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Therapy vs. Therapeutic: Creating a Therapeutic Classroom

I often hear people using these terms interchangeably, and although therapy is therapeutic, things that are therapeutic are not always therapy.

This may be controversial, but unless you are a therapist, you are not delivering therapy. No, running is not the same as therapy. No, walking your dog is not therapy. No, talking to my best friend is not the same as talking to my therapist.

Before you start to feel defensive and think "HEY! Hiking has done more for my mental health than my weekly therapy sessions ever did! Tell me that's NOT THERAPY!"

It's not therapy.

HOWEVER it is definitely therapeutic! Running can be therapeutic, walking your dog can be therapeutic, yoga can be therapeutic, talking to you BFF can be therapeutic!

The difference is this:

Therapy is administered by a trained professional with tools and education specific to your dilemma. Therapy is tailored to each individual to address and treat the presenting issue. The method and means changes depending on client goals and progress, and is adjusted by a professional.

Therapeutic is the desired feeling you hope to achieve. It is often the outcome of therapy, but can also be the outcome of other things, too! Therapeutic activities, however, are not designed specifically with the intent of unpacking unhelpful patterns of behaviour, challenging preconceived notions about yourself or others, identifying coping strategies, healing an ailment, physical or psychological, nor is it tailored to each person to treat them individually.

With that said, your therapeutic activities can be suggested or encouraged by a therapist to support your growth!

This is a really important distinction! Many teachers often think that learning is therapy, or drama is therapy (drama therapy is therapy... when administered by a qualified and trained therapist...), or sports are therapy, but to call these things therapy without considering the distinction between therapy and therapeutic diminishes the important work that therapists do, including the deep trauma work.

Even if you're not a therapist, you can still create a therapeutic classroom environment! You can create the desired outcome that therapy can also provide; such as, students can (and should) feel safe, valued, appreciated, loved, and respected. You can help a student to feel confident and build their skills to make room for a therapist to unpack the deeper experiences and responses to trauma.

How do we do this??


Create opportunities for students to have their voice heard. For some students, this is going to be out loud during group discussion, but for other students this will be in small groups or through their writing and work.


Give students agency in your classroom. The more, the better. We often underestimate how big of a deal it is for students to choose their own seat. I HATE seating arrangements. I think they are not a trauma informed practice and they meet the teacher's needs but not the student's. If you are struggling to find other ways to manage your classroom, consider reviewing some of the other articles I've written on relationship building:-)


Ask them how they're doing. Not just when you think something is wrong, but all the time. Get to know them, their interests, and their worries about school and your class. If you know something is wrong, don't push until they tell you what it is. Just let them know you're here to talk, listen, or refer them to someone they do feel safe talking to. You don't need to be their person, but you do need to help them find their person.


Never shame your students or make them feel bad for doing something wrong. Whether that is handing in something late, arriving to class late, under-performing on their test, etc. allow them their dignity and check in with them in a dignified, non-shaming way.


Choose assignments that allow students to explore who they are and how they relate to the world. Assignments can absolutely make your class therapeutic and the work itself can be therapeutic! Check out my Resistance Photo Essay on TPT for an example of this!


Create clear, consistent expectations. Consistency is key here. Students with a history of trauma (so, students...) and students dealing with anxiety and/or depression will fear the unknown and unexpected. It's scary to enter a situation and not know what to expect. Knowing exactly how you'll greet them, what happens if they're late, what the test will look like, etc. will help ease their worries immediately and help school feel like a safe, predictable place.

This is not an exhaustive list of how to make your space therapeutic. There are a ton of other ideas on my site as well in both the blog and podcast!

The key takeaway here is that a therapeutic classroom is NOT therapy!


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