Associate Professor Darlene Chen, PhD, Teaches Play Therapy in Taiwan

January 6, 2023
Darlene Chen
Last year, PAU associate professor and registered play therapist Darlene Chen, PhD, conducted a two-day advanced training for counselors in Taiwan.
Chen, originally from Taiwan, was invited by the Association for Taiwan Play Therapy to facilitate an intervention called Kinder Training, a play-based program to improve teacher-student relationships and problem behavior in elementary classrooms. 
"I was honored to be invited to teach this training," says Chen, associate chair of PAU's Master’s in Counseling program. "I'm originally from Taipei, so it was meaningful for me to teach this workshop in my native language of Mandarin. Now more people in Taiwan know about Palo Alto University and play therapy." 
In Taiwan, Chen earned a bachelor's degree in early childhood education and a master's degree in education. After working in a kindergarten classroom, she realized a missing piece in her teacher education. 
"As a teacher, I struggled with classroom management; it was very stressful," says Chen. "I think teacher education is strong with the curriculum but lacks the psychological piece. What does a teacher do when a child acts out or has a meltdown in the classroom?"
To find the answer to this question, Chen attended the University of North Texas to earn a PhD in counseling. Her dissertation title was "The Impact of Kinder Training on Early Elementary School." In her research, Chen discovered how effectively play therapy improved classroom behavior and the teacher-student relationship. 
In 2017, she came to PAU to teach "Child and Adolescence Counseling" and developed the elective course "Introduction to Play Therapy" in 2019. Chen also facilitates Kinder Training with elementary-school teachers and counselors in the Bay Area and at the Community Health Awareness Council (CHAC) in Mountain View. 

What is Kinder Training? 

The Kinder Training program was developed by JoAnna White, PhD, professor emerita in the department of counseling and psychological services at Georgia State University.  
Kinder Training is an intervention where elementary-school teachers spend 30 minutes with a student in a room full of toys. This one-on-one play session, intended for preschool to fifth-grade students, is observed by a mental health professional, such as a school counselor, to provide insights for the teacher after the session. 
During the play session, students are allowed to play freely with the toys without much direction from the teacher. The teacher follows the child's lead and observes their behavior. With this non-directive approach, the child has more control and the freedom to choose how they want to play, and they can engage with their teacher in a more relaxed way than in the classroom setting.
"When I train teachers, I encourage them to focus on their non-verbal communication, such as their tone of voice and how they are sitting and relating to the child," says Chen. "When a teacher faces the child and actively listens, it sends the message that they really care and understand them. When a child feels seen, heard, and validated, their behavior often improves, both in the classroom and at home."
Not only do play sessions improve classroom behavior, but they also improve the relationship between the teacher and student. They get to know each other in a different environment resulting in having a new perspective on each other, aside from the roles of "teacher" and "student." 
"After a play session, the teacher may have greater compassion and understanding for the child because they saw a fuller picture of what's going on with them and perhaps gained insights as to why they are acting out in the classroom. Conversely, the child gets to know the teacher as a playmate or someone that listens to them and has fun with them rather than a taskmaster or classroom manager," says Chen. "They've created a new, improved relationship that can be transferred to the classroom." 

Cultivating Self-Regulation 

Chen explains that the only limit placed on the child during play sessions is violent behavior toward the teacher, themselves, or the environment. Chen shares that play sessions can serve as a controlled space for children to feel their emotions strongly, make choices about their behavior, learn consequences, and discover self-regulation skills that work for them. 
"If an angry child starts hitting the teacher, the teacher can say, 'all emotions are okay, but not all behaviors are okay. It's okay to feel angry, but it's not okay to hit me. Instead, you can hit this beanbag'," says Chen. "We don't restrict their emotions, so it's important to offer an alternative behavior that is appropriate but still meets the child's needs to express themselves. This instruction anchors the coping skills that the child can apply later in the classroom." 
The main reason why Chen advises teachers not to restrict emotions during play sessions is that many children who internalize their feelings (rather than act them out) can become anxious or depressed later in life.
"When you see middle or high school students with anxiety or depression, usually it's because they weren't given permission to express their frustration during their elementary-school years," says Chen. "Play sessions are a safe container to express and release anger and learn self-regulation skills to manage it." 

One Size Does Not Fit All 

Kinder Training incorporates the concept of individual psychology, described by the Adlerian theory that asserts that every person is unique, every behavior is purposeful, and we can only fully understand someone by taking a holistic approach. To this end, Chen explains that students can display the same behavior but have different purposes or motivations for that behavior. 
"Let's say two children are acting out in the same way. This could be a cry for help for one child because they are angry with their parents. For the other child, they might be seeking connection with their teacher because they feel lonely," says Chen. "Play sessions allow teachers to identify the purpose behind the problematic behavior, which differs for each child. You can get this level of specificity with one-on-one play therapy."