Play therapy to tackle trauma will be offered in Ballymun primary schools next year

‘Whether homelessness or other issues, trauma is a barrier to education,’ says principal

Play therapy to tackle “large levels of trauma” among children is to be offered in all 11 primary schools in Ballymun from next year.

About 300 children under 12, out of a population of about 2,000 of primary-school age, have been identified in the north Dublin suburb who would benefit from therapy due to trauma caused primarily by the housing crisis.

Of these, about 250 are or have recently been homeless, says Roisin Hickey, principal of Our Lady of Victories Boys’ National School. Chair of the Ballymun network of school principals, Ms Hickey explains play therapy has been “phenomenally effective” since piloted in her school in 2019.

“Whether homelessness or other issues, trauma is a barrier to education,” she says. “It’s written across children’s faces. They are often very, very worried about siblings and parents, and coming in they’re tired, hungry and there’s a real sense of shame, embarrassment.


“They don’t have the emotional skills to cope because they haven’t grown in an environment where they can play and that would be a huge issue with this. It’s complex, but generally we see either enormous behavioural difficulties or they are extremely withdrawn and too emotionally drained to participate.”

Play therapy is now offered by five therapists in seven Ballymun primary schools – funded in a piecemeal way – to 36 children. From next year it will be in place in all 11 schools, to an additional 12 children, due to a “cash injection”, which was confirmed on Friday as details of Ballymun Healthy Communities were announced.

The Healthy Communities programme, part of Sláintecare, is being rolled out across 19 of the most severely disadvantaged areas in the State. Funded by the Department of Health, Healthy Communities will be delivered by the Health Service Executive with local authorities to address such social determinants as smoking, diet, parenting, exercise and mental wellbeing.

Ballymun healthy community is the first of four in Dublin city to be formally launched, with others in Finglas/Cabra, Darndale and Cherry Orchard. Clondalkin in south county Dublin will be unveiled next week, with others operating or due to be detailed in such places as Limerick city; Clonmel, Co Tipperary; north Cork City; west Mayo; Bray, Co Wicklow; and Inishowen, Co Donegal.

They will be assertively offering programmes in nutrition, smoking cessation and parenting within communities.

Play therapy for children in disadvantaged communities, says Ms Hickey, has been “the most evidently, progress-making” intervention she has seen in vulnerable children’s lives in her career.

Many are carrying issues that “can’t be tackled until they are in a therapeutic setting”. There may be 10 or more sessions with a play therapist, and the parents participate in the play with the children.

“Children feel the burden of the parents’ trauma and carry that. The play therapy connects the parent to the child, and it gives that beautiful space – the door opens between the child and the parent. That lightens the burden for the child. They can start to leave it behind.”

Describing the process as “extremely complex”, she adds: “We won’t fix things today or tomorrow but we know it lessens the attention-seeking behaviour that comes from trauma, and that can lead to crime, vandalism – all of these things are connected. Play therapy gives them a chance at the right time to address those issues.”

Choosing 36 children from a potential 300 was “very difficult”. The schools want to offer far more. “We need a sustainable model,” she says. “We need this under an umbrella organisation to sustain it long-term.

“It’s not just the 36 children who benefit. It’s 36 families, 36 classrooms, 36 roads. We want Ballymun to be a trauma-informed, therapeutic community.”

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times