When Annette Schieffelin walks into the Group Attachment Based Intervention (GABI) playroom, she is never quite sure what she will see. Most mornings she witnesses scenes like a mother blowing bubbles toward her laughing child or a mother clapping as a toddler tosses a foam ball to his father. For many people, these sights are ordinary. But this place is different. All of these parents and children have experienced major traumas and difficulties, and Schieffelin is among a group of interns and clinicians observing the parents and children at play and encouraging them to improve the parent-child bond.
As a clinical intern in the Children’s Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center (CERC) of The Rose F. Kennedy Center at Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Montefiore Medical Center, Schieffelin worked with low-income families from the Bronx, assisting with her director’s research for improving tests to assess skills related to school readiness and with GABI, an intensive parent-child treatment that “directly addresses the needs of isolated, marginalized families, with the goals of enhancing parent coping and resilience, and improving parent-child attachment relationships.”
“Most of the parents we work with did not complete middle school or much less high school due to their life circumstances. Many of our families are currently going through the court systems or have children in foster care,” Schieffelin explains. “The CERC not only provides clinical services to these families, but also acts as each patient’s advocate and ally.”
On days when she would assist with GABI, Schieffelin spent her mornings working in-group sessions, both in joint parent-child sessions and in separate parent sessions and child sessions. The purpose of the therapy sessions was to “enhance the parent-child relationship through play and other methods of therapy,” Schieffelin says.
As an example, Schieffelin describes an instance where a young boy building a train set would glance over at his mother, who was seated on the couch: “The clinician sees the child looking to his mother wanting her to play with him. The clinician redirects the mother’s attention to her son, encouraging them to engage with each other. Following the clinician’s lead, the mother moves next to her son and helps him to finish building the train track.”
Following these sessions, Schieffelin discussed what went well and what was challenging, as well as the patients’ progress and therapy plans, with other interns and clinicians.
“These families are coming to a place that can help them to do things differently and have a better future. We often see our patients three times a week for GABI, so we have the potential to create real change. While the measured efficacy of GABI is still being studied, the results thus far show that our work is successful in increasing positive, healthy attachments between parent and child,” Schieffelin says.
Schieffelin plans to pursue a doctoral degree in child clinical or counseling psychology and work as a child psychologist. She notes, “Before my internship, I was unsure about what setting I would want to work in and what population of people I would want to work with, but I now feel very inspired and realize that I would love to come back and work at my internship site, but this time as a clinician.”