An educational experience

Helen Owen attempts to plot a route onto an applied doctorate.

Graduating from Leeds University in 2013 with a First, I remember thinking ‘this is it. I’m on my way. What an enriching, full, brilliant four years I’ve completed.’ I knew I had a long road of studying ahead to becoming an educational psychologist, but I was committed to the task. I did have a dilemma many graduates face, though – do I get straight to working on a career, or do I go travelling (again)? Attempting to meet both my growing determination to get myself on the Applied Child and Educational Psychology Doctorate and my desire to be abroad, I spent a summer garnering experience with children as a Head Camp Counsellor in Ontario, Canada. It was amazing and exhausting in equal measure, and I returned home believing I was in a strong position to start an application for the doctorate. However, three years on, a place on the applied doctorate course remains elusive, and thinking of it still largely dominates my professional life.

Rewind three years, after my summer in Ontario, my first ‘proper job’ was one that my dad, a former secondary head teacher, advised me against. So naturally I took it. The role was a Learning Support Assistant in an Emotional Behavioural Social Difficulties school for 11- to 16-year-olds, mostly boys. At the time of my appointment, I was one of only three female members of staff, and the youngest. If you haven’t spent time in an EBSD school, it’s quite difficult to explain. Set up like a ‘normal’ school with timetabled lessons, break times, and so on, the school is characterised by an overarching focus on individual young people rather than the school as a collective. The staff mould themselves to fit each young person’s needs, creating a more nurturing environment, with the rationale that many of the young people missed out the development of core skills and emotional regulation during their formative years. The predictable unpredictability of behaviour leaves you drawing on all the teaching and behaviour management resources you have – differentiation of work, de-escalation, distraction, but above all listening and attempting to understand the cause of the not-infrequent verbal, and sometimes physical, outbursts. In fact, the staff experience a heady daily mix of exhilaration and genuine anxiety when working with the young people.

I spent every day in the classroom but was assigned the task of developing general literacy skills. This involved one-to-one reading with the young people displaying the most challenging behaviours, who, coincidently, were largely non-attenders. In reality, my ‘reading interventions’ were as much a nurture session as they were a time for reading development. I had a chance to practise my child-centred approach in an environment that was crying out for some kind of regular, tailored, therapeutic intervention. This was a topic frequently debated by staff, always resulting in bafflement that these young people, each with an Education Health Care Plan specifying a range of emotional and behavioural needs, were not supported by a therapeutic action plan to address the very reason they were there.

I think my year and half spent at the EBSD school will always be my favourite job (so far). Many sleepless nights and a hairline fracture to the jaw (the chair flying through the air was not aimed at me) are just a few of the memories, but when I reflect on my time, it’s the achievements of the young people that eclipse everything else. These experiences are what I believe got me to the interview stage last year at the University of Birmingham for the applied doctorate. I was delighted to receive a place on the offer reserve list, fuelling my commitment to keep going. However, my frustration with the lack of psychological input at the EBSD school that was so desperately needed, coupled with my personal frustration with my own lack of formal training in psychological practice, grew as the months went by.

This led me to apply for my current role, in an environment where I could at least be on the periphery of psychological input; I hoped that this would be the ‘start’ of my experience that would lead me on to the sought-after Applied Doctorate in Child and Educational Psychology. I now work within the education team at an inpatient centre for young people with complex mental health, behavioural and emotional needs in Northumberland. The facility provides multidisciplinary inpatient assessment and treatment for young people, including those with a learning disability, and is the first such integrated service of its kind in the country. It has been really interesting working with the teachers to plan and deliver tailored sessions that consider communication levels, appropriate topics, timing of sessions, and reward systems, whilst all the time fitting everything around the young people’s psychology and therapeutic appointments. Maximising the therapeutic and social benefits experienced by young people during the process of their admission to the facility is a priority and something I am very much involved in.

To address the reduction of natural social interaction, due to being in an inpatient service, the Ferndene NHS Trust multidisciplinary team of psychiatrists, psychologists, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists and teachers have created a bespoke social skills programme. It includes a variety of modules and offers an opportunity for the young people to come together as a group to be taught topics such as emotional literacy, relationships and social communication skills. The modules have been designed to enable the young people to develop reflective skills and become aware of their own progress as well as to increase the confidence that can be carried over to other situations. The philosophy of the programme is one
of therapeutic risk management as opposed to risk avoidance, and in many cases where there were concerns of potential risk behaviours, the programme has provided a safe place for conflict resolution and skill building. By its very nature, the multidisciplinary team really does consider individuals holistically, something I try to reflect in my practice, too.

I have made it my aim to try to get a wide variety of experiences since graduating back in 2013. As a result, my views on education, applying psychology in practice and working effectively with young people are continually evolving and being refined; the journal that I have been keeping for some time is a great aid and gives a sharp clarity to professional reflection. I certainly made a few journal entries following my training as a local Community Panel Member in South Tyneside, tasked with creating a contract for a young offender to make amends to a victim of a crime in the name of restorative justice. My involvement in a language development research project at Newcastle University’s Institute of Neuroscience has reminded me what research can unearth and offer to psychology, too.

I’m optimistic that the road ahead is leading me to a future as an educational psychologist. For now, I remain tantalisingly on the outside looking in.

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