New CBT approach for children is a bonus


ACCORDING TO the preamble to the code of ethics of the Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI), psychologists are specialists in the study of human behaviour and experience and they operate as scientist-practitioners – that is, their professional practice is grounded in a body of scientific knowledge.

Despite this clear definition there are many areas within psychology that are far from scientific, both in their underlying theoretical structures and in their practice. Areas such as the differences between psychology and psychiatry, between psychotherapy and counselling and around particular conditions such as schizophrenia, which is often incorrectly thought of as referring to a split personality.

Muddying the waters further is the plethora of complementary and alternative practices that claim expertise in the diagnosis and treatment of a wide range of psychological problems such as autism, depression, and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder.

The PSI has engaged in a range of activities in order to promote the public understanding of psychology. Those wishing to clarify some of the above confusions should consult the website of PSI at or that of the British Psychological Society at

For the remainder of this column I will outline an innovative piece of work that has been developed by Dr Gary O’Reilly of the School of Psychology at UCD and two colleagues, Dr Nicola McGlade, a clinical psychologist, and Dr David Coyle, a computer scientist, at the Department of Computer Science at TCD.

They have developed a computer game aimed at children aged nine years and above, that teaches the basic principles of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT is an evidence-based approach to understanding and treating a range of psychological conditions that affect children and adults. The game was developed as a tool with which to engage children who might otherwise find the usual therapeutic process boring or difficult.

CBT is based on the cognitive therapy of Aaron Beck, who recognised that many disorders were systematically associated with distorted thinking, which also impacted negatively on the client’s behaviour patterns.

The behavioural component of CBT is related to the work of BF Skinner and others and emphasises the need for behavioural experimentation in order to receive feedback from the environment with regard to particular problems so that constructive thinking styles can be learned and bad thinking habits may be reduced or eliminated.

Within the game, children visit Gnattenborough’s Island and are introduced to a range of characters, including David Gnattenborough, who systematically leads them through a process of understanding and dealing with their particular concerns. (NATS are Negative Automatic Thoughts which the child must learn to recognise and control).

While the principles are generic, the children keep personalised log books through which they can monitor their individual progress. In order to pass from one level to the next, children must reach a level of competence with regard to understanding and impacting on their NATS.

The game must be led by a therapist who has expertise in CBT and who is trained in its use. Training is provided free of charge by Dr O’Reilly, and those undertaking training are provided with a copy of the game and a workbook. Two randomised control trials are underway to evaluate the game.

As a consequence of the structure of this computer game, children learn to approach their difficulties in a systematic manner with an attitude of experimentation. In essence, they are also learning the scientific method – a significant bonus in my view.

The primary concern of Dr O’Reilly and his colleagues is the promotion of the mental health of young people. In order to develop the game further, and to continue on a non-profit basis, they are interested in gaining assistance from professionals with expertise in computer programming, animation, graphic art and app development. Full details are available at

Paul O’Donoghue is a clinical psychologist and founder member of the Irish Skeptics Society.