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Play Therapy Project

NJCU and Grossman Family Counseling Center partner on new service for the Elementary Division

When young schoolchildren experience significant emotional distress or witness trauma, they often don’t have the language to communicate what’s going on. That’s when play therapy — a form of psychotherapy that helps children safely express their emotions through the act of play — can be effective. According to Senior Associate Headmaster for Student Life Ivan Lamourt, Psy.D. ’82, “No other school in Essex County offers this kind of therapeutic program or approach with kids.” As of this academic year, the Grossman Family Counseling Center at St. Benedict’s Prep does, thanks to a longstanding partnership with the Counselor Education Program at New Jersey City University (NJCU).

“Play therapy is just another way for children to speak their language,” explained Vivica Patel, a graduate student at NJCU who is completing her counseling practicum at St. Benedict’s. “Children may not have the ability to express themselves, but they know play.” Ms. Patel is also studying to be a certified play therapist with Yumiko Ogawa, Ph.D., the founding director of the Center for Studies of Play Therapy (CSPT) at NJCU. Upon learning the Grossman Family Counseling Center wanted to expand services in the Elementary Division, Patel suggested they connect with Dr. Ogawa, a leader and respected figure in the field.

Expanded partnership with NJCU

“I just love the mission of the School,” said Dr. Ogawa, who became acquainted with St. Benedict’s through the NJCU-Grossman Family Counseling Center partnership. She is also passionate about establishing more school-based play therapy programs and started CSPT after observing a concerning trend. When school counselors recognized a child might need play therapy, they often referred families to outside specialists. “The follow through was very low,” Dr. Ogawa explained. “Families don’t have insurance, they can’t afford to pay, they have multiple kids and multiple jobs and weren’t able to get their child to play therapy. She thought, “Why don’t we bring the service to the schools?” The first and only program in the State of New Jersey approved by the Association of Play Therapy, the CSPT provides school-based services to Union City and Jersey City school districts.

The benefits in Hudson County have been multifold. In addition to providing therapeutic services directly to students, play therapists have opportunities to observe children in their environment and glean more information about their mental health issues. It’s also fostered collaboration between faculty, school social workers and play therapists. “I see the effectiveness of it,” said Dr. Ogawa, noting that children struggling with adjustment issues such as divorce, moving to a new school or grief, could be helped by child centered play therapy, the evidence-based treatment that will be used in the Play Therapy Project.


No other school in Essex County offers this kind of therapeutic program or approach with kids.” 


Intervening Earlier

Dr. Lamourt and Sinclair Davis, Psy.D., Dean of the Grossman Family Counseling Center are thrilled to have the school-based service because it fills an essential need at The Hive. “When the Elementary Division became a part of Benedict’s in 2017, even though we had a psychologist there several days a week, we were really concerned about what is it we are going to do with kids who’ve experienced trauma or have a hard time talking about issues,” explained Dr. Lamourt.

“We were helping, but we weren’t helping enough,” Dr. Davis added. “Even though we had a good model to work with adolescents in the Middle and Prep Divisions, it wasn’t a cut and paste model we could throw at the younger grades of the Elementary Divisions.”

Currently, 20 or so Elementary Division students receive counseling services. Dean of the Elementary Division Sister Ann Marie Gass, S.S.J., provides referrals for the Play Therapy Project which is geared to children in K-2. Dr. Ogawa and Patel, who is being supervised by the NJCU professor for play therapy certification, will implement the program and conduct sessions with children.

The Grossman Family Counseling Center, which provides group and individual counseling to 40% of Middle and Prep Division students, sees big benefits to addressing mental health issues earlier. “If a kid is witnessing instability at home and they don’t have the supports to describe what’s going on, they get stuck with it,” said Dr. Lamourt. “Then they start to act out when they get older. Everyone asks the same question, ‘Why couldn’t we have figured this out earlier?’ Because nobody asked the right questions earlier! That’s what makes this program so unique. We’re bringing play therapy to that younger grade so we can intervene and assist the student earlier.”

Dr. Ogawa has worked with children and their families in a variety of settings including a private practice, a hospital, an agency, and public schools. She was involved in disaster response work in New York, providing post 9/11 services in 2001, and in Texas, providing counseling services for Hurricane Katrina victims in 2005. She also provided training to mental health professionals in Japan after the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011.

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