Unlocking Emotional Healing Through Play Therapy with Juliette Miller

Unlocking Emotional Healing Through Play Therapy with Juliette Miller

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Can play therapy help children process their emotions and traumatic experiences?

In this episode of School Behaviour Secrets, we delve deep into the world of play therapy with our expert guest, Juliette Miller. Join us as we explore how play therapy empowers children to express their emotions, build connections, and foster personal growth.

Important links:

Visit the Play Therapy UK website here

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Download other FREE SEMH resources to use in your school: https://beaconschoolsupport.co.uk/resources

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Show notes / transcription

Juliette Miller  0:00 

One of the things I've noticed the most, it's been the most powerful thing, is the fact that the when they come in, they're in the safe space. It's completely private and they can completely be and do whatever they want. I do have boundaries, but our boundaries is that you keep yourself safe, me safe, and the toys safe, pretty much anything else goes. And so when in our life, do we ever get that opportunity? And that in itself is so healing.


Simon Currigan  0:24 

Hi there. My name is Simon Currigan and welcome to another fresh and tasty episode of school behaviour secrets. H. Jackson Browne once said nothing is more expensive than a missed opportunity. In which case I like to think this podcast is worth a king's ransom in gold and diamonds. I'm joined today by my ever valuable co host, Emma Shackleton. Hi, Emma.


Emma Shackleton  1:25 

Hi, Simon. That was your opportunity to say ever sparkly


Simon Currigan  1:29 

I missed it didnt I.


Emma Shackleton  1:32 

Go ahead.


Simon Currigan  1:32 

Before we get to the focus of today's episode, I want to ask you a question


Emma Shackleton  1:36 

Go on then.


Simon Currigan  1:37 

Okay. According to a recent UK poll, what percentage of people think being able to articulate yourself is an advantage in life over someone who can't?


Emma Shackleton  1:46 

This has got to be high, right? I mean, if you can articulate well, that means that you can get your point across to others and be understood. You can ask for what you need. You can express yourself without frustration. I'd say the percentage of people that think being able to articulate yourself well isn't advantage has got to be like 80%. Yeah, 80%


Simon Currigan  2:12 

Instincts are good. It is a high number. It's even higher than that. So if you add up all the positive answers 89% of people think being able to articulate yourself well gives you an advantage in life. And only 2% thought it didn't. But they weren't able to say why. And that poll was on YouGov if you want to find out more.


Emma Shackleton  2:33 

Okay, so what's the relevance to today's episode?


Simon Currigan  2:36 

Well, being able to talk through your worries and emotions is a key part of emotional regulation. But many kids find it difficult to open up to adults. And in this week's episode, we're sharing my conversation with Juliette Miller, who uses play therapy to build relationships with kids and communicate with them. And in the interview, Juliette explains what play therapy is, and its power to help reach those kids, understand their needs and support their emotional development.


Emma Shackleton  3:03 

Perfect. But before we share that interview, I'd just like to ask one thing. If you've been enjoying the podcast or you find the contents valuable, please can you open up your podcast app and leave us a rating and review. When you do this It tells the algorithm to share the podcast with more people to show it in their recommendations on their podcast feed, which in turn helps to grow the show and helps more teachers, school leaders and parents. So now let's listen in to Simon's conversation with Juliette Miller.


Simon Currigan  3:38 

I'm really excited to welcome our guest Juliette Miller to the show today. Juliette was always interested in the pastoral angle and meeting the SEMH needs of her pupils throughout her teaching career. After 16 years as a primary school teacher in Manchester in the UK, Juliette retrained as a play therapist with PT UK, she continues to work in schools offering play therapy alongside support for families and staff. Her message is that play should not be underestimated and can be a powerful tool to help build connections and work through challenges. Juliette, welcome to the show.


Juliette Miller  4:16 

Thank you for having me on.


Simon Currigan  4:17 

Juliette. My first question really is what prompted you, what led you to leave the teaching profession and retrain as a play therapist?


Juliette Miller  4:25 

Well, as you've already mentioned, I've always been interested in that pastoral SEMH role. I actually entered the teaching profession, not thinking I'd stay in mainstream very long, but actually I started working at the school I was working out and just loved working for the community I was in and I was given lots of opportunities to support the pastoral side of things. And then I did I got to about year 14, and I just found that I was craving more of the chats with the parents and connections with children maybe out of the classroom than I was the day to day teaching. And I hadn't had I heard of play therapy before. But weirdly, as these things sometimes happen on my social media, someone must have liked a page. And it was someone's play therapy page. And I looked into that, and then started to delve a bit deeper and find out a bit more about that. And that thought, actually, that sounds perfect for me and at the right time. So that's what I did, I did a bit more research, and I found training. And I would say this, be careful if anyone else is looking this way, and make sure they are an accredited company, because it's what they say it's play therapy. And it might not be play therapy with PTUK, they offered a course that's with the university so I could get a postgraduate qualification. And I could still teach and work flexibly, over a few years, it took me four years to get both done. Before I was completely qualified to stop teaching and start play therapy.


Simon Currigan  5:50 

When you started the play therapy, how did you find the journey?


Juliette Miller  5:53 

Oh my goodness, it actually jumped straight into what I really wanted to say today as teachers and even when you start training, we're always so so critical and necessary. I suppose in education, every lesson you consider you evaluate, you see how you do it differently, always learning there's a staff insert every week, there's always then just when you get your head rounds, something the government might bring something else in a whole different way of doing it. So you'll always have that critical thinking from every lesson. And so when I started play therapy, I really noticed how much I could actually trust what I have inside as a person and my life experience and the connections I've always had with children that just seemed to be a bit more natural. And yes, I love to learn. I love finding out more. Absolutely, that's really important. But simplicity can be a super powerful as well.


Simon Currigan  6:41 

So I think one thing we should cover precisely what is play therapy, and what are its goals?


Juliette Miller  6:47 

So play therapy, pretty much is what it says on the tin. Play is a child's natural way of exploring the world processing what's going on in their life, experimenting, connecting. So it seems to be a natural given really that that would work. Well. It's a therapy. I work mainly with primary aged children, I do have colleagues who work with older children, it can even work I've even had sessions of Creative Arts Therapy myself, it can even work with adults. But that nature of play is just a very natural way of of having therapy for a child. Communication doesn't have to be verbal. So it's a more gentle approach.


Simon Currigan  7:27 

What are the goals of play therapy?


Juliette Miller  7:29 

I suppose to help children process whatever their need is that can help them process that through play. So the way that play therapy works, the way that I am trained is I use what we call it an integrative holistic approach. And that means well, I have a set toolkit within the way I do play therapy. So I have set tools there. So sand, clay, art materials, music, there's lots of miniatures, I'm probably going to forget some lots of games. And a child can play with any of those things and have their needs met. So it's just a way to meet a child's needs through specific play that they use, we can work in the unconscious part of the brain as much as the conscious part of the brain. And it will be either non directive, which means the child takes the lead, which is majority of what I do as well as some directed tasks as well.


Simon Currigan  8:26 

So if I put a camera on the wall during a play therapy session, what would it look like? What sort of things would I see? What would I hear? Can you help me imagine what a play therapy session sort of looks like what it contains?


Juliette Miller  8:38 

Okay, well, I'll start with the things that tend to be non negotiable. So I will have a space and and so it's a confidential space. So blinds will be down the door will be closed with a polite notice on asking not to be disturbed, so that the child can feel like they can trust the adult. My Sessions are about 40 minutes long. Confidentiality isn't just about the space I share, they can share whatever they like it, and I will hold that confidential. Like I've just mentioned before, there's set things I have out in the room. So the toys are set out with this toolkit. So lots of different types of play material so children can choose what they want to do. And most of the time the child has taken the lead that's the aim really because I'm not here to rescue. It's really important for a child to say, rescue themselves but understand themselves or understand what they've been going through.


Simon Currigan  9:29 

So you've got your range of toys and activities out. Is the therapy part the playing side or is it more about the discussion that you're having and the talk that you're having backwards and forwards for the child? Or is it all of it?


Juliette Miller  9:40 

So yeah, I think a bit of everything. So the reflections I do is my role. So what the child is choosing to do that communication, I reflect back to them so if it is verbal, I might say some of the things that they're saying back but if it's not verbal, and that is often the case. I am still reflecting if they're dancing I'm dancing with them if they are drawing, I'm drawing with them. So everything they're doing, I'm doing with them. But then I have been trained also, if they are working in the unconscious, I'm looking out for them metaphors that they might be using on hypothesise what that might mean,


Could you give me an example of that?


It's still confidential, but I had a client who completely worked in the unconscious, and I believe really healed and the unconscious. And I noticed that he would use the set dinosaur. And the set other figure like spider man a lot in his play. Now I knew his background, I knew the trauma he'd experienced, even though he never shared that verbally with me. I felt that he was playing out some of those situations in his play. Now, this took weeks to but I could see him healing and working through that. So what I would do is I'm trying to use some gentle questioning or questions and wonderings. As to what might be happening, I wouldn't put the words in his mouth, but I might just start to bring to attention, oh, you've used that dinosaur before, different things. And He'll either go with it, and it might come into his conscious or he's not ready for that. And it stays in his unconscious. And he ended up working completely in his unconscious. And it was amazing to see the process he went through. And actually is one of our last sessions. He said to me, Oh, do you know I really love coming here because when I'm here, the toys talk and I just thought is actually a really good strapline for play therapy, the toys did the talking like you don't have to be the one that does the talking. And he didn't even seem to be aware that he wasn't doing the talking, I don't think but it can do that play therapy can offer, offer that for children working at different points in the brain is really clever. It won't go to that conscious level if it doesn't feel that you're ready for it.


Simon Currigan  11:43 

So when he's working on that unconscious level, if I understand it correctly, that dinosaurs or Spider Man, they might represent people from his life? He's not thinking about... he's not thinking that's my uncle. And that's my cousin. He's kind of using them more generally. And he's kind of working out situations between those figures in his life. Is that the kind of?


Juliette Miller  12:03 

Yeah, that's it really, yes, a situation where there might have been a conversation that has happened or you knew a situation happened. And it's acts as our characters and you think, Oh, I wonder who that is?


Simon Currigan  12:13 

So during the sessions, what do the children get from play therapy? And how does this process of using the figures and using the activities and having those discussions help them get to those outcomes?


Juliette Miller  12:24 

One of the things I've noticed the most is been the most powerful thing. And again, I'm going back to the simplicity of it, is the fact that the when they come in, they're in the safe space completely private, and they can completely be and do whatever they want. I do have boundaries, but our boundaries is that you keep yourself safe, me safe, and the toys safe, pretty much anything else goes. And so when in our life, do we ever get that opportunity? And that in itself is so healing. I think even for my own children, or you know, as a baby, even from day one, we probably started a routine with them or thinking in that way, there's always structure, there's always some pressure or some process you have to follow as adults as well. And I've tried out since being a play therapist, when I feel like like, life's a little bit overwhelming if I can, and I've got a spare half a day, or I'll put myself some time away, I'll do something by myself and just follow my own lead and see what happens. And so I can see how much that helps me. So I really think that in itself is a huge, helpful thing and play therapy, just having that empowerment.


Simon Currigan  13:29 

It sounds like play therapy is a great way to build relationships with pupils who have social, emotional, mental health needs. Why is that?


Juliette Miller  13:38 

Well, I think a lot of the barriers that we have in life don't need to be there. So the fact that you don't have to talk the fact that you can go at your pace, I will follow your pace, you can be here, however you want to be and I am here to accept you. That must be such a relief for so many people. And then from that once that trust is there, and that you know, you can be what you want to be slowly things do start to come out. Like sometimes I feel, am I ever going to get anywhere further than just making the same thing out of play every week? Because it's going to progress. Am I doing enough? The teacher in me wants to start directing things and putting things in, but just trusting that process is huge. And I do I waive it all the time. But then just when you think or add something else in and I can I am trained to add more direct work in, they'll share something can I say Oh, thank goodness, I didn't add that in and try and rescue them out of this because they just needed that time to be accepted that that's what they needed to do. And now now they're ready to share.


Simon Currigan  14:39 

It sounds like the relationship kind of comes first.


Juliette Miller  14:43 



Simon Currigan  14:44 

And then the healing happens afterwards as a result of the therapy.


Juliette Miller  14:47 

Yeah. Well, if you think about it as an adult, and I know that if I've had difficulties, I'm not just going to go up to someone and share my issues with them. Like that's very uncomfortable. And even as I'm gaining confidence in how have more trust in the world and have a well balanced life that's still uncomfortable. So putting yourself in a person's situation who has SEMH difficulties for whatever reason, or trauma in their life or lack of trust of adults maybe or people or not knowing who to trust or just learning all these things, you can't expect people to just share, then take your advice, and relationships, everything really is so powerful and it really needs to come at their pace to be successful I feel.


Simon Currigan  15:30 

Are there any specific strategies or techniques from play therapy that teachers can integrate into their classroom? Obviously, they can't sit and have that one to one time for 40 minutes, which is so powerful. But are there little things, little strategies that they can use to start building those relationships and supporting kids with their emotions?


Juliette Miller  15:51 

Yeah, I think there are a few little bits and pieces that I have to say, when I started training, I did also bring into the classroom. So the first thing I remember when I train was a really simple one. If you are having those conversations with children, which might be a bit difficult when you're trying to make those connections. You don't need to be face to face that can actually be a barrier in itself to have to give eye contact or to have your face on show, especially when you're trying to maybe hide some of those big feelings that you don't know whether you can trust that person to share. Yeah, so actually, having a conversation side by side is little, but can make a huge difference. If I think about the amount of conversations that my own children will have me in the car when I'm driving. They always seem to save those awkward conversations when you're concentrating on driving, but I get it, I think it is that not having to be facing you when you're doing it. And actually, it takes a bit of the pressure away. Yeah, so side by side is a good tip that anyone can do and doesn't take any extra time. Another thing I'd say, I know some teachers have maybe a calm kit or a regulation kit in their classroom to help children when they're overwhelmed. And I do like that, if you have drawing materials, just going to be keeping it simple today, plain paper crayons, pens, that's really good. And just a bank of really good calming breathing techniques is helpful. But you have to be able to commit a little bit of time to teaching this when I was doing both when I was teaching and play therapy, I use these things are really taught these things so that when you have those transitions, like you're getting up from the carpet onto the table, you're lining up for lunch, you can just stop and do five mindful breaths. And there's lots of fun ones, when I have trained some teachers to do it, some people have really gone for it. And I can really see how that is making a difference in their classroom. And once you've taught it, even though it takes time to start with, once it's taught, and you know, your class, it's done. So they're going to be able to do that by themselves. But there were teachers that didn't find the time and you can, because there's plenty you can find online and just press play. Everyone was watching one on the screen. And yeah, they're doing it, but they're not gonna get as much from it. And it's actually the relationship building that we're in it together, that your teacher finds overwhelming moments, as much as you find overwhelming moments that honesty about it, is what makes the difference. So I would always say that teachers don't have time, if you wanted to make something like that successful, you do need to just spend little snippets of time practising a bit of breathing, if you need to, yeah, show those things. That's what I would suggest.


And I think the biggest tip I would give, or my keeping it simple way is, and this is something I have noticed more since I've been doing the play therapy, I am lucky that I get to have lunch with the kids. So when I'm ready for lunch, and it's their lunchtime, whoever wants to pose in and I have learned so much from that and don't want to do myself a disservice as a play therapist because it's very different. But the amount that children share, and I've learned safeguarding or just needing to have those conversations, it's been super powerful. Now I know that teachers really don't have time for lunch. But if you ever have, you know, you've got PPA that afternoon, or sports coaches in or something like that what you know, you might just have that little window and you feel that you are able to grabbing lunch with the kids can be really helpful. Getting that kid to help you sharpen the pencils at play time while you're getting ready because you know they need those conversations. That's really helpful. I know you've got to be realistic with your time. But if you can plan it, work it out. That's great. If you're finding it too stressful, don't do it at all, because they will pick up on that.


Simon Currigan  19:31 

You know, that's so powerful. When I think about the children that I've taught. It's those 15/20 second conversations walking down the corridor, where you really form connections. It's not a formal sit down chat, tell me about how your life's going. But it's just those moments of connection between lessons on the transition from the classroom to the playground when you pick kids up or you bump into them at lunchtime. Like you say they're so powerful and they remember them, don't they?


Juliette Miller  19:57 

I think so. And also you can't be expected to jump in and have those hard conversations with the kids. What's going on? I know something's wrong? unless you've already had those informal chats like you're saying so that they can know that they can trust you. And they can have a bit of a banter with you, you know, they get you a bit more as a human, you know, kids can spot a bit of insincerity a mile off, they need to, to know that you're real before they're going to jump in.


Simon Currigan  20:21 

And I just want to circle back a moment to one thing that you said earlier that I think is really worth unpacking, and it is valuable to reflect on right now. It's that children get something different from a human to human connection, compared to what they get from watching a video on a whiteboard, or a screen or a tablet. What do you think so powerful about the human to human connection?


Juliette Miller  20:43 

I feel like especially since I've retrained, I'm amazed at how much you can get from that connection. So actually, a huge part of my job is about being so attuned to the client. And we write down on our notes like how we felt in the session, because the transference between their feelings to our feelings can be huge, if all of a sudden you're really feeling their sadness, or you're really feeling the excitement, I then need to unpick that further and make sure where that's come from. And vice versa. I have to check if there's any countertransference. What am I transferring to the child as well, in our training, we have to be really careful. And we have supervision, which is amazing. I wish everyone had the opportunity for it that works well for anyone I suppose. But I have like a little picture in my head where I just try and leave all the stuff on my head and what was like a hanging basket outside or visualise it, so that when I'm with the child, I'm fully there for them. But we're human. And sometimes they might bring something that triggers something in us. So we have to just be aware of that. But it's Oh, it's amazing how powerful being together is.


Simon Currigan  21:50 

It's amazing, I get the opportunity to watch lots of adults working with lots of children every day of the week. And when you watch them carefully, there is that reflection physically and in terms of body language and eye movement and facial expression.


Juliette Miller  22:04 



Simon Currigan  22:04 

between the child and the adult, all that goes backwards and forwards that you just don't get from a video, it's absolutely a video is a brick wall, isn't it? It is what it is, it's not going to respond to you or show empathy to you as an individual. It's been absolutely fascinating. So far, if you're a teacher listening to this podcast, what's the first step you can take today, to learn more about using play to help you form better relationships with students?


Juliette Miller  22:30 

Going back to simplicity, again, keep it simple, I always have a few things I just carry in my bag. So even if I'm picking up a child, and I have a couple of minutes, I can do so few good games to have in your bag. UNO, double, I've learned a puppet game, you know how the kids work, theyre getting over it now with the puppets that you know that you push in. But we played a game where you take it in turns to push a certain amount in and you don't want to be the one that's left that's got the last one, I would just take that as I pick up a child. And we've already had like three rounds before I've even got to my room. So I just think have a few simple games that you can just whip out that only take a couple of minutes. Because it's easier to find that time than something really elaborate. I don't want a big resource. I don't want to take you to a certain website. But it's nice to be playful those barriers just coming down. You don't have to be so teacher you but you naturally banter a bit I find I have to time. And so that would be something I would recommend everyone to have.


Simon Currigan  23:29 

Absolutely perfect and practical. Juliet finally we asked this of all of our guests who is the key figure, or the key book that you've read that influenced the way that you work with children?


Juliette Miller  23:43 

I change my mind all the time. So I'm just gonna go with the latest one that makes me just go Oh, wow. And it is a play therapist called Dr. Joyce Mills. She's not just a play therapist. She is a storyteller as her main thing, trauma specialist, she's created her own path of play therapy called story play. She's an amazing woman. And in her life, she's travelled all over the world and visited lots of tribes and various communities and listen to their stories. And I've listened to her recently on a play therapy podcast that I love. Just hearing her voice and just storytelling, just listening to stories just captures me and listening to the stories because I love the metaphors and the anything can really mean anything. And I've shared her stories with my clients and then we've made something creative, like whether it's a dance or with clay or whatever from her stories and connection. Like I say it doesn't have to be verbal, but listening to a story and then connecting them playing through it is wonderful. It's how I get to spend my day. It's amazing. So I feel like that at the moment is the person that I'm just loving.


Simon Currigan  24:49 

I think that's the perfect note on which to end our interview Juliet. It's been an absolute pleasure to have you on the podcast you've shared so much practical knowledge insight and information about play therapy. I just really wanted to thank you for being on the show.


Juliette Miller  25:04 

Thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure.


Emma Shackleton  25:07 

Oh, wow, that's so interesting. I really felt like I learned a lot there about how something as simple as play can be used effectively to support children's emotional development. That interview was so full of practical advice.


Simon Currigan  25:22 

Yeah, she was a pleasure to speak to.


Emma Shackleton  25:24 

And if you're working with kids who present behaviours that you find challenging or difficult to manage in the classroom, and you're not sure why they're acting that way, and you'd like to dig into the root cause of that behaviour, we've got a download that just might help. It's called the SEND handbook, and it will help you to link behaviours that you're seeing, with possible underlying causes, such as trauma, autism, and ADHD.


Simon Currigan  25:54 

The idea here isn't for teachers to try and make a diagnosis because we're simply not qualified to do that. But if we can link the behaviours we're seeing in the classroom to possible underlying causes quickly, that means we can get the right help, and the right early intervention strategies in place and call on the right external professionals for their support too.


Emma Shackleton  26:12 

And the handbook comes with a set of fact sheets for conditions such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder, foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, and developmental language delay. The handbook is a completely free download, go over to our website, www.beaconschoolsupport.co.uk, click on the free resources tab, and you'll see the resource near the top of the page. And don't worry, we'll also put a link in the episode description.


Simon Currigan  26:41 

And if you found today's episode helpful or valuable, then open up your podcast now and hit the subscribe button so you never miss another episode. Subscribing takes just seconds and it won't cost you a red cent as the American say. In fact, being a subscriber to this podcast is so exciting. It will make your heart flutter like you've been mainlining vodka and Red Bull all evening.


Emma Shackleton  27:04 

Say that you'll put people off. Thank you everybody for listening today. We hope you have an excellent week without any heart palpitations, and we look forward to seeing you next time on school behaviour secrets. Bye for now.


Simon Currigan  27:18 



Transcribed by https://otter.ai



(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)