How can digitally integrated therapy be made engaging for children?

08 Apr 20212-minute read
Mother and daughter using TALi on tablet

Engaging people in healthcare practices is a challenge for all clinicians but especially so when it comes to children. Now that technology has seen a dramatic upsurge in clinical use through necessity (ie. as a direct result of the global pandemic), the challenges of engaging clients specifically in digitally integrated therapy may be top of mind for many practitioners.

The good news: while there are some specific considerations to address, for the most part, there’s very little difference in making therapy more engaging, whether using technology or not. However, where digital devices really come into their own is with the younger generation; those who have grown up or are growing up with technology (and loving it!).

Taking a (little) human-centred approach to technology

Children and young people have been born into a world where the Internet and smart devices are commonplace and, therefore, they are far more familiar with technology and less intimidated by it than any other generation. However, despite such familiarity, it’s likely they won’t understand how to use such technology to elicit therapeutic benefits. This means it’s vital that practitioners possess the skills and the patience to show young people why, how and when to best make use of their digital tools – and do so in an age-appropriate manner.

At the same time, professionals need to be guided by a child’s digital preferences. While part of the appeal of using digitally integrated therapy is its ability to captivate and engage kids, it’s important to know that not all apps or games will suit all children. Furthermore, despite developers’ intentions, apps and games tend to be used by people differently depending on individual traits and preferences such as their age, technical skill and competency, their personality and motivations, to name just a few factors.  

Healthcare practitioners need to have an intimate understanding of how to use the digital and technological tools at their disposal so they can confidently guide and reassure both parents and children, and be confident in the efficacy of the results achieved. One of the many benefits of using technology is that it’s constantly changing and evolving. As the professionals guiding children through the treatment journey, it means clinicians need to be as dynamic and adaptable as the applications they use. 

Building on the advantages of built-in engagement

Practitioners who work with kids are accustomed to finding new and inventive ways of connecting with them – playing on the floor, singing songs, creating worksheets and just generally integrating fun into their work as a way of connecting. Incorporating technology is essentially the same but just using a different toolkit.

For example, a clinician might have a client who loves superheroes. In order to build rapport and meet therapeutic goals, they are likely to take great pains to incorporate superhero colouring-in sheets, app and other activities in the treatment. Contrastingly, digitally integrated therapy can shortcut the work required to secure ‘buy in’. If it’s bright, interactive and on a screen, it’s more likely to grab a child’s attention, whether it’s about superheroes or not!

As an added bonus, children get to use digital devices in their own time, which only reinforces the important work practitioners are doing with them in the real world.

What might be limiting for some clinicians is not knowing where to look for appropriate digital tools. There are many professional development resources available but one place you may like to start is with Fiona Zandt and Suzanne Barrett’s website where they offer some great blog posts and tips for therapists working with children (note: since COVID, some of their resources now refer specifically to digital tools). 

In conclusion

Technology comes with an inherent ‘built-in’ engagement factor for people of a certain age or generation but that doesn’t mean that clinicians can take a set-and-forget approach – we need to be mindful of what works for different personalities and how we can encourage them to use that technology to elicit the appropriate results.

Whether coming from a tech-savvy mindset or not, practitioners also have a responsibility to fully understand the ins and outs of the digitally integrated therapies they are using. Only then will they be able to use the technology in that way it is intended.