Cristal Martinez, Licensed Professional Counselor, Nationally Certified Counselor
PsiChi Alumni from the University of Texas at El Paso class of 2009
I have been a therapist since 2011. I have been practicing psychotherapy with children, adolescents and adults. One day while writing a client progress note, I had a flashback. (Not like a traumatic stress type of flashback, so don't worry). It was a snippet of my life I had captured of myself in kindergarten. I loved learning and was a smart (and eager) child. One day, during free-play time, I went off to the corner of the classroom on my own and started working on a floor puzzle. I was disinterested in what the other children were doing. I had a moment of solemnity that quickly turned into fun. I can remember that it was a wooden number matching puzzle. I had to match the number “1” with another piece that had one object, the number “2” with the other piece that had two objects . . . etc.
As I was happily constructing the puzzle, my kindergarten teacher got my attention and said, “Cristal, you’re doing such a great job completing your puzzle. I’m going to give you a gold star for that.” As I looked up at her from my spot on the colorful rug I was sitting on, my face brightened. I felt warm and fuzzy inside despite sitting on the scratchy carpet, and I kept on working diligently with the puzzle. In fact, for “free play” time from that point forward, I completed puzzles, games, and read books on my own in that same corner of the classroom. My eager mind was finally met with appropriate stimulation as well as positive attention. This may be why I continued to love school and why I was motivated to obtain my master’s degree.
Treating young children with behavior problems has always been a challenge. But then . . . enter a treatment called “Parent Child Interaction Therapy.” It is great, in my opinion, because I truly believe that, to change a young child’s behavior, the intervention must be with the child’s parents and the surrounding environment. Working with children ages two to seven years old is a unique experience, and PCIT takes out most of the guesswork. This intervention is heavy in caregiver involvement and changing their interactions with their children at home, subsequently improving their relationships . . . thus reducing problematic externalizing behavior.
One of the main components of PCIT is teaching and coaching parents how to play with their children. Interestingly enough, some caregivers need to be taught how to play and some do not enjoy playing with their children. I can see how the “inner child” might’ve gotten sucked out of some of us as we’ve grown.
There are three target skills taught to each parent: labeled praises, reflections, and behavior descriptions. Each of these used during five minutes of play per day can help children and parents become closer, build a child's self-esteem, and catalyze a myriad of other benefits (Eyberg & Funderburk, 2011). We encourage, of course, that caregivers use these skills throughout the day as much as possible and to practice with other children in their lives. There are more components and you can research them on your own, because this essay is related to PCIT—not a comprehensive manual.
Caption: Cristal Martinez in a PCIT observation room speaking with a parent over a headset.
What my kindergarten teacher did was monumental although it seemed so small. I’m sure it even changed my life trajectory. Instead of wandering aimlessly in that little classroom, she pointed out and praised my productivity and independence. And, in my lifetime, there have been moments where I’ve felt disinterested and lost . . . But, I’ll never forget this labeled praise (otherwise known as an "LP" in PCIT) because it was a moment that was impressed upon my heart and mind forever. She taught me, with such few words, that I am self-sufficient, I am enough, and that I have everything I’ll ever need inside of me.
I can only imagine what PCIT and this treatment can do for kids in this day and age. The fact that the skills are meant to be constantly and consistently used (mind you, I only had memory of ONE), and that these are said by the child’s caregivers has got to be way more powerful than the one I received from a teacher. So, to Ms. Tellez at Marian Manor Elementary School, thank you for your encouragement. And to parents of young children everywhere, please try PCIT.
For more information on PCIT and to find a PCIT certified therapist near you, visit https://www.pcit.org.
Eyberg, S. M., & Funderburk, B. (2011). PCIT: Parent-child interaction therapy protocol: 2011. Gainesville, FL: PCIT International.
Listen to Cristal Martinez, MA, LPC, NCC talk about mental health on her podcast at www.throughtheeyesofatherapist.podbean.com or on iTunes.
Or visit her blog at https://cristalma.wordpress.com/
She can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @ThroughTheEyesOfATherapist