An Interview with Steven Richfield, PsyD, on the Parent Coach
David Van Nuys, Ph.D. Updated: May 15th 2010
Drs. Van Nuys and Richfield discuss Richfield's coaching cards, a deck of cards designed to be used by pre-teen children and parents so as to help children understand, in a concrete and developmentally appropriate manner, methods for coping that might otherwise be just above their understanding. For instance, the cantaloupe skin card shows the image of a child putting on a cantaloupe skin. This is a concrete representation of the idea that some people have thin skins (e.g., are sensitive and vulnerable) while others have thicker skins, and that thinner skinned children have the option to metaphorically choose to put on a thicker skin by focusing their minds on success experiences which help shore up their fragile self-concepts. The cards offer key concepts to children that enable them to cope better, helping to advance their development of social maturity. Richfield sees this approach as offering parents a way to fundamentally better understand what their children are going through and therefore respond in a developmentally sensitive manner promoting maturation (in the manner of an athletic coach) rather than as simple rule setters and enforcers.
David Van Nuys: Welcome to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by CenterSite.net covering topics in mental health, wellness, and psychotherapy. My name is Dr. David Van Nuys. I'm a clinical psychologist and your host.
On today's show we'll be talking with Dr. Steven Richfield about an approach to working with young kids that he calls the parent coach. Steven Richfield, PsyD, has successfully worked with countless children and parents for over two decades, focusing his work as a child psychologist on child development, parent education, and the emotional problems of childhood.
A product of his work, based in part on his experience as the father of two boys, has culminated in an innovative approach to parenting. He has developed "the parent coach," publishing a book, coloring book, and an innovative set of parent coaching cards. He's been featured in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Philadelphia Enquirer, the Chicago Sun Times, the Connecticut Post, Hartford Courant, Shreveport Times, the Greenville News, Yorkshire Post, and numerous educational publications such as Counseling Today and the ADHD Report.
Dr. Richfield has used his on-the-job training as a parent and extensive clinical experience to develop a new parent training model, one that asks parents to switch from "parent cop" to "parent coach." His resulting parenting coach program has received extensive international attention. In addition, in 1999, Dr. Richfield was commissioned by a Philadelphia-based charity to develop a school-based curriculum to train teachers and school counselors in ways to coach self-control and social skills to groups of elementary school students. The program, based upon the parent coaching cards, is now in use in hundreds of schools across the nation.
Now, here's the interview.
Dr. Steven Richfield, welcome to Wise Counsel.
Steven Richfield: Well, thank you, it's a pleasure to be here, Dr. David.
David: Well, it's my pleasure to interview you. I've been reading your book, The Parent Coach: A New Approach to Parenting in Today's Society. What led you to write this book?
Steven Richfield: Well, I think there was a variety of sources that set me on the trajectory of establishing this phrase "parent coach." Mostly, I believe, it was my own parenting experiences as a young parent looking for a compass. And figuring out a coach notion, the metaphor of a coach really fit quite well.
David: How many kids do you have and what ages are they?
Steven Richfield: Well, my wife Karen, who's also a psychologist and a former grad school classmate - we went through our doctoral program together - we have two boys, ages 20 and 17.
David: Okay, so it sounds like maybe when you started to work on this book, maybe they were a bit younger.
Steven Richfield: Oh, yes. They were a lot younger. Originally, the coaching cards was the first iteration of the parent coach and then came the book years later.
David: Oh, I see. And what sorts of parents and/or kids were you envisioning when you decided to write the book?
Steven Richfield: Well, the child that can benefit is any child from ages, I'd say, six or seven on up. Originally, the population that I was working with most of all were ADHD kids, kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, as well as kids with Asperger's syndrome, but the coaching cards really are used with virtually any child now. They don't have to have diagnosis.
David: Okay, and did you have a certain kind of parent in mind as well?
Steven Richfield: Well, I was looking for a parent who was open-minded to the notion of nurturing self-control and social skills in her kids or his kids.
David: Now, part of the subtitle implies that this is a new approach. What's new about your approach?
Steven Richfield: Well, I think what is innovative about it - they certainly have talked about this over the course of years in parenting - is the notion that we can look at behavior as a window into where a child may need help. And if we can take advantage of those circumstances where a child might veer off course as an indication that they need coaching from us and use those as corrective opportunities, not so much punitive ones, I think that makes it a little innovative. And, of course, the notion of also being proactive is vital, too - parents who want to prepare their kids with the road ahead by coaching skills ahead of time.
David: Okay, well, in part it's new, but it probably also has its roots somewhere else. Can you talk about the theoretical roots of your approach?
Steven Richfield: Well, I think I was mostly impressed by the work of people like Goleman, who published in '95 Emotional Intelligence. And when Daniel Goleman came out with that ground-breaking volume, I was a very young parent myself of a six and three-year-old, and I was just blown away by what his findings were all about. That, along with Stanley Greenspan, who had been working with Floor Time and the notion of entering the world of the child, was very inspirational. So I'd say those two sources placed me on this path I am today.
David: Okay, so just what is a parent coach?
Steven Richfield: Well, a parent with a mission. It's a mission to nurture self-control and to improve social skills in their kids. And the notion is that he or she has to have tools at their disposal but never lose sight of the fact that the most critical ingredient is a solid, loving bond. And they use words and actions to assure their child that they're on the same side as the child; they're here to help coach these skills with love and certainly correction when the window of change opens.
David: You know, one of the TV shows that my wife and I watch is Supernanny. I wonder if you've seen that show.
Steven Richfield: I have watched it - little glimpses of it here and there.
David: I would think that it might fit really well with what you're all about.
Steven Richfield: I suspect it is. I feel that what's critical is that the parent is in possession of these tools so that when circumstances warrant, they can step in and do the coaching. I suspect that's part of what the Nanny is trying to model for the parents.
David: Yes, definitely. Now, coaching seems to be a very popular metaphor or job description these days, with some professionals, some mental health professionals, choosing it over calling themselves therapist or counselor. What's your take on that?
Steven Richfield: I don't know if I feel that I have a specific opinion on it. I think the jury is still out in terms of this grey area between doing therapy and coaching. Many times it takes place over the phone as well, where you don't have direct face-to-face contact with either the parent or the adult or the child. I'm not particularly comfortable with that type of role.
David: Okay. Well, in terms of the parent coach, let me challenge you just a little bit. I'm wondering whether kids might need "parenting" more than "coaching." The idea reminds me a bit of parents who want to define themselves as "friends" and fail to set appropriate rules and boundaries for kids to knock up against. You know what I mean?
Steven Richfield: I totally agree with you, and I think that the importance of boundaries can't be overstated. My notion, though, is that a coach sets boundaries as well, if you can picture more the athletic coach who enforces his or her authority, making it quite clear who calls the plays but at times giving the player opportunity to size things up and make their own decisions while the coach is on the sidelines. So certainly the parent is not trying to be a friend; the parent is, in my model, trying to develop strong social and emotional skills in their child, oftentimes by modeling them in their interactions with the child. So they do have to show significant tolerance and self-control and generosity and all those skills that they're trying to grow in their own child.
David: Okay, a major feature of your approach is helping the child to distinguish between their thinking side and their reactive side. Tell us about that.
Steven Richfield: Well, these terms grew out of my reading of Daniel Goleman's work back in '95. Not that he necessarily coined these terms, but as I thought about them and applied them to childhood, I was looking to synthesize a lot of his thinking and boil it down into simple language that even a six-year-old could understand. And that's how I came up with this notion that there is these two parts of our personality that work interchangeably, but that the thinking side is really the problem solver, the manager of our emotions, the planner, and the relater to others, while the reacting side is the side that lives off emotion and reacts to events and feeling states. And I wanted something that could really get across to kids the concept that we're trying to build upon the strengths of the thinking side and watch out for the traps of the reacting side.
David: Well, I think those terms do succeed in simplifying the situation in a very neat way. Now, in terms of the kids, what's the age range that you're targeting here? I think you said that, on the low side, I think you said six or seven years?
Steven Richfield: I'd say the average is about a 10-year-old, but the range probably goes from 6 to 7 up to, say, 11 to 12; where by, say, early adolescence, we're hoping that they've got a good foundation of thinking side skills, so they don't veer off course too seriously.
David: Okay, you sent me a deck of cards that go with your book, and also there are similar cards in the back of the book that can be torn out along the perforations. I really like the nice glossy deck you sent me, which I assume is available on your website, but it's nice that you also make them available in the book if folks don't want to spend more for the glossy deck.
Steven Richfield: Well, I made that a requirement when the publisher wanted to put all this together into a portable coaching book. I wanted them to be able to immediately start the coaching role. And so I find that today there's many parents that will email me after they've read the book for the glossy cards because they are much more child friendly, and I find kids will take more ownership because of their appearance. It also comes with a coloring book and a parent packet of information when I sell it over my website.
David: Oh, that's interesting. I haven't seen the coloring book, but that does sound like a nice wrinkle as well.
Steven Richfield: I think that a lot of what happens when kids receive these cards at home is they're intrigued, because finally there's something that puts their internal chaos of emotions into a very, like you say, simplistic framework. And it introduces a vocabulary into the family and into the parent-child relationship that didn't exist in the past. So all of a sudden, parents are talking about stepping into your cantaloupe skin and not taking the bait, and keeping your thinking side in charge. Whereas prior to that, parents might have been just yelling, "You'd better behave, or there's going to be punishment."
David: That's great. We're going to need to get into that cantaloupe skin thing in a minute. So what was the basic idea behind having a deck of cards?
Steven Richfield: I wanted something to be portable, David. I wanted it to be immediately accessible to the child, the parent, the teacher, the tutor, the soccer coach, you name it; of course, the therapist as well. There are countless psychologists and counselors who have purchased the cards over the years, who use them in their practices. I wanted something that the child takes home, and in fact it was all inspired by a particular child many, many years ago who said to me, "I really like your ideas, but I forget them as soon as I leave. Don't forget I have ADD." And, "Can't you ever write anything down for me? Not just for you?"
Steven Richfield: That kind of triggered a light bulb in my mind, and I thought, yes, let's start writing some thoughts down, some ideas down, and that was the genesis of the coaching cards. And she and I began to draw those pictures and eventually added more to the deck and self-published them back in 1998.
David: Wow. Well, as they've evolved, you've got 20 cards in the deck that are keyed to situations that crop up in a kid's life. And in the book, you have a chapter that covers each of these situations in greater depth. Do I have that right?
Steven Richfield: Exactly, and the chapters also include interviews that were conducted with actual parent coaches in the trenches, so to speak, who had been using the cards for months or years and, when interviewed, provided some anecdotal information that then was woven into the content of each chapter.
David: Well, take us through several of your favorites, either cards and/or chapters. Maybe you can give us some clinical examples as you do so. For example, you mentioned the cantaloupe skin, and maybe that's a place to start.
Steven Richfield: Sure. That's excellent. Well, the cantaloupe skin concept is the notion that many children are over sensitive to perceived hurts or disappointments or difficulties with performance. And those are the children who might be called thin-skinned, might be called reactive or hot-heads, and what I wanted to do was to try to capture this notion and apply a more cognitive vehicle for them to utilize when they're up against something that could injure their pride, another notion. Pride injury, is how I call it.
And what they would do is they would prepare their feeling states by reminding themselves of a success or one of their true strengths so that they could imagine covering themselves up with this pride or this thicker type of cantaloupe skin to deal with the potential wounding that was to come. So I had the notion that, on one side, we would have a picture of a child who was in fact zipping up a suit that looks just like a cantaloupe, while on the corner of the card, you could see a banana skin that had sort of thrown aside, which is the metaphoric over-sensitive skin, the banana peel skin. And that's how the cantaloupe skin concept is supposed to be coached: by helping the child bring that sense of strength and pride up to the surface of their consciousness and imagine themselves kind of covering themselves up as they face a challenge.
David: Well, it sounds like a really neat concept that would be easy for a kid to grab on to. Is there a case example or story that comes to mind in relation to that one?
Steven Richfield: Well, that's interesting because I see kids every day in my practice, and so often they are the inspiration for either another coaching card or, these days, more my parenting articles that I write each month - and there's over 100 of them on my website. But I'm thinking now about a child who was in my office last week, and we were preparing for him to start the baseball season here in the Northeast. It's starting I think this weekend, and this is an extremely frightening step for him to take because he's had some pretty bad experiences with peers who've teased him for being unathletic. So we were preparing him to get his cantaloupe skin on, go out to practice this past weekend, have his mom or dad pitch to him and be prepared to strike out many times, and to miss the ball many times. And in fact that's what happened. But to help him feel success at just trying, no matter how often he caught it or how many times he took the bat and tried to hit the ball but was unable to. So this is a typical way that the cantaloupe skin skill would be coached: the parent, the mother or father, sit down and review the card, then go out in the backyard and periodically remind them, make sure you got your cantaloupe skin on.
David: And so, in this particular case, did the kid report back that…?
Steven Richfield: Well, the kid reported back that he went out and he struck out plenty of times, but he was able to hit the ball and felt a good deal of success, but recognized that this is going to take a lot of time and practice until he gets better. And what he didn't do is he didn't crumble into a wash of tears and emotion. So he took that as a success.
David: Okay, you've got another one in here, a chapter and a card on the theme of quit the clowning. Take us through that one.
Steven Richfield: Quit the clowning grew out of the prevalence of immaturity. In much of my work I see that, because many of these kids are ADHD children who attempt to entertain their peers by inappropriate behaviors and so often distinguish themselves as outcasts or have other uncomplimentary words applied to them. And the notion was to make them aware that getting people to laugh takes a bit of tact and of context and of audience, and it's not that it's always such a bad idea, but you have to keep those factors in mind or your clowning is going to fail miserably. So it's an attempt to help children become more aware of those external factors that determine if they're considered to be a funny kid or an annoying kid.
David: Yes, and that can be a thin line and not always an easy one to distinguish.
Steven Richfield: Exactly, and that's what I'm trying to help them figure out; in my coaching sessions and with the coaching cards, helping impart this information in a sensitive dialog between parent and child, so they can tell where that line should be drawn. And just to give you an example for that: it was actually this morning that I was meeting with a fifth-grader and his mother, and we were discussing just this particular notion of him expressing a funny thought to a friend in the car, but the friend clearly felt offended because of the way it came out. And we talked about ways to pause and not just blurt out whatever funny thought comes to mind, which kind of goes along with another one of my cards, Watch Out When Words Pop Out.
David: Now, I really get what you're doing here and particularly in the case of working with ADHD kids, but let me just play devil's advocate a little bit here once again. As I noted earlier, you focus on getting the child to distinguish between their thinking side and their reactive side, so a lot of this seems geared toward making them pleasant and likeable. And I guess I'm wondering about the danger of squelching spontaneity and uniqueness. Sometimes the biggest societal contributions come from the outsiders rather than the well-liked, and I'm thinking of… what would have happened to Eddie Murphy in school, who probably clowned around?
Steven Richfield: Right. Well, I think that that's very worthwhile to be concerned about that. I think that you're right: there are so many kids in my practice who, over the years, have actually become quite popular because of their sense of humor or have succeeded in school because of their out-of-the-box thinking. So we don't want to make conformists out of them, and certainly you're echoing some of the concerns I've heard over the years of the parents who have emailed me after they've read some of my articles, especially the articles on socialization, because I do stress conformity in some of my articles, and I think, by and large, you could make an argument for that's a lot of what runs through these cards - the notion that we have to help our kids know how and when and where to conform. And I emphasize the how, when, and where because, no doubt, we do want our kids to still be children and still enjoy the joys and spontaneity of life, but they have to - in my eyes - know when and how to rein it in as well, or else some of that joy and spontaneity is going to turn to tears and rejection because they'll be labeled and stigmatized by certain inappropriate behaviors. In our society, I think some of those inappropriate behaviors can stick for a long time to come.
David: Oh, yes. I've seen them. I've seen them back when I was involved in encounter groups and therapy groups, and you can see that some people just set themselves up to be scapegoated and it probably goes way back to childhood.
Steven Richfield: I believe so, and then others don't forget those behaviors, and they get tagged with those labels and become stigmatized and ostracized.
David: Yes. You know, one of the chapters that I really liked was the one titled "Show Your Love for People, Not Just for Stuff." I've been very interested in the positive psychology movement, and one of the findings from that is that it's not material goods that bring us happiness really; it's our relationships that are most important, and this one seems to hit on that point. Tell us a bit about that.
Steven Richfield: Well, it's interesting because that's a card which a lot of kids at first are puzzled by because it hasn't occurred to them that some of the strong, emotional attachments that they feel sometimes are squelched by the conflict at home or the wish to collect possessions. So it's an attempt to remind them that, despite all the technology, time, and wonderful playgrounds of equipment that each home has these days in the middle class, there's other gratifying parts of the world, namely our relationships with parents, siblings, and peers. And I don't think a lot of the time is spent in schools these days, especially public schools, on teaching acts of kindness and ways to compliment and be attuned to the feelings of others. So it's an attempt to get that dialog going.
David: Yes, and that's a really important dialogue.
Steven Richfield: Yes, it is. And I think it sometimes just is not given enough attention. It's given short shrift. So sometimes what parents will do is, when the child is reacting too harshly to a sibling… I mean, oftentimes I find that in my clinical work, I pull this card out when there's conflict among siblings, and oftentimes it's about video games, to be frank with you. That it's marginalized - the younger sibling who doesn't have the power to extract his sibling from the game console or control things - or it has led to some booming conflict or actual physical aggression. So I'll pull that card out of the deck and say, "Hey, let's take a look at this." And then the parent will join in and will try to set the perceptions a little bit more on a course of what's valuable in life: the feelings of your sibling or your parent, or whether you crack a code on a game.
David: So the card is then really a springboard or a stimulus for a discussion.
Steven Richfield: Excellent, that's exactly the word I use, in fact, in my book and in the parenting packet, is springboard. That's really is all I'm trying to achieve here. I'm not trying to have all the answers; I'm trying to get a dialog going of a different type of substance.
David: And the book really is for the parents, and the cards are simple enough that the kid has some memory hooks to help them recall this for future incidents and future discussions.
Steven Richfield: Exactly. Right. Like the card Don't Take the Bait. On one side that's all you see, is the four words "don't take the bait" along with the picture. But the notion is to create that memory hook - that's a nice way of putting it - so when the child's in school, and a peer is, for instance, using a white board - which happened just in session last night - a kid that I work with told me about his classmate taking a whiteboard and pretending it was a surfboard and him getting into trouble. And then, while he was sitting down with me, he realized he took the bait, because he followed right along.
David: So it gives you language that you can talk about these behaviors as they occur in the future. You can remind them, "Well, remember what we said about don't take the bait?"
Steven Richfield: Exactly. What I have them do is I have them start a coaching journal that utilizes the coaching cards but will follow a specific format: so that we take the four letters S T O P - and that acronym stands for Situation Trap Outcome and Prevention - meaning that we would have the child and parent, or the child and I, or even the child themselves, document what took place, put it in a journal with a date, and periodically review it so that they have these memories more as guiding lights for them in the future not to hopefully repeat these mistakes over and over again as so many ADHD kids do.
David: Right. Now, one of the last chapters in the book talks about kids with special needs. Can you say something about that, about coaching kids with special needs?
Steven Richfield: Sure. Well, my population, though mostly ADHD, also includes many children with Asperger's, many children who are oppositional defiant, many children who are depressed or anxious, and by and large, these cards can all be readily used by all those kids as well, with a sensitivity, though, to their unique circumstances. So, for instance, the Asperger's child: they're going to need a lot more attention to the grey areas of socialization. So a card like Stay Tuned In is vitally important to key in on, and that could take much of the time you're spending coaching as a parent, helping them recognize boundaries. There's another card which is Know When to Back Off; or being more able to manage flexibility, so there's a card Be Flexible, because these kids are often very rigid about their expectations and being able to change course. So you'll find that, depending upon the child's circumstances, certain cards are going to take front and center more than others.
David: I notice that earlier that you said that you've heard other psychologists and so on who are using these cards, and I can see where it would be a valuable tool for them.
Steven Richfield: Well, they've also been incorporated into a group counseling program. So, years ago, I was approached by a nonprofit here in the suburbs of Philly that had some donor money and asked me if I would develop a curriculum so they could take the cards and train groups of children at a time, and if I'd be willing to also train their therapists. So I did so, and now the group curriculum is available, and so I've had numerous school counselors and psychologists around the country who've decided to incorporate the cards into their practices and then offer group counseling for anywhere from six to eight children while also training their parents. So much of this can really be assimilated into a psychologist's repertoire, just with a little reading.
David: Yes, I can really see that. Are you continuing to generate new cards? Is this evolving? Will there be a second deck or an enlarged deck?
Steven Richfield: I have countless other cards. What I haven't done is I haven't taken the next step, which is to publish them as I did the first 20 cards, but what I have is maybe another 100 that I've written with children since then.
David: Oh, wow.
Steven Richfield: And I find that having the first 20, if it's in your office as a psychologist, gives your child patients the inspiration to develop their own and take ownership that way.
David: Oh, that's fascinating. I like that idea.
Steven Richfield: I think it's actually more valuable for the child when they see their own artwork.
David: Definitely. Well, as we wind down, is there anything else you'd like to say?
Steven Richfield: Well, just that I'd be interested in hearing from any parents or psychologists who would like to discuss this further. My website address is parentcoachcards.com. They can also feel free to call me at 610-238-4450. I'm always open to any kind of collaboration with professionals around the world.
David: Well, that's very generous. Well, Dr. Steven Richfield, thanks so much for being my guest today on Wise Counsel.
Steven Richfield: It was my pleasure, David. Any time.
David: I hope you enjoyed this interview with Dr. Steven Richfield. I believe that the tools he has developed could be of use to parents and therapists alike, as his experience suggests. Dr. Richfield and his wife Karen, who is also a therapist, have a private practice in a suburb of Philadelphia. If you wish to purchase the book, cards, or the coloring book, or for more information, you might want to visit their website at www.parentcoachcards.com, or you can call them at 610-238-4450.
You've been listening to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by CenterSite.net.
If you like Wise Counsel, you might also like ShrinkRapRadio, my other interview podcast series, which is available online at www.shrinkrapradio.com. Until next time, this is Dr. David Van Nuys, and you've been listening to Wise Counsel.
Links Relevant To This Podcast:
Steven Richfield's parent coaching cards are available from his website www.parentcoachcards.com. Here is a sample of one of the cards that Dr. Richfield provided to us:
Dr. Richfield's book, The Parent Coach: A New Approach to Parenting in Today's Society, is available through the publishers including Amazon.com.
About Steven Richfield, Psy.D.
Steven Richfield, Psy.D. has successfully worked with countless children and parents for over two decades, focusing his work as a child psychologist on child development, parent education, and the emotional problems of childhood. The product of his work -- based in part on his experiences as the father of two boys, -- has culminated in an innovative approach to parenting. He has developed the "parent coach," publishing a book, coloring book, and an innovative set of Parent Coaching Cards.
His book, The Parent Coach: A New Approach to Parenting in Today's Society, includes a complete set of Parent Coaching Cards. He has been featured in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Sun-Times, Connecticut Post, Hartford Courant, Shreveport Times, Greenville News, Yorkshire Post and numerous educational publications such as Counseling Today and The ADHD Report.
Dr. Richfield has used his on-the-job training as a parent and extensive clinical experience to develop a new parent training model, one that asks parents to switch from "parent cop" to "parent coach." His resulting parenting coach program has received extensive international attention. In addition, in 1999 Dr. Richfield was commissioned by a Philadelphia based charity to develop a school-based curriculum to train teachers and school counselors in ways to coach self-control and social skills to groups of elementary school students. The program, based upon the Parent Coaching Cards, is now in use in hundreds of schools across the nation. The popularity of the program has led foundations in Israel and Malta to ask for and receive permission to translate Parent Coaching Cards into the native language. Mental health groups have requested Dr. Richfield for speaking and training seminars in order to offer clients and therapists a highly practical and effective method to train foster and adoptive parents, social workers, parenting specialists, and childcare workers in various fields.
Dr. Richfield, 50, has shared a private practice since 1988 with his wife, Caryn. He received his doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Hahneman University in 1986, and earned his undergraduate degree in Psychology/Political Science from George Washington University in 1981 with honors (Magna Cum Laude).
He has worked very closely with parents and children who suffer from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Aspergers Syndrome. He has also provided therapy to children with a wide range of behavior disorders. Yet, in all his clinical work the underlying themes of empowering children with coping skills and training parents and teachers in coaching methods are present.