Channelling strengths in young people

Tina Rae on her work as an educational and child psychologist.

I have worked as an educational and child psychologist since 2001 – initially within local authority services. But, after eight years, I felt strongly that I wanted to again engage in more direct work with children, young people and their families.

I had previously worked for 16 years in special and mainstream educational contexts and developed a specialism in the areas of wellbeing and positive psychology approaches and curricula. Working with the most complex young people was a humbling and truly creative experience. I was definitely challenged to develop my thinking and skillset and to move very much from the child deficit model to one in which we actually identify, develop and channel strengths.

I have always felt that we, as psychologists, have a moral imperative to foster the wellbeing, happiness and overall development of all our young people – but particularly those for whom life has presented some very real, complicated and often traumatic challenges. I think that part of our role,or possibly most of it, should focus on how we help them to survive and then flourish, even in the face of such challenges and difficulties.

This has led me to adopt an approach that supports the development of practice-based evidence and encourages the development of programmes of support that are truly engaging and that also make a real difference to the lives of young people. Providing them with skills to enable them to be autonomous within an increasingly complex context is a priority for me in my work.

The recent intervention for girls and young women developed within a residential school for pupils with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties is probably a good example of this approach to intervention. A group of girls and young women who were presenting with a range of behaviours that were felt to be putting them at risk – both emotionally and physically in a wide range of contexts – was identified. The general discourse around these young women appeared to be one of negativity, in that they were regarded as putting themselves at risk due to their daily behaviour and self-harming behaviours.

It was therefore felt appropriate to conduct a series of focus groups in order to elicit the girls’ views: What was it that they felt concerned about and what kind of intervention or support at a school-based level might they consider most helpful? The idea was to conduct a piece of research to then inform the subsequent intervention.

This resulting ‘Girls’ Curriculum’ consequently aims to promote wellbeing by building positive relationships within a nurturing and child-centred approach. This builds upon resilience and protective factors within the school context. The main tenets of the model adopted include taking into account the individual needs of each member, looking at the reasons behind different behaviours rather than reacting to the behaviours themselves, and promoting the right of the young person to choose and communicate, whilst accepting these choices and not basing judgements upon them. The key aim of the 16-session programme is to build a therapeutic environment that allows and promotes autonomy, emotional resilience and open communication.
So how does such a programme/approach also inform my work with Compass Fostering in terms of supporting foster carers and social workers? Where is the overlap or consistency in terms of the philosophical and theoretical approach?

Foster carers and social workers at Compass are provided with a training package that incorporates core elements including the ways in which attachment theory can and should inform practice. Recent developments in neuropsychology are highlighted in terms of the ways in which they can support the development of positive, secure relationships and behaviours. The need to adopt a strengths-based approach emanating from positive psychology is central here.

This is an innovative and exciting approach and unique to the organisation. What is also unique about the support and training offered to foster carers and social workers is the focus on developing peer support systems and the resilience of both the child and the carer through access to Compass consultation. This is delivered by psychologists (myself and, under my supervision, our wonderful Year 3 students at the University of East London) whose practice is grounded in positive psychology and attachment theory and who use a strengths-based and solution-focused problem-solving framework. Sessions are offered on both an individual level and in group contexts.

An interesting link here with the work on the Girls’ Curriculum is the recent request from foster carers for a group session focusing specifically upon self-harm and problematic sexual behaviour, issues around anxiety and the need to build and foster a more strengths-based and problem-solving approach. The exciting element for me here was the opportunity to empower carers and enable them to move from negative cycles of thinking to accentuating what they can and were actually doing that made a positive difference. Again the links here with our work on the doctoral course are also clear: it is this solution-focused skillset and ability to effectively use appreciative inquiry whilst asking the ‘right’ questions – the notion of the psychologist as coach – that we feel we can and do promote with our students.

If the work that I engage in can produce positive outcomes for the students, carers and social workers I support, then this must be a ‘result’. And a good one that sits well with the objective of a positive psychologist who wants to truly make a difference to the wellbeing of individuals and groups in the social and learning contexts. This is a privileged position to be in, and I do not take for granted the fact that working with human beings in this way is a special, unique and often humbling experience. People never fail to impress and surprise me with their humanity and kindness and ability to inspire and enthuse.

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