ADHD News & Research

Play Therapy Helps Children with ADHD Build Social Skills

Kids with ADHD who struggle to make and keep friends might benefit from play therapy with a trained professional, according to a small new Australian study.

September 1, 2016

Play therapy has long been used to help children cope with trauma; more recently, it’s become an effective tool to help children with ADHD manage symptoms like impulsivity and hyperactivity. Now, further evidence has been added to support its ADHD-related benefits — a small study found that play therapy can help children with ADHD interact better with their peers. Kids with ADHD can struggle to read social cues, take turns, and play nicely with other kids their age, particularly in elementary school — and these early social challenges can have cumulative negative effects on self-esteem that reverberate through a child’s life.

To measure the efficacy of play therapy in response to these challenges, researchers with The University of Sydney, the Curtin University in Perth, and Australian Catholic University randomly assigned 29 children to either a 10-week play therapy intervention or a control group (the control group also received play therapy after a 10-week control period was complete). All of the children had been previously diagnosed with ADHD, and while some had comorbid learning disabilities or conduct disorder, children with comorbid autism were excluded. If the children had previously been taking medication or engaging in other treatment for their ADHD, they continued to do so for the duration of the study.

The 10-week play therapy sessions included 5 sessions with a trained play therapist, who provided structured play, personalized feedback on the child’s progress from week-to-week, and an at-home program for parents to follow. Children were graded at the beginning and end of the intervention period using a tool called the Test of Playfulness (ToP), which was designed by the investigators prior to the study to measure children’s willingness to share, engage with their peers, and adapt to verbal and non-verbal social cues.

After receiving play therapy, most of the children saw a significant increase in their ToP scores — particularly in their ability to give and receive appropriate verbal and non-verbal cues, as well as their ability to initiate appropriate activities with their peers. Kids whose ToP scores were lowest at the outset showed the greatest improvement — indicating that kids who struggle the most with social skills may respond extremely well to play therapy.

The study was very small, and while its randomized design adds weight to its conclusions, it will need to be replicated with larger groups in order to verify its claims. But the researchers wrote that the results were “promising,” and hope play therapy could also be used as an effective tool for children with autism, who also struggle with social interactions.

The results were published online on August 16, 2016.