Life of a Year 1 Trainee Educational Psychologist – Lockdown Edition

By Ella Mansfield

woman using her laptop on video call

Photo by Edward Jenner on Pexels.com

In January, I wrote a blog post about what an average week is like for a year 1 trainee educational psychologist at the University of Birmingham. At that point, I had no idea that in a matter of months I would be continuing the course from my parents’ home, writing essays from my childhood bedroom and starting my second placement remotely, having never met any of my new colleagues face to face.

Back in March, the university decided not to continue face-to-face lectures. This was a relief, in a way, as sitting in close proximity to twelve other trainees for six hours a day was beginning to feel a little panic inducing. The news about growing infection rates was becoming more serious and we were all starting to worry about the health of both ourselves and our loved ones. When I was sure there would be no more lectures, I had a hasty  departure from both my shared rental home and the city, one week before lockdown started. I packed up the car with everything I own, and made my way back to Surrey where my parents and boyfriend live.

This was my fourth week at my second placement in Year 1 of my course, in June 2020.

Monday

This morning, I ‘met’ with my placement supervisor via video call to talk about last week’s work and plan for the next few days. Over the last two weeks, we have been co-writing some non-routine statutory casework for a teenager who has had a long history of difficulties in educational settings. The case is complex, as the young person has  multiple learning difficulties and social, emotional, and mental health problems. . Social distancing measures have resulted in some adjusts to practice including the inability to visit the teenager in school to assess their needs. This first-hand information would help to fill gaps in the information we are provided by other professionals, so that we can have a holistic view of the case. Instead, we are planning on contacting the young person and their parents via a phone call..

During our meeting, my supervisor and I also discussed a potential training opportunity. My placement service has set up a helpline for parents to offer support during the pandemic. Having volunteered as a counsellor for ChildLine, a listener for Samaritans and managed a phone counselling service for students, my supervisor suggested that it might be useful to share some of my experiences in the hope that it might help support and improve the educational psychology helpline and other phone support services. We discussed the relevance of my experiences and which areas might be helpful for educational psychologists to hear about. Whilst I’m excited about this project, I’m wary that any content I share with my colleagues must be applicable to what they are doing as there is great demand on their time. .

I spent Monday afternoon working on the outcomes and recommendations for the casework and then had a short peer supervision video conference  with one of the other year 1 trainee educational psychologists  who is on placement at the same local authority. I find these meetings so useful – not just to discuss placement and university, but also for social time and maintaining my own wellbeing.

After work, my boyfriend and I went out for our government-approved exercise – a jog. I decided to force him to run up Box Hill – a famous beauty spot and very steep slope! I instantly regretted it of course, but it was worth it for the views.

Tuesday

This morning I ‘attended’ (via video) a RAG review meeting for a specialist secondary school for pupils with profound and multiple learning difficulties. A RAG review meeting involves the identification and discussion of children within a school who are considered the most at risk, which could be due to things such as bereavement, dangerous behaviour, or domestic issues at home.

The school are  trying to ensure that pupils who are most at risk are in school if possible. Transport is a  problem as many pupils need specialist equipment and travel long distances to get to class. The staff appear to be under a great deal of strain as they try to continue as normal whilst working in shifts, maintaining social distancing where they can whilst also  catering for the pupils themselves as the school kitchens are  closed. All this with little or no PPE, causing concerns about their own health and the health of their families. I’m looking forward to being part of these meetings on a weekly basis as this has taught me a lot about the lived experience of school staff and pupils during this difficult time. School is so important for these pupils, not just for learning but also for social experience, routine, specialist support, parent respite, nutrition and community inclusion.

This evening I phoned around some local farms  to try to source some chickens for my parents. My boyfriend and I have been building a chicken coop in the garden from an old swing set and recycled fence panels. It’s not beautiful but we think it should keep the foxes out!

Wednesday

Today, I mostly focused on my training for educational psychologists on helpline services. As I was wary that some might not find the content of my training applicable to their role, I decided to create a short survey to gauge interest.. I sent it off in the morning and got some lovely feedback from my colleagues about how refreshing it was to complete a questionnaire in under a minute! I was pleased to see that all respondents  suggested that they thought the training would be useful. The topics they were most interested in learning about were helpline frameworks, supervision and aural active listening techniques. Now, I suppose, I need to get on with planning it!

During the afternoon, we had a team meeting, chaired by the Senior Educational Psychologist who manages the team. The meetings would usually be fortnightly, but due to the pandemic they’ve become a weekly occurrence. I’ll be honest, I’ve found them a little disorientating, but it’s normal to feel a bit lost when you first start a new placement, simply because you don’t know people’s names or interests and the topics of discussion are different at each Educational Psychology Service. However, when you don’t know what anyone looks like, let alone whose voice is whose, it can be even more confusing! I’ve been trying to let the information wash over me and be at peace with the idea that I don’t need to know everything and everyone all at once. I tend to write down words and phrases I don’t understand and either look them up or ask my supervisor about them later on.

Thursday and Friday

Thursday and Friday are our study days. I’ve been trying hard to keep these days completely separate and use them to only work on things for university. I’m currently writing an essay about the unique role of the educational psychologist in working with children with low-incidence complex individual needs. I chose this topic as, for me, this year has largely been about understanding the educational psychology role and I was keen to know more about how it differed from other specialist roles. Educational psychologists have a  broad skill set which doesn’t lend itself to a clear role description when collaborating with other specialists  There are certain functions which are unique to the educational psychology role. Collaborative communication with others and skill in building rapport means that educational psychologists are well-placed to gather information and make change in a range of environments, including the child’s school, home and community. Psychological knowledge is therefore a  strength, meaning that interventions and approaches can be tailored to the child as an individual.

Ella is a Year 2 trainee on the initial training course for educational psychologists at the University of Birmingham.

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.