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Sand Therapy Competencies:

Principles, Practice, Presence©

Level I

Instructor: Dee Preston-Dillon, M.A., Ph.D

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Course Description

Competency evolves to keep pace with research, literature and practice. Problems in Sand Therapy occur when we ignore this foundation for achieving competency. As in any profession we make errors, we rush, we sabotage ourselves trying to meet professional and social expectations; inflated ego may substitute for rigor, while unconscious misuse of power can mislead and manipulate clients and colleagues. Blind determination, financial concerns, ignorance, and disinterest (it’s not my problem) set up ethical problems. Universities and accrediting agencies fall prey to these disruptions to competency, resulting in courses and certification of diluted direction and inaccurate information on the therapeutic process. 

Our capacity to provide clients with quality care and reduce cookie-cutter therapy is limited by a lack of study beyond the borders of our profession and a dearth of knowledge about sand. There is little oversight and too many ways to shift from a focus on client integrity to fast-track business success. And, the lack of receptivity to new ideas, exploring the depths, and getting feedback constrains clarity, competency and innovation. Sometimes we are simply exhausted, lack funding, or are misled by the seduction of marketing ploys. For example, social media is a remarkable tool for the delivery of quality mental health, however, it can also create and disseminate a plethora of misinformation and false claims by deceptive web entrepreneurs.

How do we define competency and expertise for the clinical use of symbols in sand? As in other professions, it is essential to create a vision of exactly what comprises competency and define specific steps to achieve some level of expertise. Proficiency evolves through a continuing cycle of focus, clear mental representation, exploration, feedback, correction, and practice. For example, we have well-defined developmental stages for musicians, surgeons, athletes, chess grandmasters, and writers who must progress through each aptitude required for proficiency in their field. Even in the most basic acquisition of language we use this cycle of learning. The core principles for all competencies include a clear vision of expertise, well-defined skills and aptitudes, awareness of problems and ways to correct them, and established steps for learning. These components are also essential for proficiency in Sand Therapy. 

Clinician professional identity and competencies continue to evolve. If we rush into the clinical use of symbols in sand, without thoughtful questions, without clear mental representations and feedback, we perpetuate a faulty notion of competence, sabotage our clinical integrity, and risk harm to clients.

This course presents specific aptitudes for proficiency with Sand Therapy: how to conceptualize a sand scene, how to respond to clients, theoretical representations vital to resonate with the process, potential problems and risks, and the importance of clinician immersion in their own work. Despite differences in professions and clinical approaches the main goal remains – do no harm and offer a healing remedy to client suffering. This level I course (first of three levels) is designed to introduce clinicians to the ethical use of this powerful healing process. 

APA Core IdeasThe following are a part of the course description highlighting psychology concepts

  • Psychological Projection: Sand therapy is a three-dimensional projective process appropriate for clients across the lifespan, often practiced by clinicians who use expressive arts and play therapists. Therapists must remain aware of projections, projective identification, attitude toward personal and cultural symbol projections, transference/countertransference.

  • Affect, Displacement and Psychodynamics: It is especially important that the therapist be attuned to the psychic impact of symbols in a sand scene, for themselves and for clients. Also important are forms of engagement between therapist and client regarding the sand scene, as well as the use of therapeutic metaphors during engagement. 

  • Social Construction and Culture: Understanding theory-as-lens that delimits understanding of a sand scene and boundaries for responding to clients; contexts for psychotherapeutic work using objects; the construction of meaning that occurs during Sand Therapy; and the issue of power and social justice reflected in a sand scene and therapist-client engagement.

  • Ethics: Two primary ethical principles most relevant to Sand Therapy are: 1) understanding professional codes regarding use of projective techniques (APA, ACA, etc.), and 2) the directive for sufficient knowledge and practice to use and teach a clinical technique. 

  • Integrated Learning: This course is grounded in theories about learning; development of best practices; familiarity with qualitative research for study and case conceptualization; awareness of foundational and current literature; and case examples. Experiential activities will be used to explore the core ideas, principles and best practices.

Learning Objectives

Upon Completion of Sand Therapy Competencies Level I: Principles, Practice, Presence©

Participants will be able to:

  1. Identify three (3) guiding principles for using sand therapy (examples: appropriateness for client, safety, purpose, therapist role, boundaries, intention, and core clinician practices Permission-Protection-Empowerment-Presence)

  2. Explain three (3) aspects of culture that influence client sand scenes (examples: client identity, non-western mythology, icons/ symbols anchored in specific cultures, boundaries for therapist interpretation, client as expert, familial and religious beliefs, language, socio-political environment, gender & economics, assortment of available symbols on the therapist’s shelves)

  3. List three (3) ethical considerations when using symbols in sand (examples: professional ethics, professional training, immersion in therapist’s own process, knowledge base and skill set, intention for use of a projective technique, promotion of use of Sand Therapy, sharing figurines/symbols with non-trained colleagues, supervision.)   

  4. Describe four (4) clinical skills important for use of Sand Therapy as a projective process (examples: withholding interpretation, therapeutic metaphors, symbol amplification, active imagination, narrative and gestalt dialogues, high level of attending/ Active Listening, reframing, witnessing)

  5. Identify three (3) theories as a foundation to conceptualize and respond to clients and their sand scenes.  (examples: Roger’s Child-Centered, Jungian Archetypal, May/Yalom Existential, Developmental, Family Systems, Social Constructionist, Milton Erickson, Eric Bern, Neo-Freudians)

  6. List three (3) clinician competencies for the use of Sand Therapy (examples: aware of personal-cultural projections, ability to maintain boundaries avoiding behavioral manipulations, skills to engage with active imagination and therapeutic metaphors, discernment for appropriate use with client population, aware of dangers and protection regarding trauma, distinguish approaches when using with parent-child or group or family or intimate partners)

  7. Analyze three (3) symbols for their actual-metaphoric-idiosyncratic meaning and the relevance for client and treatment goals. (examples: identify multiple meaning for rainbow, for tree, for wolf within a client’s sand scene and possible connection to client’s identity or situation)