Speaking the language of learning

Michelle Kendel, a second-year undergraduate at the University of Reading, spoke to The Psychologist about how her background has influenced her interests.

‘I’m Norwegian by birth but my dad was a director at ADRA – an international development NGO – so we lived in lots of places, including Pakistan. But we were most often based in Norway and England – my parents have settled here now – and we spoke English at home. I speak two languages and am quite fluent in both, so I have a natural interest in bilingualism.

I’ve also never forgotten a story my mother read to me as a child about a child in hospital. The child’s fear when going through medical treatment must have really affected me. My mother may have chosen that story because she is a registered nurse, and her experiences must have influenced my interest in physical health.

Reading books by Torey Hayden, the US author and special educator was a huge influence in deciding me to study psychology. I worked as a nursery assistant and have also taken certificates in counselling for depression, paediatric emergency first aid and child protection.
All of these have given me invaluable experience.

I researched university courses carefully. When it came to it, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed neuropsychology, relating parts of the brain to particular functions. I also found sports psychology very relevant – its emphasis on the relationship between anxiety and poor performance maps exactly on to my interests. I suppose I’m really concerned with children’s non-verbal communication, and therefore CBT will be of less use than techniques such as art and music therapy. I am on the lookout all the time for techniques that can be adapted to the children I’m interested in. I pick up ideas from almost every module on the course and, if I spot a useful idea, talk to tutors and lecturers about it. Like a lot of undergraduates, I’ve found the amount of statistics involved surprising. I don’t really like the research part of the course, but I can see it’s essential to underpin the theories I’m being taught, so whether I enjoy it is rather by the by.

I never thought I’d become an academic – my aim was always to work practically with, probably, 5- to 10-year-olds. Clinical psychology looked a good route but is competitive and difficult to get into. To work with the children I’m interested in, I’d have to step outside the core tasks of an educational psychologist. Chartership takes a very long time. At the moment I’m thinking about qualifying as a play therapist. I had a holiday job as a play worker for the NHS in Reading and, like music therapists, play therapists are much more in demand in hospitals, charities and clinics.

Funding courses is a major issue for students. It’s difficult not to let work and study interfere with each other – better if they are complementary. I did a search for selective mutism and came up with AACT for Children, a new registered charity aiming to encourage children who have difficulty communicating to use IT. I contacted them, got an interview with Ken Carter, their founder, and am now acting as a project officer. I can do the work anywhere, which is marvellous. I’m doing lots of things, but focusing on research into international theories of and approaches to selective mutism and other anxiety states that affect children’s speech and language skills.

On your course you learn what you think is the best or right way to do something. Specific situations need more varied responses. You also learn that while professionals have a certain sort of knowledge, parents, clients and non-professionals have different, but equally valuable, kinds of knowledge.’

I’m lucky to have a job and course that support each other so well. But perhaps you have to work and plan hard to get lucky!’

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