Teresa Wheeler talks about how the role of the educational psychologist has changed, and defines what it means to be an educational psychologist today.
- Educational psychologists (EPs) are psychologists who apply what they know from a range of disciplines and use this within the field of education.
- Training for EPs has been brought in line with training for psychologists in other disciplines, such as clinical psychology, by introducing a doctorate.
- Qualified teacher status was removed as a requirement for training as an EP, giving the opportunity for more in-depth study to prepare practitioners for a variety of settings.
What is an educational psychologist?
This is a question that is asked a lot, but is always very difficult to answer in a simple way. Anyone can ask Google for a definition, but the resulting web pages are full of conflicting and, in some cases, inaccurate information, so there is little wonder that the general public are confused. As a trainee, my cohort were assigned an essay to explore ‘What is an EP?’, and even as professionals training in the role and surrounded by qualified psychologists, we were not able to formulate one concise definition.
There are a few potential reasons why this discipline is not widely understood. Educational psychology as a topic is underrepresented in introductory psychology textbooks (Lucas et al, 2005). As an undergraduate student I mentioned my ambition of moving into the field during a seminar and was met with blank looks, and I certainly never read a dedicated article until I embarked upon my doctoral training. What has become clear as I have moved through training and qualifying is that educational psychology does not fit neatly into one subject area; instead, it offers a discipline that touches upon all branches of psychology from the obvious (developmental and cognitive) strands, to the less expected fields of biological, social and forensic psychology.
Perhaps a simple way of understanding what an EP does is to break down the title. EPs are psychologists who apply what they know from a range of disciplines and use this within the field of education. However, while accurate, this definition does not do justice to the breadth of skills, training and knowledge that EPs use on a daily basis; which brings up another potential reason for the discipline being poorly understood, and that is that the role has transformed over time to become incredibly diverse and varied.
The training route
The training route has also changed over time. Educational psychology training was first introduced at University College London (UCL) as a one-year training programme at Masters level. Qualified EPs were conventionally associated with the assessment and support of children with learning needs in schools. At the time, teacher training was a prerequisite for the EP training course, which solidified the image that some have of an EP being a further qualified and specialised teacher.
Changes in the training route have been galvanised by the increasingly complex demands placed on EP services, which have also had a big impact on evolving the EP role. Since 2006, in order to qualify as an EP, trainees have been required to gain a British Psychological Society (BPS) accredited undergraduate or Masters degree, as well as work experience, before completing a three-year doctorate. The aim of the new training requirements was to prepare newly qualified EPs to utilise a range of tools and resources to manage complex family situations, tribunals, training, crisis management, and vulnerable families and young people. A further driving factor was to bring EPs’ training in line with training for psychologists in other disciplines (such as clinical psychology). The first cohort to take this route were the first EPs who were eligible to register with the Health Care Professionals Council (HCPC) and were able to use the title ‘Doctor’.
For many, the change to the doctorate has brought the profession increased status, as EPs are now seen as equally skilled and experienced professionals as their fellow psychology professionals. And for trainees, the doctorate offers a much more in-depth programme to prepare them for working within a range of different settings.
Another big change to the training has been the removal of teacher status as a prequisite for the course. The course providers now seek a more diverse range of experience working with children, families, schools and communities. Within my cohort of trainees, we were a diverse group of teachers, teaching assistants, ABA (applied behavioural analysis) tutors, Early Years practitioners, further education teachers, pastoral leaders, language specialists and research experts. It really enriched my training as, alongside discussions about teaching and learning resources, we were able to share knowledge and understanding of all manner of needs and really apply psychology to our case work. The knowledge that we had as a training cohort and the skills that were provided to us through supervision, placement and tutors enabled us to go beyond thinking about the individual child and into much more systemic thinking.
Parents can give the EP a rich and detailed history of their child, as well as discuss their early development, interests and hobbies.
Working systemically is probably one of the most common ways in which EPs work, but it is not always understood by the general population or even other professionals. Whenever I speak to potential future EPs, it is something that I add on to the end of my spiel about assessments, interventions and therapeutic work, and yet it is one of the most important aspects of my work and something many EPs are able to do. As a profession, we are in a fortunate position when compared with other clinicians in that we are mobile and can move around schools, nurseries and other settings within the local community. Add on working alongside other teams, such as Youth Offending and Early Years, and the settings increase. This enables us to move away from the ‘within child’ way of thinking to explore the whole system surrounding a young person, including their family, school and local community.
Systemic thinking probably warrants a whole article to do it justice. However, very simply, systemic work does not consider an individual in isolation from their environment but explores and thinks about their relationships, their experiences and their environment, and how all of these factors and dynamics interlink.
For children, this means that when they are referred to an EP for support, the EP will usually gather information from a range of sources, including the child’s parent or guardian, school staff, the young person and, if appropriate, from assessment. Not only does this approach ensure that all voices are present, it also attempts to make certain that valuable information is not left out and that a ‘whole child’ picture is created.
For example, a child may be referred for assessment if they are struggling in school. Through talking to class staff, the EP can begin to understand the child’s strengths, the presenting difficulties, situations that are challenging, situations that are easier, what has worked and what has not worked. Adding in a consultation with a SENCo (special educational needs coordinator) can bring in-depth information about interventions, as well as reports from other professionals (e.g. speech and language or occupational therapists).
As part of any EP assessment, even one which may initially be presented as just being about a child’s learning ability or attainment, the parental contribution is invaluable. Parents can give the EP a rich and detailed history of their child, as well as discuss their early development, interests and hobbies. Parents will also be able to share details of any trauma the child has experienced, as well as medical needs, visual or hearing needs, and so on. Simple questions such as, ‘How is your child sleeping?’ may not be asked by a school teacher yet may be incredibly useful.
An EP also works hard to ensure that the voice of the young person is represented within their assessments, and will use a range of tools, assessments and resources to aid the child in sharing their views. If necessary, formal data through cognitive assessment or questionnaires can also be gathered.
As well as applying to the assessment process, systemic working also broadens the range of advice, recommendations and follow-up work that can be offered. From all the information the EP has collected they are able to explore their initial hypotheses and evaluate these against the evidence. The advice provided offers support to the whole system around a child, not just the individual. For example, an EP may recommend resources, strategies and interventions that can be delivered individually or within small groups. They will also, where needed, recommend staff training or support (with the aim of upskilling school staff and empowering the school system) and support for parents, which it is hoped will work to support the child further.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly why the needs in schools and the community have changed. A good guess would be that in a time of austerity and budget cuts, increased pressure has been placed on schools to manage the social, emotional and mental health needs of their young people, as well as offering community support to their families. As EPs are well placed and appropriately skilled to support schools with these needs, it makes sense that they are sought out more frequently for this type of work.
The face of the EP has changed greatly, and even with the discussion above it is not possible to define what an EP ‘does’, because every EP will work differently and hold different philosophies and beliefs. While I was training at the Tavistock and Portman NHS trust, we were reminded repeatedly that ‘you are the tool’. It is vital as a profession that we do not lose this identity. We have been trained to use a range of assessments, interventions, therapeutic programmes and resources, but many of the greatest skills that we use on a daily basis are the interpersonal ones that are so hard to define and yet are what make EPs so skilled at what they do today.
- Lucas, J. L., Blazek, M. A. and Riley, A. B. (2005) The lack of representation of educational psychology and school psychology in introductory psychology textbooks. Educational Psychology, 25, 347–51.