Former Doctoral Student TJ Schoonover Wins Humanistic Dissertation Award

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TJ Schoonover and Kristi Perryman, associate professor and director of the U of A Office of Play Therapy.

The Association for Humanistic Counseling recently awarded former University of Arkansas doctoral student TJ Schoonover the Outstanding Humanistic Dissertation Award.

Schoonover, who successfully defended his dissertation on June 15, 2021, will receive the award at the association’s annual conference on May 27-28. It honors a counseling graduate student whose dissertation is considered significant and “with central and salient humanistic content.”

“TJ’s dissertation has important implications for the field of counseling and specifically for those working with children who have experienced trauma,” said Kristi Perryman, an associate professor of counselor education in the College of Education and Health Professions and the director of the U of A Office of Play Therapy.

She said his research provides evidence that counselors can use child-centered play therapy to effectively address the symptoms of children exposed to ACEs, short for “adverse childhood experiences.”

“The study is also the first to reveal that the process of change for the children who participated began between 8-11 sessions,” she said. “This knowledge can impact counselor expectations.”

Schoonover’s research finds that children who experience ACEs frequently exhibit maladaptive and even violent behaviors that are challenging for a counselor. That can lead to burnout. Understanding the typical progression can lead to confidence for both the counselor and the caregiver rather than frustration and a sense of hopelessness, Perryman noted.

Perryman said Schoonover’s findings could even lead to policy change. For example, managed care might extend the number of therapy sessions for a child who has experienced trauma. Additional sessions would be vital in helping children who live in Arkansas as they experience ACE more frequently than those in other states, she noted.

Schoonover was inspired to focus his dissertation on ACEs after reading The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, a book by Dr. Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz.

“The book shares stories of their experience working with children who experienced trauma. That sparked my interest. Then I came to University or Arkansas, and Dr. Perryman encouraged me to explore my interest in working with kids who have been exposed to ACEs,” he said. “While I was exploring the topic, I learned about the prevalence of children who have been exposed to ACEs, especially in Arkansas.”

He found that there weren’t many evidence-based practices on how to help children heal from their trauma. “I wanted to do a study that helped close the gap in research,” he said.

Schoonover said it feels incredible to receive this counseling award. “We knew this research was important, and I am grateful to have others acknowledge that. I am truly appreciative,” he said.

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