By Anne Casimir, Consultant Educational Psychotherapist
“I am angry because of my mum and the boy,” wrote a ten-year-old girl in one of her first Educational Therapy sessions. It became clear that 'Jenny' was very upset by her mother’s illness and by bullying at school. Her imminent transition to the wider world of secondary school was making her feel even more distressed.
By no means all young people will express their feelings so openly: but a trained educational psychotherapist can usually understand a child’s communications through their drawings, imaginative story-writing and play. These are a child’s currency for expressing themselves. Often problems are first detected inside the classroom, when a child’s is not learning to his or her full potential, or his or her behaviour changes.
Nine-year-old Dan (not his real name) had always enjoyed school and achieved well. However, now in Year Five, he began to have outbursts, conflict with children, progressing to clashes with teachers. After a number of meetings at school, his parents told his teacher that there had been family problems, and that they were also arguing with Dan over homework. He was referred to an Educational Psychotherapist.
In a confidential setting away from the school his parents felt able to explore the impact of the family situation. Dan was able to share and understand his worries in his one-to-one sessions. He felt relieved, became far calmer, more confident and more co-operative, and his school behaviour and schoolwork improved substantially.
Pressures on children and young people, and their families, are currently very great as they negotiate their way through the school system. Entry exams at various stages can often put severe strain on a child and their family. Fear of failure can make some children lose confidence in their abilities, or lose focus and motivation. Others can react to their fears and worries by displaying apparent over-confidence.
Once a child is in a school environment the pressures to achieve and succeed mount each year as he or she approaches public exams and (eventually) university entrance. How parents handle these situations requires some skill and sometimes professional advice; parents are often just too close and emotionally involved to be their children’s teachers. I have seen how families can get trapped in emotional gridlock; and an educational psychotherapist can help defuse emotions around learning for both parents and their children.
Other youngsters are affected by the increase in separations and divorce, and sometimes by internal family disagreements. Unfortunately, loss, illnesses of loved ones, or bereavement can also strongly affect the family and especially the children, directly or indirectly. Bullying is still a significant problem that may be downplayed by some schools.
Children may react to any of these stresses with temper tantrums and defiance, or by becoming withdrawn and preoccupied, or having difficulties with sleep or eating. Sadly, on the extreme end of this, there is an increase in depression and self-harm in young children and teenagers.
Parents are having to cope with children making increased and apparently limitless demands for ever-more-sophisticated technological gadgets. It makes the crucial parenting skills – of what to give and where to set boundaries and limits – much more difficult.
Computers may be a great boon overall to modern society, but many children are spending much more time on them than is healthy. Some even develop a sort of screen addiction. Not only can this result in conflict with parents, but deciding what is appropriate can itself present very stressful decision-making for parents. Peer-group pressure is a major factor in children feeling they just must have the latest in clothing, fashion or accessories.
To work out ways to change a distressing situation, parents often benefit by making time and creating a confidential space outside the family situation with a non-judgmental and empathetic professional.
Children can thrive in a one-to-one relationship where they can explore their worries and difficulties in ways that feel familiar to them. Many children don’t want to talk directly about their difficulties, but can use drawing, story-writing and games to bring out and share their feelings and concerns.
Teenagers can usually articulate their feelings. It is quite normal for them to be in conflict, overt or covert, with their parents. Teenagers seek to assert their independence while often feeling quite scared about it. They still really still need their parents but find this hard to acknowledge.
Interventions with teenagers are especially successful when they feel they are not being “judged”. All of us respond better when we feel understood and supported.
Educational Psychotherapy is a unique and relatively recent discipline which combines a school-teaching background with a psychotherapeutic training. When I had been a primary school teacher in London and overseas, I had found that I did not have sufficient skills to support children showing subtle and not-so-subtle signs of emotional difficulties in my classes. I was delighted to find an M.A. training at the Tavistock Clinic in Hampstead that enabled me to gain insight and techniques of which I had previously been unaware.
Educational Psychotherapists use techniques that the children find enjoyable and associate with their school learning, such as drawing, creative story work, reading and carefully-designed games. These gradually allow the child to express themselves, make progress in their ability to learn and participate better at school, and generally improve their emotional well-being. With older children we may well help them get insight into their difficulties by more direct discussion and articulation of their feelings and worries.
Of course, each programme has to be individually tailored to the age, developmental level, and particular needs of the child or young person.
And what happened to Jenny? She is now at secondary school. Her teachers’ report stated: “Jenny has gained an enormous amount from her [educational psychotherapy] sessions and has changed beyond all expectations. Her learning has taken off, and her behaviour has improved. Her confidence has soared and she has many more friends. Overall, she is a success.”
From 2002 to 2012 Anne Casimir was Senior Educational Psychotherapist and Head of Clinical Services at the Caspari Foundation, the country’s premier educational psychotherapy service for children and parents. In 2012 she began a private practice in Harley Street and in Highgate. She joined the world-leading Child and Family Practice in 2014.
If you have any concerns relating to your children feel free to email Anne Casimir on firstname.lastname@example.org, or phone +44 7760 205 200.