The APS Grant for Intercultural and/or International Projects of up to $10,000 supports innovative projects that have an intercultural and/or international focus, particularly in countries where psychology is an emerging discipline. Associate Professors Linda Gilmore MAPS and Marilyn Campbell MAPS from Queensland University of Technology were awarded the APS Grant in 2010-11. Their project aimed to promote and advance the profession of psychology in Bangladesh by supporting the newly introduced specialisation of educational psychology. With a population of 159 million in a country only twice the size of Tasmania, Bangladesh is one of the poorest and most densely populated countries in the world. Yet at the time this project commenced, there was only one school psychologist in the entire country. Linda Gilmore shared her experiences and insights about the project with InPsych.

How did you come to be involved with the project in Bangladesh and what was your role? 

My first trip to Bangladesh was in 2009, and it happened quite spontaneously following a conference in Singapore. Just before I went there, I searched for a contact who might be interested in an international project about women’s lives. This initial contact led to an invitation to give a week of lectures in the University of Dhaka’s new educational psychology Masters program. I had an amazing time working and socialising with some wonderful Bangladeshi people. I recognised the great need for training and resources to support the educational psychology program, and was keen to find ways of sharing the knowledge and skills we have here in Australia. After a second trip to Bangladesh in 2010, my colleague Marilyn Campbell suggested we apply for the APS Grant to support us to establish an intensive program of training aimed at advancing the practice of educational psychology in Bangladesh. 

Marilyn took the role of coordinating the visit to Brisbane of two educational psychology staff and two Masters students from the University of Dhaka. Our aim was to provide a range of experiences to enhance the training and practice of educational psychology in Bangladesh, including visits to the various sites where educational and developmental psychologists work in Brisbane, classes and workshops, and of course lots of discussions and social interactions aimed at sharing our respective experiences and increasing our understanding of cross-cultural issues. 

My role involved visiting Bangladesh with retired educational and developmental psychologist Heather Mohay, to provide specialised training and to help the educational psychology staff and students establish a sustainable parenting program in the Dhaka slums. Along the way, I received a grant from QUT that enabled me to take three of our Master of Psychology (Educational and Developmental) students to Bangladesh with us. In addition to providing training and overseeing the first weeks of the parenting program, we offered full day workshops on child development, parenting interventions and childhood anxiety. Heather and I delivered keynote addresses at the University of Dhaka’s 3rd International Conference on Educational and Counselling Psychology that (fortuitously!) was timed to coincide with our visit to Dhaka, and the three students presented papers about their thesis research. We also visited the various sites where educational psychologists are likely to be employed in the future. 

How did the APS Grant assist you in your work in Bangladesh (and here in Australia)?

The Grant provided the necessary financial support for the Bangladeshis to come to Australia for training, and for us to travel to Bangladesh. These trips strengthened the University of Dhaka’s training program and produced sustainable outcomes, which include a parenting program, an ongoing program of student exchanges, and continuing professional sharing across the two countries. 

The parenting program targeted mothers of young children aged two to four years in one of the slum areas of Dhaka. Our main objectives were to provide early learning opportunities, to increase parents’ knowledge of child development and involvement in their child’s learning, and to present practical strategies for providing a stimulating development. As one of our main objectives was to stimulate mothers’ feelings of confidence and interest in the parenting role, we translated an established measure of parenting satisfaction and self-efficacy (the Parenting Sense of Competence) into Bangla (the language of Bangladesh) and used this as one of our methods of program evaluation. Like all interventions, particularly those that are implemented in disadvantaged communities, we encountered some glitches. However, staff and students at Dhaka University have been able to make the necessary adjustments and the program is continuing under the guidance of one of the students who is collecting evaluation data as part of her Master’s thesis. 

The student exchange program is now well established. Last year the two Universities (QUT and the University of Dhaka) signed an International Collaboration Agreement, establishing a formal structure for student and staff exchanges and acknowledging the goals of our collaboration and its ongoing nature. In July this year, another three QUT educational and developmental psychology students will be in Bangladesh for two to three weeks of practicum experiences, and we hope more students from Bangladesh will be able to visit us soon. Across the two universities, plans are underway for collaborative educational psychology research, and we continue to share our respective knowledge, skills and expertise in so many different ways.

What are some immediate and/or longer term mental health and wellbeing issues confronting the people of Bangladesh? 

People in Bangladesh have similar developmental problems to those in other developed and less developed countries, but estimated rates are often higher. For instance, intellectual disability is said to affect up to 20 per cent of children aged two to nine years. In addition, many Bangladeshis experience a range of difficulties that are associated with their context, including widespread malnutrition, health problems such as chronic diarrhoea, a primary school dropout rate of 47 per cent, arsenic contaminated water supplies, child labour and early marriage. Children, adolescents and families clearly need support for developmental and educational issues. Indeed, in 2009 the country’s Prime Minister recognised the importance of children’s “balanced mental growth” and announced that “every school should have a school psychologist”. The educational psychology course at the University of Dhaka aims to address this need, and is training psychologists to work also across a range of other areas, including hospitals and disability organisations. 

What kinds of personal qualities and professional skills were most valuable during your time in Bangladesh? 

Working in Bangladesh can be challenging because of the enormous number of people, the unbelievable traffic jams, and the exciting, sometimes overwhelming, sensory experiences of noise and colour, taste and smell. We had to be able to cope in unfamiliar, and occasionally uncomfortable, situations. The heat was intense, the food was spicy (very spicy!), and we had to adjust to a lack of personal time and space. We needed to be fairly adaptable and flexible in this context – and we needed strong facial muscles because we were smiling at people constantly. In Bangladesh everyone is curious about foreigners, so you have to get used to being stared at as if you were a visiting movie star – not at all an unpleasant experience!

In terms of professional skills, being a good communicator is hugely important. We couldn’t always rely on being able to communicate verbally – on the first day of the parenting program I arrived at the site more than an hour before the Bangladeshi educational psychologists and other members of the team (they were all stuck in a massive traffic jam) and I was faced with a roomful of curious mothers ready to get started on the program, none of them understanding English and me with only half a dozen words of Bangla! Being non-judgemental and adaptable are other qualities that are obviously essential for working effectively in different cultural contexts such as Bangladesh where underlying beliefs and values sometimes differ quite dramatically from your own. 

What has the experience meant for you as a person and as a psychologist? 

All of us who were involved in the Bangladesh project have certainly developed an enhanced understanding of cross-cultural differences, and this has led us to reflect on our limited knowledge of other cultures, our personal and professional assumptions about others, our biases, intolerances and weaknesses. As well as our awareness of differences, however, we so often noted the amazing similarities among us – our shared passion for the work we do, similar visions for the future of our profession, and similar experiences in trying to get the message across to other professionals and the community about what psychology is and what psychologists can offer. 

Through the project we developed insights into some of the unique issues faced by psychologists in Bangladesh. As a profession, psychology is not nearly as well established in Bangladesh as it is in Australia, and educational psychology is a very new specialisation. Resources such as the latest versions of standardised tests are seldom available. Access to relevant literature such as international journals is often difficult or impossible, and the limited psychological research conducted to date in Bangladesh means that the evidence base is not necessarily applicable in that context. So I suppose we learned to appreciate the resources we have here in Australia, and we’re very aware of the need to share those resources. On the other hand, we also learned that it is possible to do so much with so few resources! At the various organisations we visited, we were constantly surprised by the resourcefulness, creativity and passion of staff. Organisations such as the Centre for Rehabilitation of the Paralysed, the Dhaka Project School, and Proyash, the special school run by Bangladesh’s military, both amazed and inspired us. 

Our time spent with the Bangladeshis in Brisbane and our experiences while visiting Bangladesh were certainly enormously rewarding personally. I think that the most satisfying and meaningful experiences in life are those in which we connect with others, particularly those who are from different countries and cultures. We have formed close and enduring friendships with so many warm Bangladeshi people – certainly, I think all of us now have many more Bangladeshi friends on Facebook than we do Australians!

Is there a take-home message for us as psychologists here in Australia, and as global citizens? 

We have a professional and personal responsibility to support the practice of psychology in less developed countries. We should be establishing more links with psychologists internationally and sharing our expertise. There are so many ways of doing this, even without any funding. For instance, last month I went on a holiday to Sri Lanka, and I spent the first part of the trip volunteering – in a school and a special school, a girls’ home and an orphanage. Although brief, these experiences gave me considerable insights into another cultural context, and hopefully I was able to make a small contribution to the wellbeing of children in that country. Sending psychology students to undertake part of their practicum experiences in a less developed country is another way that we can share our knowledge and expertise globally, while at the same time enhancing the students’ own professional and personal development. We should also be collaborating and supporting research in less developed countries in order to extend the existing evidence base to a more global perspective. 

Thanks to Heather Gridley for arranging this interview.

The call for applications for the 2012 APS Grant for Intercultural and/or International Projects.

In Psych June 2012