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A reflective study of educational psychologists narratives regarding their experiences of working therapeutically

Submitted for the degree of DEdCPsy Department of Educational Studies May 2012


AcknowledgmentsWith thanks: To my family, especially Pete, who helped to make this journey a joy and a privilege through their love, support and encouragement

To Tom Billington for his challenging and encouraging tutorials

To Jacqui Swain and Kathryn Pomerantz for reading my work so thoroughly and offering me excellent feedback

To Anny Bibby and all my colleagues at the Hull City Psychological Service for their support and encouragement

Table of ContentsAbstract2Acknowledgments3Abbreviations7Introduction8Research questions10Chapter one12Review of the literature12Introduction12Definitions13The role of the educational psychologist17Policy versus practice24Should therapy be a part of the school environment?25Evidence-based practice26Chapter two29Philosophical underpinnings: ontology and epistemology29Social constructionism30The nature of knowledge32Narrative34Defining self35Chapter three40Methodology40Research questions40Introduction40Learning from the initial pilot study41Method42Rationale for the design of this study43The method of analysis50Analysis54Trustworthiness (rigour)58Authenticity (validity)59Generalizability61Ethical considerations61Chapter four64Analysis64Introduction64The analysis of my conversation with Rachel66Summary of Rachels themes and codes66Theme 1: The Importance of relationships66Theme 2: Building a therapeutic relationship69Theme 3: Relationships which support therapeutic work70Theme 4: Her evidence base for working therapeutically71Theme 5: Challenges to working therapeutically73Miscellaneous points77The analysis of my conversation with Lisa80Summary of Lisas themes and codes80Theme 1: The enjoyment of working therapeutically80Theme 2: The challenges to working therapeutically81Theme 3: Reflections about her work as an EP86Theme 4: Anger91Conclusions91Chapter Five93Discussion93Evaluation of the research methodology93Ethics reconsidered99Learning from and reflections on the analysis100Personal reflections and learning114Summary and Conclusions117References120Appendices127Appendix 1127Information sheet and consent form127Appendix 2132Transcript of Rachels conversation, with codes132The context132Appendix 3153My narrative of my conversation with Rachel: including her feedback153Appendix 4163Codes and themes from Rachels transcript163Appendix 5167Transcript of Lisas conversation, with codes167The context167Appendix 6185My narrative of my conversation with Lisa185Appendix 7192Codes and themes from Lisas transcript192Appendix 8195Transcript of my follow-up conversation with Lisa195Appendix 9203Interpersonal process recall203Appendix 10205Pilot study 2205Trail analysis of my conversation with Helen205The context205Learning from the content205The issue of time211Learning from the process216Summary218Appendix 11219Letter confirming ethical approval of the study219

AbbreviationsBPS British Psychological SocietyCAMHS Child and Adolescent Mental Health ServicesDECP Department of Education and Child PsychologyEBP evidence-based practiceEP - Educational PsychologistEPS Education Psychology ServiceIPR Interpersonal process recall RCT Randomised controlled trialsTA - Teaching assistant TaMHS Targeted Mental Health ServicesTEP Trainee Educational PsychologistUKCP United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy


I embarked on the training to become an educational psychologist relatively late in my life. Previously, I had worked as a Gestalt psychotherapist and latterly I also worked part-time as a teacher of psychology in a secondary school. As a teacher, I was aware that there were children, parents and teachers who appeared to struggle with emotional and relational issues within their work and life. Frequently, there seemed to be little psychological or practical support for them. These issues had an effect on the quality of their lives and their ability to function well within the education system. As a trainee educational psychologist (TEP), I have become even more engaged with such issues. Numerous writers within the field of educational psychology have also identified that therapeutic work (i.e. working with childrens and adults mental health, or emotional wellbeing) is an essential aspect of EP practice, for example, MacKay , Randall , Dowling & Osborne , Pomerantz , Greig , to name just a few.

As I gained more experience of educational psychology, I noticed that some EPs referred to working therapeutically. My course also placed a strong emphasis on this approach. Yet it also seemed to me that very few EPs worked in this way. Farrell et al. identified that most EPs spent less than one per cent of their time delivering therapeutic intervention. Furthermore, within my own practice, I was aware that in spite of my therapeutic experience, I felt some ambivalence about offering therapeutic interventions, which I could not fully explain. I wanted therefore, to explore the experiences of EPs who had chosen to work therapeutically, to ask them about how they felt about this work and to explore the dissonance between what is thought by many to be good practice, and what actually happens.

My ideas about how to proceed with this research emerged from my experiences as a therapist and from a social constructionist understanding of ontology and epistemology. I believe that we should learn to trust our usual ways of being in the world; people are skilled social practitioners who are able to monitor and comment on their own activity. Furthermore, wisdom and understanding do not only emerge from reductionist scientific endeavours. McLeod stated that: the purpose of research is to enhance knowledge . There are many ways in which this can be achieved and at the heart of this study is a method that pays attention to personal experience: In the overeager embrace of the rational, scientific, and technological, our concept of the learning process itself was distorted first by rationalism and later by behaviourism. We lost touch with our own experiences as the source of personal learning and development.

These experiences are expressed through narratives, or stories. The neuroscientist, Damasio argued that story telling is a natural brain function. He called our capacity to tell stories a brain obsession. He went further and suggested that the entire construction of knowledge is a story, and that telling stories precedes language. In addition, telling narratives is a way in which we organise and construct meaning from our experiences . Narratives also allow for the study of different and sometimes contradictory layers of meaning.Great narrative is an invitation to problem finding, not a lesson in problem solving. It is deeply about plight, about the road rather than about the inn to which it leads.

In order to consider these narratives about experiences, I wanted to make use of a more meditative self-reflective process, that Claxton called our tortoise brain (with reference to the childrens story about the hare and the tortoise): But when the hare of conscious comprehension ran out of ideas, tortoise mind just kept going. Simply by attending and responding to the situation, without thinking about it, people are able to extract complex patterns of useful information.

Claxton went on to suggest that over time the mind is capable of finding new understandings and new meanings for existing information and knowledge, registering these consciously as insights or intuitions . Taleb adds to this idea with a very human observation:Your brain is most intelligent when you dont instruct it on what to do something people who take showers discover on occasion.

I also offer a quote from Kant (1794). He would originally have proposed this challenge in support of rational science, as opposed to unthinking adherence to religion. Ironically, I think his words can now challenge us to look beyond rational science:Have courage to use ones own understanding! that is the motto of enlightenment.

Therefore, I have approached this study from a paradigm that values personal experience, expressed in narratives and considered through the personal reflections of the researcher.

Fallon, Woods, & Rooney, conclude their discussion of the role of the EP within childrens services, with a call for studies which look for a more detailed understanding of EP role development. This is in contrast to the broader surveys that had been carried out to date. I hope that this investigation will offer such an analysis, with the purpose of exploring the role of therapeutic interventions within educational psychology, and considering what might be required to support such work.

Research questionsWhat narratives do EPs tell about their personal and professional experiences of working therapeutically?What can we learn from reflection on these narratives?My research questions arose from the ideas about narrative and reflection mentioned earlier. In addition, I feel that much reflection and analysis in psychology addresses technical questions about practice, or cognitive processes, without considering the person of the psychologist carrying out the work. I do not believe that it is ever possible to separate out the person of the psychologist from their work and the relationships with which they engage in the course of their work. This is true whether the work is applied psychology or research. As this idea is not the dominant paradigm within educational psychology at this time, I made the words personal and professional explicit in my research question.

Chapter oneReview of the litera