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Educational and developmental

Working in educational and developmental psychology

By Darren Stops

Many of the steps that led me to this area of psychology were not planned. I had intended to research the link between psychology, the brain and the immune system, but a severe car accident in the first week of my Honours year forced some major changes to these plans.

My undergraduate qualification opened up a broad range of psychology career options but while I had perhaps more than enough ‘knowledge', I needed higher-level training to be able to apply what I knew. Opportunity came my way when I was offered a place in a new MPsych (Ed) course at the University of Tasmania.

One of the greatest advantages of working as an educational and developmental psychologist dealing with children from kindergarten to grade 11 is the variety of tasks and casework. For me, my daily activities depend on whether I am in a primary or secondary school. A primary school day focuses on observation and the assessment of learning problems, working with teachers to implement strategies to help students, with a small component of counselling or group work. A secondary school is very different - almost the opposite in fact - and a typical day would involve many cases, such as the following examples:

  • Discussing strategies with a year eight pupil for dealing with bullying behaviour and how he can use the skills to ensure he is not bullied in his new school.
  • Working with a highly intelligent and articulate girl in year nine with a history of depression and self mutilation. She attends regular sessions with a mental health social worker, is on medication and has benefited greatly from the counselling therapies we have used.
  • Meeting a year nine boy with severe anxiety and social phobia. Different therapeutic approaches have seemingly not had much effect but he keeps coming back for counselling support, and his attendance at school has increased.
  • Counselling a year seven student, referred for ‘behaviour problems', who seems unaware of his behaviour. We discuss basic strategies for "keeping off teachers' radar" and make an appointment to assess his cognitive and academic abilities.

I believe that using psychological skills to help the development of young people has a greater chance of affecting their outcomes, compared to working with entrenched mental health issues in adults.

A high degree of developmental understanding is the key to successful counselling intervention, so that the appropriate strategy can be applied in response to the issues. In particular, I find working across departments to diagnose and plan for students with a disability to be extremely satisfying. The ability to work sensitively with parents and other professionals is paramount in this type of situation and requires significant formal training.

Being a practitioner can be highly rewarding if it fits with your personal values. I have great admiration for the teachers and principals I work with, who are always striving to do their absolute best for the young people in their care.

You have to generally like people, and have respect and empathy for their points of view, irrespective of your own opinions or professional knowledge. Be self-aware, recognise your own thinking and where it comes from, and be able to separate it from your professional role, or integrate it where appropriate. If you feel the need to ‘save' people, or to be an ‘expert' you may meet your needs, but possibly not those of your clients. Be prepared for the fact that you may not be able to help everyone you see.

This field faces many of the same challenges that I believe apply to the profession in general. Most psychologists are highly effective and greatly valued by those who see and understand our work but we are too few! More psychologists in schools could have a hugely positive effect on individual levels of mental well-being and resilience, as well as broadly positive systemic effects. The increase in requests from government schools seem to recognise this, as does the number of non-government schools choosing to increase psychological services, with many opting for full-time psychologists as a minimum level of service.

Our challenge is to promote understanding and recognition of our profession, when we are one of the worst professions at blowing our own trumpet.