level of intervention but may benefit from the therapeutic/clinical level.
Therapeutic games may be used by educational and child psychologists with individual children who have significant social difficulties.
Playing a therapeutic game with individual children provides the opportunity to learn new skills without the distraction of others while quickly establishing rapport with the child. The games provide many opportunities for therapists to raise relevant issues. When a child is confident in using the skills presented in the game, then other players may be introduced, gradually increasing the size of the group. LIFE SPACE INTERVIEW techniques are helpful when dealing with crises that arise.
The games have been successfully used with children who have poor emotional control, who are victims of teasing and bullying or have poor friendship skills. For the small number of children who do not respond to targeted or individual programs, assessment and treatment by a clinical or child psychologist or child psychiatrist will be required. An interagency case management approach with coordinated management strategies is needed and may include pharmacology, monitoring of social situations, parent training, social work, individual counselling, individual behavior planning or special school placement.
A skilled game leader ensures that a meaningful, therapeutic experience is available for to players. By modelling social skills and coaching emotional expression, leaders can guide children to a deeper level of experience. When game leaders build a supportive, safe environment around the players their understanding of their own emotional processes grow and thus enhance their emotional resilience.
Modelling prosocial skills
Game leaders look for opportunities to model prosocial skills, e.g., using manners, taking turns, saying sorry and resolving conflicts in friendly ways. Mimes, scripts and little role-plays are used to show children what standing assertively looks like, what adaptive self-talk sounds like, how to seek help or what ‘brag’ means, for example. Leaders also look for and refer to peers who are using prosocial skills during the game … smiling, having fun and being respectful.
Language is central to the human experience, allowing communication with self and others, and guiding our construction of reality. There is reciprocity between the words we use and the attitudes we hold. Consider the following statements:
“I’m telling the teacher on you”
“I’m getting help from the teacher”
The first statement contains a reference to a social ‘no-no’ amongst children that may stifle help seeking and implies punishment or trouble. Using this statement may lead to the child being labeled a ‘dibber-dobber’ or ‘tail-teller’ and holds stigma of ‘being a baby’ or not being able to cope. In the second statement, the word ‘help’ contains the commonly accepted notion of helping those in need and the social acceptability of seeking help when it is needed. Even adults seek help from friends, or in extreme cases the police, if they are being harassed. When a child approaches a teacher with the words “Excuse me, I need help”, they are more likely to elicit assistance from the teacher than when they say “Johnny’s picking on me” in a whining voice.
While playing games, the leaders carefully choose language that reflects respect, calmness and confidence. Non-judgemental language encourages children to take responsibility for their actions and develop empathy for others. Scripts of adaptive self-talk are also used by leaders to help children learn language patterns that will assist self-monitoring. Vygotsky (1962) observed that children’s self-talk or inner speech seemed to have a self-monitoring function. Scripts are samples of self-talk that children can use when dealing with problems such as anger, frustration or conflict. Scripts allow children to learn and use new word patterns that form the basis of new thought constructs. Teaching scripts to children provides them with ideas and adaptive self-talk to use in future problem-solving situations. Scripts should be simple and positive and reflect concepts such as control and calmness. Following are scipt samples that are presented as examples only and should be altered to fit local award usage:
Oh well, not every one can go first – I’ll be first some other time
It’s hard but I can wait for my turn
Don’t get concerned about it, calm down, it’s not worth getting upset about
What could we do to try to solve this problem?
Further script samples are provided with each game.
Specific positive comments made to children during the game are a powerful way to reinforce prosocial skills and build positive self-concepts. Verbal reinforcers need to be specific, immediate and applied liberally to be effective.
I like the way you kept trying to work out solutions
It’s great that you waited for your turn even though it was hard
Good listening (waiting, sharing, helping, encouraging, comforting etc)
Thank you for sharing (waiting, listening, being kind etc)
That was a fair (kind, friendly, etc) thing to do
I can see being fair (honest, helpful etc) is important to you
Leaders look for teachable moments. When a child uses a prosocial skill, that the leader wishes to reinforce in others, a verbal reinforcement is given immediately. When a player lands on a teaching point in the game, the leader draws attention to it through discussion. Likewise, when interpersonal conflict arises, the leader halts the game and leads the disputants through the emotional control (as needed) and problem solving process.
Leaders may wish to orchestrate ‘mini-crises’ to create teachable moments, e.g., asking who wants to go first. Almost every child will want to go first, thus creating conflict between players. This gives the leader the opportunity to lead a problem solving discussion about fair ways of deciding who goes first. Children have a myriad of ideas how to choose the first player which would have been lost if the leader simply chose the first player. It also allows the leader to make scripted comments like ‘it doesn’t matter if you don’t go first’, ‘everyone gets a turn’, ‘I’ll just wait my turn’, etc. Leaders may call upon children who did not care if they went first thereby providing peer models of alternative responses.
Leaders may also surreptitiously stack the cards in order to direct the play… but don’t get caught!
Negotiate rules such as turn taking, talking quietly and listening to each other at the beginning of the game. Most are eager to play and will cooperate and encourage others to keep the rules. Model the rules, e.g., waiting silently and patiently for children to listen after having asked them to listen. Suggesting that they will have to come back in the next break will motivate those who do not like giving up lunch breaks to solve problems. Use emotional coaching to help children work through crises. If the group is too unruly, stop the game saying, in a matter of fact manner, ‘Let’s try again next week’. Let the children know you would really like to play the game with them. Ask them what sort of things should help make it easier to play the game next week. Reduce the size of the group and include a child with strong prosocial skills. This prosocial child’s position could be rotated amongst the other children in the class who are keen to be included in a game.
An attitude of curiosity helps when dealing with crises. Being neutral, respectful, supportive and un-emotive will help establish a stress free environment in which children can try out their new skills.
Awareness of Reading Skills
In order to avoid embarrassment, leaders need to help poor readers without drawing attention to their difficulties. It is good practice for the game leader to offer to read out all hints, strategies and concepts discovered during the game.
Curiously, children will often insist on reading their own cards, even if they have trouble with reading. Some concepts will need explanation and discussion to ensure understanding.
Every child player wins a prize. Children enjoy receiving something as simple as a sticker or an award or a lucky dip at the end of the game. This adds to the fun and motivation and ameliorates the pain of not finishing first in the game.