Application of Child-Centered Play Therapy Principles to School-Based Mentoring Relationships

Application of Child-Centered Play Therapy Principles to School-Based Mentoring RelationshipsAlthough we typically focus on research in fields outside of but related to youth mentoring, this article brings principles from a related field – child-centered play therapy – and applied them to school-based mentoring.

Frels, R.K. & Onwuegbuzie, A.J. (2012). Principles of play: A dialogical comparison of two case studies in school-based mentoring. International Journal of Play Therapy, 21 (3), 131-148.

Summarized by Stella Kanchewa, University of Massachusetts at Boston Clinical Psychology student

Researchers and practitioners alike recognize that the strength and quality of the mentoring relationship is at the core of youth mentoring. Thus, increased understanding of interaction processes within the mentor-mentee relationship may inform the effectiveness of mentoring in affecting youth positive youth outcomes. This study sought to explore relationship factors within mentoring by integrating principles of child-centered play therapy (CCPT). Play within CCPT refers to “freedom or room to act rather than the meaning of recreational play in a traditional sense (p.133).

What are the principles of CCPT?

  • Develop a warm, friendly relationship with good rapport
  • Accept the youth as he or she is
  • Establish a level of “permissiveness” so that the youth feels wholeheartedly open to share feelings
  • Recognize feelings youth expresses, and reflect these back in order to gain insight into behavior
  • Respect the youth’s capacity to solve his or her own concerns when he/she is provided the space to do so
  • Avoid excessive efforts to direct the youth’s actions
  • Recognize the gradual nature of the relationship process

Establish limitations only when they anchor the youth in reality and highlight the youth’s role/responsibility within the relationship

Method: The current study utilized qualitative methods, and included a case study of two school-based mentoring matches. Data were collected through observations of the matches, mentor reflections after each meeting, as well as partially-structured interviews with the mentors at the end of the study.


Match 1: The match’s duration was approximately one year. In describing the overall experience, the mentor characterized her time with her mentee as “spending time together.” Observations of this match highlighted a lot of mentor driven, goal-oriented conversation, with question-answer as the main form of communication.  The mentor reported difficulties with the level of connection within the relationship, as well as a certain level of pressure to set goals, and ultimately felt unsuccessful in her overall mentoring efforts.

Match 2: The match’s duration was approximately two years. The mentor characterized the relationship as “enlightening…for me.”  Observations of this match noted that the mentor seemed to be integrated into the youth’s school routine and relationships. In addition, the match’s communication style seemed natural and affectionate (e.g., with banter and humor). The mentor described his own relationship with his mentor as influential. In describing his approach, he noted, “…pretty much tailor your mentoring efforts to what the kid needs or what the kid wants,” which highlights a somewhat flexible, youth driven approach.

Conclusion: The two case studies presented highlight two different relational styles and mentoring approaches. In contrasting these two approaches, it seems that match two paralleled CCPT principles. The mentor in Match 2 worked to establish rapport, and accepting the youth by not overly focusing on goals early on in the relationship. In addition, the communication style within this relationship (e.g., banter, humor) allowed the youth to express freely, and also allowed the mentor to connect in a manner consistent with the youth’s style. In contrast, the mentor in Match 1, while well intentioned in her efforts, through her focus on mentor-driven goal-setting, seemed to highlight a power differential within the relationship and also not acknowledge gradual relationship building.

Implications: The distinction between the two matches presented in lends further support to findings in previous studies that distinguish between a prescriptive, mentor-driven agenda, versus a developmental, or collaborative, youth-oriented approach. This study, however, highlights the potential for mentoring programs to incorporate the understanding of therapeutic relationships implicit in CCPT tenets into mentor training. For instance, mentors could be encouraged to reflect on meeting-to-meeting, moment-to-moment relationship interactions in order to have a continual pulse on how the relationship is unfolding relative to some of the principles outlined.