The Power of Play

Marbles, Lincoln Logs, building blocks, board games, even Play Doh: all of these common toys become clinical tools in play therapy. Personalized treatment within our residential setting is a critical part of the Shelterwood plan, and we match teens with the best possible methods of intervention, making our therapeutic program intensely personal and purposeful. Shelterwood therapist LaTisha Robinson dives in to explain the power of play therapy and why it is one of the many therapies we use.

Play therapy as a clinical practice: Our defenses are naturally lowered when we play, says LaTisha. The shift from traditional talk therapy to play therapy can offer a fresh perspective. “Sometimes, we use play therapy as a modality when we feel like we have lost momentum therapeutically. This allows students to open up in a way that is different from the traditional talk therapy,” she explains. “Many teenagers anticipate the traditional talk therapy, and they are prepared for that. When we pull out blocks, Play-Doh or a board game, it shifts their mindset. It helps to open their eyes to new ideas.”

How Shelterwood approaches play therapy: “Every therapist has their own modality,” LaTisha explains. “Although teens have a chronological age, play therapy really taps into their brain age component. Sometimes, play therapy can help shift the conversation into a lighter mood. Teens become fully engaged in the process of it. The possibilities are truly endless.”

Processing and play therapy: Another advantage to play therapy is the underlying messages teens will share. “We get the unwritten messages,” LaTisha says. “We can pick up on things that teens would not otherwise vocalize. Through actions in playing, their defenses are being lowered and it opens up so many different pathways. With play, you are interacting on a completely different level.” Teens are able to build skills in processing and self-awareness as well.

Play therapy in action: LaTisha recalls a student who thrived as a result of his participation in play therapy. “This student was really struggling with trust. He was putting up walls, he was defensive and would frequently break rules. So we started playing with a football, just throwing it back and forth. He was not saying much at first, and had never told me anything related to his personal life. During one session, he finally opened up and started telling me stories about football games, how he had been hurt in the past, how people had let him down and much more,” she says. Whenever the student had something to share, he would grab the football. He grew to see people as trustworthy and dependable.

Going beyond child’s play: “Play therapy has so much value and so much weight when you tap into that inner child who is longing to be heard and acknowledged,” LaTisha says. “Play therapy is a proven cognitive behavior way to work through trauma, grief, loss, anxiety, depression, and can have real power in gaining ground with teens.”

Trauma therapy: Helping teens build resilience

When your teen’s struggles are rooted in past trauma, it can be easy to lose hope. Shelterwood’s trauma therapy helps students to frame their trauma in a different light, building resilience and strength to move forward to a healthy life.

Trauma therapy as a clinical practice continues to evolve, and Shelterwood is at the forefront. “What we know about trauma continues to change,” says Justin Puch, Shelterwood therapist. “Children are now exposed to trauma at higher rates than we’ve seen historically, and how professionals understand trauma and its impact on individuals is shifting.”

Trauma not only impacts the emotional development of children and teens, it also impacts brain function. “We now know that when we are exposed to trauma, especially early on in life, it can literally rewire the brain to function differently. Complex trauma can even contribute to chronic health conditions.”

Central to Shelterwood’s approach to trauma therapy is creating that safe environment for teens to process. “In many families, there is an avoidance of talking about what happened, even if the trauma was no one’s fault, like a tornado for example. So at Shelterwood, we strive to create a space where teens can talk about how they feel and know that they are safe.”

Furthermore, to counteract the brain rewiring, Shelterwood therapists often utilize trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TFCBT). Based on traditional CBT, the most heavily used methodology in counseling, TFCBT aims to answer this question: how does the way we process trauma impact our everyday life?

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“I tell parents that, with trauma, treating only the symptoms will only take you so far,” Justin explains. “When you really start to process through the trauma is when you really start to see success.”

The trauma therapy experience at Shelterwood can vary from student to student, typically based on the trauma itself. For example, Justin says, processing a natural disaster would look very different from processing a violent experience. “Our goal is to guide students in thinking differently about what has happened. The focus is on telling a different story with what you have been through.”

Justin recalls a student who arrived at Shelterwood with an aggressive attitude and negative relationship with family. She began work in trauma therapy. “We started to look at how her trauma impacts how she attaches to others and what her relationships look like. We worked on helping her feel comfortable and safe enough to be vulnerable and to invite relationships into her life,” he says. “Today, she has reconnected to her parents in a very strong way, and she is in college and doing very well.”

Ultimately, Justin says, Shelterwood students build resilience through trauma therapy. “Building resilience through whatever trauma you have been through, you can be a stronger person on the other side of that trauma. Helping kids reclaim their story and tell it in a different way is a very powerful tool.”

The Brain Balance Difference

Shelterwood students receive the best in innovative therapies as they journey towards restoration. Among our many treatments, students have access to the life-transforming Brain Balance program, located right here on our campus. This holistic approach to increasing brain function helps students reach new heights.

“We like to use an iceberg as a visual for the Brain Balance process,” explains Elisabeth (Lis) Klemme, Shelterwood’s Brain Balance Program Director. “Symptoms are above the water and the function of the brain is below the water. Other protocols treat the symptoms, but Brain Balance gets to the root of brain function.”

DSC8805 The Brain Balance Difference

The brain has two distinct hemispheres — right and left — and these hemispheres are unique in what they do and how they connect. Brain Balance, therefore, is designed to isolate the stronger hemisphere of the brain and increase function in the brain’s weaker hemisphere.

While other programs may teach coping mechanisms and strategies to mitigate symptoms, Brain Balance addresses neurological gaps. “Brain Balance helps make the brain teachable, so students can better learn,” Lis explains. Shelterwood is the only therapeutic boarding school with Brain Balance right on campus.

Often, students arrive at Shelterwood with a gap between their biological age and the brain’s age of maturity. A student may be 17 years old, but with a brain function at age 11, so the student may struggle to handle situations as someone his or her age should. A number of factors combine to help the brain mature, Lis explains. For example, do students have primitive reflexes? Are gross motor skills at a place they should be for the student’s age? How about sensory items? Brain Balance addresses all of these and more.

Brain Balance is an adjunct program at Shelterwood, so parents must elect to have their student take part in the program — but the Brain Balance assessment is free of charge to all Shelterwood students, and the team reviews findings with parents, so they are well-equipped to decide if the program will benefit their teen.

In Brain Balance, students can progress as much as three to four grade levels academically. The impact of Brain Balance is typically noticed first in the boarding school classroom, but it has deep effects on a student’s emotional intelligence: traits like empathy and interpersonal connection are built too. “Having Brain Balance as part of the Shelterwood program helps students genuinely mature,” Lis says.

Brain Balance sets the stage for more productive and progressive clinical therapy as well. “Therapists have a real understanding of where the teen is at during every stage of their programming, and the therapist can adapt the plan based on the maturity of the child’s mind,” Lis says. Armed with this information, therapists can serve students more effectively.

There are many success stories as a result of Brain Balance. Lis recalls a student who faced a number of challenging triggers with a physical and dangerous response. Brain Balance brought about a night-and-day difference, helping the student respond to her triggers in healthy ways. Today, that student has successfully graduated Shelterwood, graduated high school and enrolled in college. “By the end of Brain Balance, this student was making a plan for her future,” Lis says.

Meet Jessica Wood

Jessica Wood, Clinical Director at Shelterwood Academy, loves seeing families restored and relationships rebuilt. Get to know Jessica.

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What Jessica loves most about Shelterwood: Jessica points to the sense of community throughout Shelterwood. “This is a very compassionate environment in which to work, and the importance of family is communicated to our residents and our staff,” she says.

When she was a teen: Growing up in a small town in South Dakota, Jessica loved her strong support system, including her family, friends and youth group. “I also encountered some of the struggles teens today do, and I really leaned on that support system,” she says. Jessica also enjoyed being actively involved in school, clubs and sports, including volleyball and basketball.

We all scream for ice cream: Jessica’s father owned a Dairy Queen in their small town, and Jessica worked there as a teen. She still loves working with ice cream today, especially baking ice cream cakes. Her favorite flavor? Chocolate chip cookie dough.

Before Shelterwood: Jessica earned her doctorate in Psychology (Psy.D.) from the Illinois School of Professional Psychology and is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist for the state of Missouri. She spent more than eight years in residential therapy for children and adolescents. “While I have always loved working with adolescents, I felt something was missing and wanted to incorporate a spiritual element into my work,” Jessica explains. Her family had relocated to the Kansas City area, and her sister-in-law mentioned Shelterwood. Jessica continued to explore Shelterwood and applied for the Clinical Director role. “From the location to my desire to incorporate spirituality into my practice, this was all God’s timing,” she smiles.

Her favorite part about being the Clinical Director: In her role, Jessica says, no two days are the same! “I enjoy getting to be involved in a variety of activities and handling a variety of responsibilities,” she says. She provides therapy to students and their families, explores training opportunities, tackles administrative duties and more. “I really enjoy the opportunity to have a caseload and provide therapy, but also to help others in our team grow. All of our therapists come from different backgrounds, and it is fun to see how it all works together to benefit our students.”

The most unique thing happening in Shelterwood counseling right now: “We’re constantly refining our approaches to therapy,” she says. “From sand therapy to equine therapy to experiential therapy, we’re always striving to advance the therapies we’re providing for our students.”

Family: Jessica has been married to her husband for two years. They have one daughter, Lily, who celebrates her first birthday this month.  

Outside work: Jessica loves staying active and working out. She also enjoys exploring the outdoors with her family, including going on walks. “I also love just relaxing at home as a family and snuggling Lily!” she smiles.  

Best part of her job at Shelterwood: “I love watching families heal and grow in their relationships,” Jessica says. “It is a difficult thing to have your child away from home, and the best part is to watch those reconnections built and those relationships restored.”

Brain Balance: An Innovation in Learning

At Shelterwood Academy, we are dedicated to offering teens the best innovative therapies, as part of their journey to real growth and transformation. We are proud to be the only residential therapeutic boarding school in the nation with the life-changing Brain Balance program located  on campus.

Our brains have two distinct hemispheres — right and left — and these hemispheres are unique in what they do and how they cross-communicate. “Brain Balance is based on the idea that our brain’s two hemispheres need to connect,” explains Rujon Morrison, Shelterwood Program Director. “People with functional disconnection syndrome have an imbalance between the brain’s hemispheres. Brain Balance was designed to isolate the strong hemisphere of the brain and then strengthen the weaker side.”

The Brain Balance program is a comprehensive, therapeutic protocol combining physical and sensory exercises with cognitive skill training. Renowned Chiropractic Neurologist, Dr. Robert Melillo, originally developed Brain Balance for stroke victims. As he continued his research, he discovered the protocol was helpful for children and teens with neurobehavioral disorders, too. He saw improvement in the areas of attention deficit, learning differences, processing issues and the autism spectrum.

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Rujon was already well into her professional career in educational psychology and neuroscience, when she heard about the Brain Balance program, but her intrigue in neurology started much earlier. “From a young age, I was fascinated with the brain,” Rujon says. This led her to pre-med studies and a career in neuroscience and educational psychology.

In her work, Rujon developed a protocol that isolated the strong hemisphere of the brain to work on the weak one — and witnessed her students’ IQs jump between 10 and 20 points. “At the time, there was no understanding of neuroplasticity, but the brain really can change and grow.”

While working in Georgia, Rujon met Amanda Gunter, a Harvard-taught special education professional, who directed the community’s Brain Balance center. The similarities between the Brain Balance program and her own protocol developments were uncanny. As a result, Rujon shared the vision with Amanda of opening a Brain Balance Center at Shelterwood, and the rest is history. Amanda  launched our Shelterwood Brain Balance Center, and hired a dynamic team to run this facility. Because Brain Balance is an adjunct program at Shelterwood, parents must elect to have their student take part in the program but the Brain Balance assessment is free of charge to all Shelterwood students, and the team reviews the findings with the parents, so they are well-equipped to decide if the program will benefit their teen.

“In Brain Balance, we’ve seen kids progress as much as three to four grade levels academically, and some of the behaviors they struggled with have subsided. While the impact of Brain Balance is often noticed first in the classroom, the program can even help strengthen a teen’s emotional intelligence. “Many struggling teens lack connection with themselves or others when empathy is needed, and is one of the characteristics we are developing within Brain Balance protocol,” Rujon says.

DSC8805 Brain Balance: An Innovation in Learning

Success stories at the Shelterwood Brain Balance center are many, but one young man stands out to Rujon. Having faced much trauma, this teen developed manipulative behaviors. As a bully to his peers, he struggled to build friendships. After some time at Shelterwood, he wasn’t making progress; then, Brain Balance marked the turning point. His parents chose to enroll him in Brain Balance and they began to see a change. They started to see empathy and a tremendous decrease in his lying. He also began to take responsibility for his own actions. After a few more sessions, he was no longer stuck academically. His confidence was stronger than ever. “Really, everything changed for this young man,” Rujon smiles.  Over and over, parents and teens are encouraged and value the difference participation in the Brain Balance therapy provides for students.