Reflections on my first year of training as an educational psychologist

By Dawn Dance

Finding our more about the role

In my previous working life I had never met an educational psychologist despite working for nearly ten years in a Post 16 and secondary school setting. As part of my application I had the chance to talk to some educational psychologists and to read about the role but I struggled to make sense of what that meant in practice. Being on the course and my placements has shaped my understanding of the role of an educational psychologist. Here I want to share some of the key aspects of my learning during my first year of training.

Early Days

During my first weeks of lectures I began to realise that educational psychologists don’t just do tests! I was introduced to dynamic assessment and other models that offer alternative ways to gather information to help me to connect with and understand a child or young person. This is important to me, because some children and young people just don’t ‘do’ tests (there’s a reason why we’re advocating for them). I can see that some tests might have a role in educational psychology practice, but they don’t have to be the first port of call.

When I started my first placement I was concerned about needing to appear to have all of the answers to hand (I do wonder if some of my ideas might have stemmed from other professionals’ perception of educational psychologists). My first placement supervisor (in particular) helped me to understand that my strategies don’t all have to work as  that I can re-visit them. This was a great relief!

Other Reflections on my Learning

Communication: One thing I quickly realised is the necessity of being observant and a good communicator! Communication underpins the role of the educational psychologists, who must connect very quickly with people from all backgrounds and professions.

Consultation: Before my first placement, I imagined consultation as having a ‘chat’, but have since discovered that consultation isn’t just a series of conversations, it’s purposeful. It’s structured and designed to gather information that will help to think about the problem that has been raised.

Problem solving: This concept spans multiple contexts and the use of frameworks for practice are recommended for trainees (the Interactive Factors Framework is a favourite tool of mine to use). This is to help them to consider all aspects of the systems that sit around the child. The more I use the frameworks, the more it helps me to intentionally reflect on what I’ve observed and heard.

Voice of the Child: I’ve always considered the voice of the child to be important to my practice and quickly realised that a person-centred approach is paramount to the EP role. The role of the educational psychologist is to ensure that the voice of the child is woven through the assessment process and reflexively checking that the child’s or adult gatekeeper’s voice permeates every part of our work.

Training: I had the opportunity to train local authority employees in the use of applied psychology and this was a great feeling. Firstly, because if they apply what they learned we are able make a difference to the lives of the children and young people that they support. Secondly, we’re demonstrating our commitment, as outlined in the SEND Code of Practice (2015) to working with other professionals.

Research: I was able to contribute to a small-scale study investigating the evolving role of EPs in a local authority service during COVID-19. This is intended to inform future practice in the service and has shown me how educational psychologists can be part of influencing systemic change.

Final thoughts

My experiences in Year 1 of the training course have given ‘life’ to the picture that I had in my head about what an educational psychologist does. I’ve begun to realise that we have the capacity to work holistically, from an individual to systemic level, so that all children and young people can benefit from our applied psychology.

An educational psychologist has many tools that they can use to promote children’s development and learning, but how this is done is very much a professional and personal decision. To quote Shakespeare: “This above all: to thine own self be true”. and my newly acquired understanding of the educational psychologist has given me the opportunity to do so.

Dawn is a Year 2 trainee on the initial training course at the University of Birmingham.

 

 

Social Media: understanding the experiences of children and young people

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By Joanne Mumford

On Friday 8th November, 2019, the University of Birmingham hosted a 3-cohort day for trainees on the initial training course for educational psychologists. The focus was on social media and how it is used by children and young people with whom we work. It concluded with a discussion around how educational psychologists can support schools, families and children and young people themselves to use the internet, and particularly social media, in a safe and effective way.

Dr Anna Lavis began the day talking about her research, which explored the use of social media for young people experiencing episodes of self-harm. The relationship between online self-harm and social media is highly contested, with little known about why those who self-harm might use social media, what they post online and why? There are also differences between different social media platforms that are used in different ways.

To try and find out more about this, Anna explored the views of young people who currently, or previously, had used self-harm as a coping strategy, and the ways in which the use of a social media platform linked to this.  She found that a key theme of the use of social media for those who self-harmed was how it was used for peer support. Users offered hope and companionship to others at times when they felt alone and isolated. Anna suggested that we need to find ways to create an environment where young people do not feel shamed, defeated or punished for self-harming. We need to be able to have open and non-judgemental conversations, where self-harm is recognised as a coping strategy for deeper difficulties, which need additional exploration and support.

Next, we were joined by Rebecca Tigue, Deputy Principal of the University of Birmingham School, who talked about the positive and negative impact of social media within secondary school settings. She gave an overview of how the University of Birmingham school curriculum seeks to develop responsible cyber-citizenship. Rebecca highlighted the risks of social media, including cyber-bullying, ‘screen time’, immediacy and constant connection associated with online communication, social media ‘friendships’, and the impacts of social media on sleep, amongst others.

Rebecca told us that work with their pupils also highlighted the benefits which young people gained from the internet and social media, including advice gained online, inspirational talks, homework and group chats, the ability to stay socially connected and access to resources online. As social media is an integral part of most young people’s lives, and it is for us, as professionals, to look at how we can support and encourage this in a ‘healthy’ way.

In the afternoon, Zoe Capper, a trainee educational psychologist at the University of Birmingham, described some research she has completed as part of her placement. Zoe collected the experiences of children and young people in order to develop training for school staff on social media and mental health. Zoe found that young people demonstrated an awareness of how to stay safe online, such as the dangers of talking to strangers online and keeping profiles and personal information private. The young people also highlighted their desire to be able to talk to school staff, parents and supportive adults about things that have happened online, without being dismissed, shamed, or judged for their use of social media.

This led to some lively discussions between the trainee educational psychologists about our own work. Although training is something that we are well equipped to deliver, we felt that the young people with whom we work are the experts in the field of social media. It therefore seems sensible to utilise their experiences when talking about social media, placing their voice at the centre of what we do in terms of looking at social media use. We can use this knowledge to support schools and families to promote the use of social media in a positive way, whilst being aware of the dangers associated with this and how to manage them. Whether we like it or not, social media is embedded in the lives of our young people; many of them will have not experienced a life without it and we need to take this into account in our work with young people.

Jo is a trainee educational psychologist currently in Year 2 of the initial training course for educational psychologists at the University of Birmingham.

Further guidance for schools on the impact of social media on health and well-being  from researchers at the University of Birmingham can be found here. And details of a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) on Optimising Social Media for Youth Health and Wellbeing can be found here.

The Lived Experience of Gang Membership

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By Tom Boden

The role of gangs and gang membership in young people’s lives have recently received an increasing amount of political and media attention. Alarming statistics have been published suggesting an increased prevalence of young people involved with gangs. The Children’s Commissioner reported that an estimated 27,000 children identify as being part of a gang. As described in our recent blog post more educational psychologists are working with Youth Offending Teams with opportunities to work with young people who may be involved with or be vulnerable to gang membership.

Yet, establishing a clear understanding of the incidence and nature of gang membership is difficult due to a range of methodological challenges in research. Definitions of what a “gang” is are not clear as they can range from international organised crime syndicates to young people hanging around in the street. There no clear delineation of where a “gang begins, and a group of mates dressed in sportswear ends”. In many definitions gangs are associated with involvement in criminal behaviour.

I became interested in the experiences of young gang members, as their views are often overlooked. To do this I looked for research studies that capture the lived experiences of young gang members who have offended. I found six published research papers that looked at the experiences of young people and analysed them for common themes.

In summary the themes from the young people were:

  • The gang as a site of belonging

One of the most consistent findings within my research was the importance of the role of the gang as a community of belonging. This was linked to an increase in social status and feelings of respect, worth and pride. This sense of belonging was reinforced using symbolic collectives such as gestures, attire and language. These demonstrated allegiance to a group social identity and reinforced expected norms of conduct and social order.

  • The gang as a provider

This was associated with both the ability to gain material resources and the role of the gang as a protector. Gang members discussed how the gang helped to protect them from other groups or contexts where there was increased exposure to and fear of crime and anti-social behaviour. It was also associated a sense of vocational value and entrepreneurialism with ‘enterprising activities’ within the gang, contributing to an improved sense of self.

  • Gangs and living within oppressive contexts

Gang membership is linked to a lack of economic opportunity, stereotyped, or racist discourses and unstable families. Many young gang members had experience of rejection such as exclusion from school and for some, experiences of the care system. Therefore, the gang provided a space where they could resolve the ‘social stress’ created from such adverse experiences.

My research suggests that practitioners such as educational psychologists working with young people associated with gangs should consider the voice and lived experience of young people. Another implication from my research is that the focus of intervention should be altering the environment around young people to address the social factors that may lead them to value gang membership.

I would also like to see the young people themselves bringing their lived experiences to panels or policy around youth crime. My research highlights the importance of starting from a point where individuals and communities are enabled to provide their views and change the oppressive narratives that focus upon individual deficit and the inevitability of outcomes. We need to co-develop participatory, meaningful and lasting intervention across the systems and assets around the young person, their family and community. This is most likely to produce the most sustained impact, giving young people the opportunities they need to develop a belief that they have a say in their environment. This should involve coordination across systems and include everyone from employers, community organisations, families, individuals to health, educational and youth justice services.

There are some promising movements towards this way of working within the Youth Justice System. The Good Lives Model, for example, provides a strength-based framework that focuses on a young person’s orientation towards set of ‘primary human goods’ and their ‘routes’ or means of accessibility to acquiring these goods. This allows for a person centred ‘Good Lives Plan’ to be co-developed and worked towards with the young person. There are also some emergent examples of this on a policy level, including the integration of Article 12 of the United Nations Conventions for Rights of the Child within the Youth Justice Board’s Participation Strategy. Here the Youth Justice Board have committed to make “every aspect of our work to be an opportunity to consider the voices of young people”. This is a positive step and more needs to be done ensure that policy represents an evidence-based welfare and rights orientated approach rather than one that increases the agency of the young person.

Tom is a Year 3 trainee on the initial training course for educational psychologists at the University of Birmingham.

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“We can’t just ask them something and expect them to tell us”

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By Litsa Cosma

This week is Pupil Voice Week across the UK and schools are being encouraged to help their pupils to “Use Their Voice”. Being able to support children and young people to express their views has long been regarded as a key part of what educational psychologists do. While this appears to be straight forward, finding out what children and young people think can be challenging and complex.

When I worked as a graduate psychologist one of my main tasks was to gather the views of pupils who were having transfer reviews (moving from having a Statement of Special Education Needs to the new Education and Health Care Plans). I worked with pupils who had many different additional needs and I became particularly  interested in pupils who had been categorised as having social and emotional difficulties. I realised that these pupils often found it difficult to talk about how they felt. Sometimes this was about a difficulty building rapport, as many of these pupils found it difficult to trust adults. Also as I was meeting them only once there was little time to develop a relationship with them.

When the pupils were able to talk to me about their views I found they had a lot to say and was able to gather information I that was helpful and relevant for their reviews. I found it useful to use a variety of methods to collect information and not to expect that pupils would find it easy to tell me their views. The materials produced by Helen Sanderson Associates to be used in Person Centred Planning were particularly useful. They provided a structure to support my conversations with the pupils.

This work helped me to understand  that there are some groups of pupils whose voices are less easy to access and this knowledge has been invaluable since I became a trainee educational psychologist. I was therefore interested in research conducted by Clarke, Boorman and  Nind (2013) who worked with girls who had been excluded from school. Given that these girls are in a minority often their voice is not “heard” in stories of exclusion.

There was some similarity with the work that I had done, as the researchers used both “task-centred” and “talk-centred” approaches. In my work I also had to judge if a young person was comfortable and able to talk to me or if they preferred doing an activity that thye could talk about. The Person Centred Planning materials enable me to take a “task-centred” approach that was helpful with pupils who found talking to an adult difficult or threatening.

Clarke et al. (2013) were also able to use digital approaches that reflected activities that the girls were familiar with and that caught their interest. One example was the use of a “Big Brother” style diary room. The logistics of these kinds of approaches are difficult for educational psychologists to use in our day to day work. Despite this, they may provide some inspiration for thinking of innovative ways to develop our practice, especially as more educational psychologists begin to use video in their work.

Having an effective approach to gathering the views of pupils requires us to be child centred and mindful of what interests the children and young people that we work with. Focusing upon this may help us to find new and innovative solutions to capturing “pupil voice” in our work.

Litsa is a trainee educational psychologist currently in year 2 of the University of Birmingham training course.

Reference

Clarke, G., Borrman, G. & Nind, M. (2013). “If they don’t listen I shout, and when I shout they listen”: Hearing the voices of girls with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties. British Educational Research Journal, 37 (5), 765-780.

You can find a Person Centred Planning resources from Helen Sanderson Associates here

 

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