Not just a way to get resources

30th March 2001 at 01:00
Martyn Long gives a step by step account of what happens when he goes into a school as an educational psychologist

Educational psychologists are there to help schools with their special needs children. If you have any pupils with significant problems, they can be referred for assessment, advice and support.

When a psychologist comes into school, a link person - such as the headteacher or the Senco (special needs co-ordinator) - will usually set up the process. In secondary schools, it can be difficult for a psychologist to see subject teachers, so they often work through the Senco or other pastoral staff. Primary teachers usually have a meeting to discuss their concerns. Your headSenco will tell you when the psychologist is going to be in school and what is planned.

Most psychologists will want to observe a child while you're teaching them, particularly with younger pupils and those who show disruptive behaviour, or poor concentration and attention. This may seem daunting, but they will really be looking at how the pupil responds to different classroom situations, not criticising your teaching.

Sometimes we want to see children individually to assess their attainments and abilities. This typically involves key academic skills such as literacy, and general abilities such as language-based attainments. In the past, psychologists have been associated with IQ testing. This is now less common due to recognition of the limited meaning of such single measures and concerns about the negative effects of labelling children. However, psychologists still often find it useful to gauge a child's level of general verbal knowledge and understanding. After all, this has a direct impact on their ability to cope with the concepts that are part of curriculum work.

Some psychologists believe in the importance of specific abilities. They might, for instance, argue from their tests that a child has a particular difficulty with short-term memory. This might be the case, but it is worth querying the importance of such measures in terms of the child's educational progress. A child's performance on a memory test, for example, is probably largely the result of their familiarity with the letters, words or numbers involved. It is also affected by any strategy they might use. Both of these can be modified with appropriate experiences.

With respect to reading, it would be more useful to assess a child's awareness of separate sounds and their ability to learn new ones. These could then be used as a basis for development.

We often need a secluded place to assess children one to one. A medical or staff room is ideal, although such places are nowadays often claimed by support workers. I am increasingly forced to work with children in corridors and dining halls. Luckily, the children don't seem to mind.

Most of us believe that you and any support staff involved are the key source of information about a child. You are the ones who will be able to make any of the changes we recommend. Of course, you are busy teaching and it can be hard to get cover so that a full discussion can take place. I usually try to talk to teachers at break times, although even this can be difficult if you have a playground duty. I find it useful to chat with a teacher at these times and also observe the child demonstrating the hyperactive, aggressive or withdrawn behaviours that we are talking about:

"Look, there he goes now!" Psychologists only get involved with children when there is parental permission. We usually interview the parents and review the child's status, home background and future needs. As you can imagine, if the parents feel anxious or threatened in some way, they can sometimes be critical of the school - and you. It's the psychologist's job to get beyond this by always listening to concerns, and sometimes soaking up an initial tirade. But then one brings parents and teachers together to identify what can be done to make progress.

After seeing a child, the psychologist normally gives feedback to the school and parents, usually in the form of a report. This might review the background to the referral, the child's intellectual and academic abilities, and his or her social and behavioural adjustment. Ideally, there should be a final section about what actions might be necessary to address any problems.

Such reports can be quite weighty and take time to write. They must be accurate, as they are increasingly used in legal situations. Sometimes these are special needs tribunals, at which parents appeal against the provision that's being made for their child. Or they can be court cases in which ex-pupils query whether the schooling they received met their needs, such as dyslexia.

In the short term, more rapid feedback than a report often comes in the form of a brief review with some key action points.

Psychological assessments are sometimes criticised for saying what teachers already know. We might comment: "Paul therefore evidently has EBD (emotional and behavioural difficulties) and has relatively limited conceptual abilities."

And you might reply:"Yes, I already know he's stroppy and not very bright!" But at least we now agree what Paul's problems are. Perhaps this could form the basis for what is going to happen next.

Many psychologists adopt a "consultative" approach, which emphasises the possibility of change, and the involvement and commitment of key people in a child's life. A psychologist using this perspective would want to spend time working with you and, in talking, reflect back your understanding to you. He or she will also prompt you or others for ideas about systems to improve things. It should be easy to spot psychologists doing this. They will be quite non-directive and avoid giving their opinions.

Another approach is to treat a referral from a school as a problem to be tackled and solved. A difficult child would therefore not just be labelled "EBD". There might be an attempt to set up a behavioural programme to make the pupil more manageable and in tune with what is expected. A refinement of this is to focus on possible solutions, rather than dwelling on what is wrong. This can mean identifying intermediate objectives and strategies through examining times when the problem is not present.

Although teachers value these approaches and they do help children, they are hard to implement if people only see psychologists as a source of possible additional resources. Frequently a psychological assessment is necessary to get a child a statement of special educational needs. These are lengthy procedures and account for just over a quarter of psychologists' time.

Statements are given to about 3 per cent of all children, with about a third of these being educated in special schools. It may seem better for children with special needs to be educated in such schools. They have smaller classes, expert teachers and a curriculum and educational context at their level. But most research indicates that the attainments of such children in the ordinary school are at least as good as similar children in special schools. And often important social considerations mean individual cases must be looked at carefully.

Today there is an increased emphasis on the idea of inclusion. This implies normal schools should be able to incorporate all children, without labelling them with special needs. Many teachers therefore worry they will be forced to keep in their classes children whose problems they can't manage. Psychologists should be able to help and advise in such situations.

Educational psychologists are qualified and experienced teachers, as well as having a first degree in psychology and a higher degree in educational psychology. They generally sympathise with the difficulties teachers face, and are aware of the competing pressures on them.

There are changes in the air that are likely to affect special needs and the way teachers can deal with them. LEAs will, for instance, have to delegate increased amounts of money directly to schools. This will probably mean a decrease in centralised support services. Psychological services may be spared as they are too small to be much of a saving, and are also useful to help children and protect LEAs from potential litigation. Schools may end up with more money to spend, but may need support to decide the nature of special provision and to assess and review the needs of children. So it seems likely that the educational psychologist will continue to have role in schools throughout your career.

Martyn Long works as an educational psychologist in Cambridgeshire. His research-based book The Psychology of Education is published by Routledge Falmer for pound;16.99. It is linked with a website at www.psych-ed. org, where you can download resources and techniques, and read reviews.

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