Lessons from the field

The author discusses her experiences working with students including group counseling, play and art therapy

By Robyn Sullivan

School psychologists are in the position to work with students who are experiencing parental illness. School psychologists may work with students in a one-on-one situation, and may provide a safe space for a child to communicate about situations that may be occurring both in and outside of school (McCue & Bonn, 1994). There are many different methods that may be utilized during individual counseling.

Methods that have been found to be particularly helpful when working with children are play therapy and art therapy. Both of these are ideal methods as a child is allowed to communicate their thoughts and feelings through actions as opposed to words (Heiney et al., 2001).

Group counseling methods may also be employed, with family counseling and student support groups as two popular methods for child dealing with parental illness (Heiney et al., 2001). In a study of fourth grade students who were classified as academic underachievers, it was found that among fourth grade boys, involvement in group counseling led to improved academic performance; the same result was not found for girls (Munger, Winkler, Teigland, & Kranzler, 1964). This case study reviews my experience delivering short-term counseling services using a variety of counseling methods to a 10-year old, fourth grade boy who was coping with his father’s recent stroke.

Counseling Sessions

The first session was intended for the student and I to become familiar with each other. Following my attaining his assent for us to work with each other and an explanation of confidentiality, I allowed him to pick a game for us to play together, and as we played I encouraged him to describe to me his interests. Based on my previous academic training and work experiences, the child-centered play therapy model was one in which I was most familiar and therefore most comfortable, and as a result I decided to attempt to apply this method to our first session. I attempted this by listening attentively, and I attempted to convey unconditional positive regard.

The second counseling session began with the student deciding upon a game for the two of us to play.

During this session concepts from child-centered play therapy, such as unconditional positive regard, were employed, however, I also decided to attempt to incorporate aspects of a family systems approach. I realized that this would be a difficult task as I only had one member of the family system present, however, I felt that it was important to discuss the student’s family and the impact that they are having on his current academic performance.

The goal for my third counseling session was to discuss with the student his peer relations. Prior to our counseling session, he had been asked to stand in a time-out as a result of talking in the lunch line. I felt that this would be an optimal opportunity to practice the techniques of reality-based counseling, and to have him discuss the consequences of actions and to develop a plan of action in case he were again in a situation where he felt compelled to talk when talking was against the rules.

In our fourth session together, I decided to focus the session around art therapy. The student had previously mentioned his interest in drawing and I felt that by spending our time together drawing pictures related to different topics, I may be able to learn a bit more about him. I presented the student with different colors of construction paper and both crayons and colored pencils and asked him to draw both a picture of his family and a picture of his friends. My goal was to talk about these pictures with him with the hope that I would learn more about his views of his family and his friends.

After this activity we still had a bit of time together, so I assisted the student in finishing the sentence, “The most important thing about me is…” This activity was chosen as I felt that it would help him verbalize a positive characteristic about him, and my goal was to leave him with a positive feeling at the end of our session.

For our fifth and final session, I wanted to once again draw upon art therapy; however, I also wanted to practice working with another method. I felt that bibliotherapy would lend itself to being combined with art therapy, and as a result I read a short passage to the student about overcoming a conflict with a peer, and asked him to draw a picture about a time when him and a friend disagreed. As this was our last session together, at the end of our session we wrote a plan of action, discussing what the student could do if he felt distracted in class.


In working with this student it became apparent that he is a very mature boy who is eager to discuss his experiences with his father’s stroke to any adult who will listen. The fact that he was willing to discuss the stroke with me in only our second session provided me with evidence that this was a topic he was interested in discussing. This made me question if he has other adults in his life who he may discuss this topic with, or if he is not given a space to discuss his opinion about it. In my discussions with his teacher it appears that she is willing to talk to him about this topic, however, I am not sure that the student realizes that she is an adult with whom he may discuss personal matters.

Throughout the counseling sessions, this student appeared to respond well to unconditional positive regard and also appeared to be at ease in discussing his current family situations and his feelings about them while drawing. Though, as a result of the counseling sessions the student did report comfort in being able to speak to an adult about his father’s illness, his problem with absenteeism continued. However, problems that occurred within the school (such as arguing with other students) were addressed, and the student appeared ready and able to create plans to prevent such situations from continuing in the future.


Heiney, S. P., Hermann, J. F., Bruss, K. V., & Fincan non, J. L. (2001). Cancer in the family: Helping children cope with a parent’s illness. At lanta: American Cancer Society.

McCue, K., & Bonn, R. (1994). How to help children through a parent’s serious illness: Supportive, practical advice from a leading child life spe cialist. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Munger, P. F., Winkler, R. C., Teigland, J. J., & Kran zler, G. D. (1964). Counseling and Guidance for Underachieving Fourth Grade Students. Grand Forks, North Dakota: University of North Dakota.

About the Author

Robyn Sullivan earned her BA in psychology from Saint Michael's College and MA in psychology and graduate certificate in women's studies from the University of Rhode Island. She currently is a doctoral candidate in the school psychology program at the University of Rhode Island.