Educational Psychotherapy was developed by Irene Caspari in the 1970s, an Educational Psychologist working at the Tavistock Clinic in London. She was interested in understanding learning difficulties from a psychoanalytic and attachment perspective. In order to address both learning needs and emotional difficulties together, she pioneered a method of blending structured (educational) tasks and free expression within a 50-minute weekly therapy session. Treatment usually lasts 1-2 years but some work continues for longer or is adapted for shorter periods or extended assessments. Trainees are typically experienced teachers or learning support staff and undergo their own therapy during training. Many continue to work in schools and adapt their learning to therapeutic teaching and attachment-aware, trauma-informed practice.
What follows is an anonymised, disguised case study which illustrates how Educational Psychotherapy can begin to support social-emotional development and learning.
11-year-old Sammy was referred for therapy by his key worker on account of difficulties he was having with relationships, expressing and understanding emotions and understanding the world. An earlier Educational Psychology assessment had suggested that high levels of anxiety were impacting on Sammy’s capacity to make full use of learning. Therapy took place over 18 months.
Sammy soon engaged with a variety of word, number and drawing games and activities, offered within the context of a supportive relationship. Tasks which combined cognition, physical activity and relational connection proved an effective way to build trust, stimulate thought and enliven Sammy’s felt experience in the room. Shared story writing and the free use of paint and clay facilitated expression and imagination. Conversation also had a significant place, at the point of checking in, within and around activities and, over time, for sustained periods.
Over the first 6 months of therapy, progress became evident in the following foundational areas:
Sense of self and reciprocal interaction
Sammy came to enjoy the process of co-creation with craft activities and solving problems together, including making up physical word and number games and negotiating the rules between us. He became more comfortable with what he didn’t know and embraced the opportunity to find things out, explore new skills and introduce me to new areas of learning. Sammy also started to talk more about himself and grew comfortable with the routine of checking in at the start of a session, when he would share a happy achievement or discovery or an experience of frustration, disappointment or confusion.
Tasks and learning
Persevering at a challenging task requires the use of Executive Function skills, such as being able to monitor and evaluate where the difficulty lies, use problem solving skills to work out and plan the next steps, use working memory, inhibit distracting thoughts and so on. Young people like Sammy, who have difficulties in these areas, require considerable “scaffolding” to help them develop and practice skills and tools for thinking. To begin with, Sammy found it hard to take instruction or support from me but as trust grew he became a little more comfortable with not knowing and clearly more curious. My sense was that a space for thinking opened up in his mind which enabled him not to panic but to consider what was required next in order to proceed.
Thinking about and talking about feelings
The development of a language for feelings was a significant area of development. In early sessions, Sammy would habitually say that everything was “fine” or “normal”, almost seeming oblivious to the relevance of emotional experience or reflection. After a time, Sammy disclosed that he had been getting into rages at home and taking out his feelings on objects which had sometimes become broken. He acknowledged that this was confusing, upsetting and problematic for him and that he wanted help with it. Activities like squeezing paint directly onto paper or working with clay enabled Sammy to express himself viscerally and then reflect on how he connected with the images created. We also thought about activities Sammy could do at home to self-regulate.
In time, thinking about feelings became an area that Sammy would actively seek. He talked about experiencing fear and how this had caused him to adopt particular behaviours as an avoidance mechanism. It seemed that the naming of these fears was enough to create some distance and enable Sammy to make a choice about how he wanted to act. Sammy also talked about sadness and acknowledged that he had grown used to keeping his feelings to himself. He started to voluntarily make links between his expressive material in artwork and his own thoughts and feelings inside.
In part, these conversations involved psycho-education, helping Sammy to understand more about how feelings work, that it is normal to experience a wide range of feelings and that it can help to be self-aware and to share some of what we feel with trusted others. At times, we were able to do this through playing board games or through role-play with miniatures. Sammy showed that he could recognise the difference between actions held in mind and actions lived and that he could think hypothetically about possible future consequences of taking a particular course of action.
This phase of the work paved the way for more profound developments which were to follow. Sammy was now ready to take more risks. (Read more about this in Educational Psychotherapy (2) – article will be published shortly).
Michael Reeves is a Psychotherapist working with children and young people aged 4-18 and/or their parents/carers. He is available as a clinical supervisor for training or practising therapists and counsellors, whose work is primarily focused on children/ families/ parents. He is available at our Lewes Practice.
Further reading by Michael Reeves –