Free article: A day in the life ... of an educational psychologist

Published: Tuesday, 11 February 2014

In the first of a regular feature, we look at what a usual day holds for a professional who works with children with special educational needs.

Here the educational psychologist Xavier Eloquin takes us through his day.

I usually wake up at around 6.30 in the morning. If I am at home I lie there thinking I should go to the gym, until our youngest son comes in to our bed at around 7.30. By then it is too late, and after a bit of a chat I get up, breakfast and look at my diary.

No day is ever the same as an EP, although the cuts to local authority budgets have seen a move towards more and more statutory work, mainly statements of special educational needs. I tend to pack files and any equipment I need the night before and head straight to a school, rather than going to the office in the morning. If it is a report I am doing, then I will have arranged my itinerary with the school well in advance. I might meet with the parents and teacher first to get their views of how a child is coping, what he or she can and cannot do and what provision the school has in place.

Then I will go and observe the student in context. It is a humbling experience to sit in on a lesson or playtime and quietly observe another human trying, struggling, relating to others. I always ensure the teacher knows in advance, and – importantly – that they should unobtrusively point the child out to me. I have spent hours observing the wrong child in the past. At the same time, I live in fear of the teacher saying aloud, ‘Oh, you’re here to observe …’ and the poor child is left bewildered and self-conscious. Usually I am good at blending into the background. On one occasion, though, the entire class starting whispering and fidgeting until a boy came up and asked if I really was Harry Potter.

If I need to do some direct work with a child I arrange a familiar adult to introduce us and, if necessary, stay with us. So many people think that the most effective work an EP can do is direct work with a child, feeding into a ‘full psychological assessment’. I still don’t know what that is – there are so many tools out there that I could probably assess a child every day for a year. The real skill is clarifying what the issue is and then developing a hypothesis that one tests, possibly using a cognitive test, a chat, drawings or any number of other tools. Statutory assessments are a specific document, requiring EPs to identify all areas of need and the types of provisions needed to meet these needs.

If the report deadline is close I will go back to the office, delete emails and procrastinate before frantically typing the report up. If not, I tend to do further work in the school or another school, if it is near by. Until recently, more of my time was spent offering consultation to teachers, parents and others. This tends to be a more effective way of resolving a problem than writing a report. There are lots of different consultation models I use, but the main thrust is that those involved co-create solutions. This is important – I can come up with hundreds of ideas, but if it doesn’t fit with the problem-holder’s views or workload, nothing will change. The real skill is guiding them to an ‘aha’ moment themselves.

One memorable instance of this was when two teachers were concerned about a little girl’s absolute lack of progress in reading, despite having no literacy difficulties. I was stuck about what to say until it was revealed that her mother was dying of cancer. Something started to make sense to me, a link between making progress and a little girl desperately trying to stop time passing. I fed this back and it was like a bolt of lightning in the room: they’d been under so much pressure to focus on literacy progress they had missed the bigger picture – this little girl did not want her mother to die. I didn’t really need to say much after that.

I do less work like that now. The cuts have led to a retrenchment of local authority services to schools and many EPs working in the public sector are very worried about the future. There is uncertainty about where local authorities are going and how they will employ EPs and other support staff.

I have already started working independently for a group of special schools, which I really enjoy. The work is challenging and I have been told, ‘No reports, just get staff thinking and behaving differently.’ The downside is that it is far away from home. The upside is that I stay in a lovely village pub and the landlord is almost pouring my pint when I arrive after a three-hour drive! Quite what will happen in the next few years, though, is anyone’s guess.

On a busy day I might do some twilight training sessions in schools. I am the EP for the Virtual School for Looked After Children and so I do a lot of training on attachment needs in school. I love training as I like talking to groups of teachers and getting a sense that psychology does really make a difference to people’s lives – children and adults.

Critical incident response is a core EP activity in the local authority. This means dropping everything and supporting schools in which a critical incident (such as a coach crash) or a sad event such as a death has occurred. We usually respond in teams and carry out a number of activities such as group crisis debriefing. Colleagues have recently dealt with a really awful road accident in front of a school. We support the school with things like grieving, managing post-traumatic stress, memorials and other things. It’s difficult work but I find it very rewarding and life affirming.

At the end of the day I usually go back to the office. Sometimes we go for a drink in a nearby pub. I then come home, have a sword fight or an argument about when my 12 year old can go on Facebook. After dinner and bedtimes I sometimes read a journal article or a chapter from a book. Lying in bed, I plan on getting up and going to the gym in the morning ...

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About the author 

Xavier Eloquin is an educational psychologist working independently and for a local authority. An associate fellow of the British Psychological Society, he also works as an organisational consultant and coach with OPUS, the Organisation for the Promotion of Understanding of Society.

This article was first published in the January 2013 issue of SEN Leader magazine.