SUNY Oswego’s Impact Scholar program is helping Colleen O’Dell, a graduate student in the mental health counseling program, lead a project promoting social-emotional connection for schoolchildren even in a time with so much remote learning.

O’Dell said she saw a real need in school-based counselor interventions that was made more challenging by not having the normal ability to work with children in a school setting -- with so many schoolchildren either having reduced times in school or learning completely remotely.

“It's a wraparound approach supporting primary teachers, primary caregivers and the child,” O’Dell explained, using a technique called filial therapy. 

“Filial therapy is taking skills that play therapists use and teaching those skills to caregivers and educators, so that they can connect on a deeper level with the children that they're working with to increase bonding and buy-in for learning, and just to minimize problematic behaviors in the home,” O’Dell said.

“It’s seeing the world through the child's lens and then using play-based strategies to support the child, because the child's natural language is play and through storytelling -- that's what a lot of filial therapy is,” O’Dell said. “It's increasing their feelings vocabulary, but it's also that connection piece, because when someone really gets you, you're more likely to engage on a deeper level and that bond.”

For parents, hopefully this experience will be positive for them, as they might develop increased comfort of using a virtual platform to engage in therapy and in the home-school collaborative approach, O’Dell noted. And the child benefits from more time spent with caregivers, feeling heard, feeling valued and feeling safe enough to allow their caregivers into their world of play.

“Perhaps teachers or caregivers may not have had a lot of opportunity to engage in a therapeutic level through the virtual platform,” O’Dell noted. “We're hoping to bring people into that world in a supportive and warm environment.”

"We couldn't be more proud of Colleen's contributions to the field through her work as an Impact Scholar," said Laura Spenceley, associate dean of Graduate Studies. "Her work reminds us of the importance of adjusting our mental and behavioral interventions to meet the needs of the individual client. Further, Colleen's work is particularly impactful during a time in which the mental and behavioral health needs of children have been identified as critical by parents, caregivers, and school personnel."

Community of scholars

The Impact Scholar program in Oswego’s Division of Graduate Studies dovetails with expertise of its faculty, such Jason Duffy of the counseling and psychological services department, who advises O’Dell on the research and will provide additional insight to the project.

“I  have worked with Dr. Duffy on some of his own research so a lot of our interests are really aligned,” O’Dell said. “It’s not just the play piece, but it's really looking at the whole child in their social-emotional needs, on a developmental level, but then on an emotional level of what children need to be successful, which is caregivers who care and have the skills to connect.”

Seeing the scope of the project, O’Dell brought in another Oswego graduate student in the mental health counseling program, Ashlyn Leonard, who is excited for the opportunity to learn while helping conduct and publish the research.

“This is a completely new area for me so it's exciting to see firsthand how much hard work and dedication goes into it,” Leonard said. “I'm also honored to have the opportunity to share skills and support families during this pandemic when so many people, especially children, are feeling overwhelmed and disconnected. I hope to be able to add tools to adults' tool boxes so they can promote their children's optimal development during this historically difficult time.”

The work of Jodi Mullen of Oswego’s counseling and psychological services faculty, and the college’s advance certificate for play therapy, attracted O’Dell to graduate work with SUNY Oswego.

“I had actually taken several different seminars with Dr. Mullen on a professional level in the community,” O’Dell said. “I was familiar with her work and was really impressed with her work and so excited that I could be potentially being trained by her.”

Both O’Dell and Leonard also are driven by the desire to help others and make a difference, and they hope publishing this work can help other clinicians, educators, parents and children.