Introduction to child psychology
Introduction to child psychology

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Introduction to child psychology

What is child psychology?

How are children’s lives changing and what role do child psychologists have in supporting children? Child psychology is a broad area, covering how people change as they grow up from birth through to adolescence and trying to explain how these important changes occur – are 3-year-olds, 7-year-olds and teenagers different just because of their experiences of the world, or because of biological changes within the individual?

Because child psychology is so vast and tries to answer so many questions, researchers and practitioners often separate development into specific areas. Broadly, these tend to map onto children’s physical, cognitive and social/emotional development. Child psychologists attempt to make sense of every aspect of child development, including how children learn, think, interact and respond emotionally to those around them, make friends, understand emotions and their own developing personalities, temperaments and skills.

Children typically reach developmental milestones. These milestones reflect abilities, such as walking and talking, that are achieved by most children at similar ages. Among other things, we are interested in trying to explain how children reach these milestones and how individual, social and cultural factors may influence how we develop.

Described image
Figure 1 Multiracial group of children

Psychologists also specialise in different areas of interest: while some focus on supporting children in school settings (educational psychologists) others focus on supporting children with atypical development (clinical psychologists).

Activity 1 What do child psychologists do?

In this audio sequence Nathalia Gjersoe, a lecturer in developmental psychology at The Open University, looks at the roles and work of three developmental psychologists, all of whom are concerned with children. Duncan Gillard (an educational psychologist), Silvana Mengoni (a researcher) and Catriona Havard (a forensic psychologist) all give their views about child psychology. Listen to the audio and think about the questions that follow.

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Transcript: Views on child psychology

Nathalia Gjersoe
Hello, I’m Nathalia Gjerso from the Faculty of Education and Language Studies at The Open University. In this audio, I’ll be looking at some examples of what developmental psychologists do to understand how children develop, why they develop that way, and how best to support them to reach their full potential.
Silvana Mengoni
I think, in order to support children, you have to understand development. And that’s where developmental psychology is key. We have to understand what development looks like, and how it happens and factors that may encourage it but also factors that may limit it. But, crucially development of psychology is all about understanding why, and, that’s really, really important, because if we understand what happens in development and why, we can develop interventions to not only help children that may be developing typically but children who also have delays.
Louisa Munton
Without that in-depth knowledge and expertise in a certain area, I actually think you wouldn’t be preparing children to be life-long learners or be productive citizens.
Nathalia Gjersoe
Developmental psychologists are interested in when and how changes occur in human psychology. As such, developmental psychologists are interested in changes that happen throughout the lifespan but a lot of their work focuses on changes in childhood as this is a period of intense development. Developmental psychologists can work in many different areas. Some focus on research in change in children. Others are trained in how to support children in school, or how to help children with developmental delays. Each of these roles requires a range of skills that developmental psychologists learn over many years of training. Duncan Gillard is an educational psychologist working with young children to support their educational needs and works closely with his local education authority, Avon and Somerset, and teams of other specialists to support children with special needs in several different schools.
Duncan Gillard
I link with 14 primary schools, one secondary school, and one special school, if you like. We support them with a range of different issues. We support them in terms of individual casework so individual young people that the school are having difficulty meeting the individual needs of, all of whom would have some kind of special educational need or special educational needs. And we also support them with a range of different systemic issues as well. I’ll give you a concrete example of a young person who has been on my caseload up until recently. It’s a young person in a mainstream school who has a diagnosis of Williams Syndrome. Young people with Williams Syndrome are usually very sociable and socially motivated. They can be lots and lots of fun to be around and they’re very driven to engage with people socially but quite often underpinning their understanding of social dynamics is an absence of that comprehension of what’s actually going on. This particular young person has learning difficulties that are commensurate with his diagnosis so he has particular difficulties learning across the board of the National Curriculum, that includes literacy difficulties, it includes numeracy difficulties, but he also has difficulties in terms of his development of social skills, his development of appropriate social and personal behaviour skills, of self-help skills. He had needs in terms of toileting. So, we put together what’s called a skills analysis. What kinds of skills would you need in order to be able to go to the toilet completely independently? And then, when you’ve got that skills analysis broken down, you can gradually start to build one skill at a time through a process called backward chaining, which is where you think about those skills as a linear sequence, start from the very last skill in that sequence, use different kinds of prompting and scaffolding processes to achieve mastery of that target and then work back through that chain until that young person can complete the whole sequence of skills. And making those learning processes very clear, very tight, very consistent, and repeated over and over again, eventually, that skill becomes mastered.
Nathalia Gjersoe
Could you explain to me who you work with within the school to support individual children?
Duncan Gillard
Usually, our main link is the school’s SENCO. SENCO is an acronym for special educational needs co-ordinator. Every school has one, they’re mandated to have one. And as the term implies, their role is to ensure that the additional support needs of all children with additional/special educational needs provisions are in place.
Nathalia Gjersoe
Do you go in and create learning modules for individual children or is that something that you work with teachers to produce?
Duncan Gillard
More often than not, we operate a consultation model of service delivery. So what that means is, we would go into a school, and this is about casework specifically, we would consult with key stakeholders, that would be class teacher, SENCO, any learning support assistants involved, that would take place within the context of a kind of problem solving conversation, what the young person’s strengths are, in relation to that area of difficulty. From there, we would try to look at what types of strategies have been used to get that young person to that point and with what effect. And that then would lead us into psychologically informed, or evidence-informed, next steps or additional strategies, for supporting, minimising the significance of that problem for the school in relation to that young person.
Nathalia Gjersoe
As well as generally working with schools and pupils to support special educational needs, Duncan also does research which helps to fill in the gaps in our understanding about how children develop. Duncan’s specific interest is in restorative justice, a rehabilitation system designed to stop bad behaviour and prevent it happening, which is overseen by adults but led by the children themselves. One of the schools Duncan works with where this process has proven specially effective, is Shirehampton Primary School in Bristol.
Louisa Munton
My name is Louisa Munton. I’m the head teacher at Shirehampton Primary School in Bristol. We serve a large catchment area where a significant proportion of our children come from deprived or disadvantaged backgrounds. We’ve worked really closely with the educational psychologist on restorative justice within the school and that’s because of the journey that we’ve been on…
Nathalia Gjersoe
Head teacher Louisa Munton came to Shirehampton Primary School in 2008. A year later, it was placed under special measures by Ofsted due to the bad behaviour of many of the children. With Duncan Gillard’s help, the school was able to implement a widespread regime of restorative justice with excellent outcomes.
Louisa Munton
So we embarked on a year-long project. All the staff received training from Duncan, and Duncan was very good at giving us lots of background, the research, how it might link and work with us, and then we had an opportunity to put our own sort of spin on it really, and how we could feel, as staff, it would work for our children. And we developed an action plan with Duncan’s guidance about how to put into place restorative justice so that it would, one, be embedded, but two, more importantly, work. We now have a whole-school process. Our behaviour management system is based on restorative justice. The impact is immeasurable in my eyes. I think, how you can quantify that is we were Ofsteded at the end of February this year and we came out good across the board and it was noted about our children’s good behaviour and their understanding of restorative justice and it’s just been really empowering for them. In turn, that’s made staff able to focus much more on learning and behaviour doesn’t disrupt learning, there is very, very little low-level disruption. And I firmly believe a lot of that is as a result of empowering the children to be part of the solution themselves.
Daniel
My name is Daniel and I’m 8 years old. There’s less, like, violence and rude words on the playground, and in lessons. When they’re naughty, you – they get sent to the restorative justice corner, in each classroom. Now, it’s actually safe for the little children to have fun and play.
Linda
My name is Linda ... and we get, we have a list of questions which we all have to ask, and, so, for example, Why, is there a reason you are doing this? And if they, as we explain it to them, we also need the victim to tell us what happened too, so then we can make sure that it’s not a lie and it’s – and everything’s true. And, then we have to try and look around the playground and try to see if anyone’s injured or if they, if there are arguments and we have to try sort it out.
Daniel
I got a 3-year-old sister and I, like, use the system that we use in school. And I sit, and I sit her down and talk with her. And, like, if she, like, tries to attack me, I, like, tell her off and I sit her down on her bed and talk to her about it. She, like, says sorry and like, you just wind me up a little bit, by doing… [laughs]
Nathalia Gjersoe
As well as offering alternative strategies to help tackle issues within a school, developmental psychologists can also offer support to families of children with special educational needs and disabilities. Silvana Mengoni is a research fellow in the Child and Youth Studies Group in the Faculty for Education and Language Studies at The Open University. She’s been working on a project called Early Support, which collects together psychology research that sets out when certain developmental milestones are reached by children with different needs. This trajectory is then presented to parents and practitioners in a way that helps them appreciate and celebrate the progress that children are making.
Silvana Mengoni
What we have is a set of different items, or you might think of them as milestones, so things that children, most children can do by a certain point of development. And what we do is we split those up into four areas. So we’ve got personal, social and emotional development. We’ve got communication. We’ve got physical development and we’ve got thinking, or cognition. And what you sometimes find with children with different developmental disorders is that they have strengths and weaknesses across these, so, they might have delays in communication but their physical development may be age-appropriate. And, by using our resources, the developmental journals, you can kind of look at those domains separately so you’re finding out what the child’s strengths and weaknesses are, but you’re also looking them as a whole as well.
Nathalia Gjersoe
Could you tell me what the developmental journal is?
Silvana Mengoni
The developmental journal is a resource primarily aimed at parents and families of children with special educational needs and disabilities. And it’s aimed to help them to observe, record, celebrate and support the development of their child. And it’s also designed to help them communicate with the different practitioners who work with their child. For some children, they’ll be seeing lots and lots of different practitioners, so it’s really helpful for parents to have one set of information that they can use and show to different practitioners. So they might be working with physiotherapists, with speech and language therapists and sometimes these services use quite different words and different language, and they might also have jargon-type words that they use, and using the developmental journal where it’s presented in a parent-friendly way, and with less of the technical term, actually helps everyone who’s working with the child to use the same language and the same set of resources. The journal’s based on trajectory of typical development so you can kind of see, and even children with developmental disorders will pass through those stages, in the same order, they just may do it at a different rate.
Nathalia Gjersoe
Could you talk about how the work that you’re doing might change the experience of a child who’s experiencing developmental difficulties or delays?
Silvana Mengoni
I think this really relates to one of our resources which is for children with multiple or very complex needs, and parents and practitioners find it quite difficult to find material that tracks progress in really small steps. So these children might make quite slow development but to their families and people that are working with them, those small steps are really, really important. And so, what our journal does is break development down into those really small steps and also gives advice on parents, so if their child is kind of developing or emerging in a certain skill or behaviour, it gives tips on how they might like to develop that and how they could help their child progress it. So, we’re really focusing both on the parents and practitioners in terms of focusing them on what their child can do, but also, ultimately should be helping the child because of encouraging and supporting their development.
Nathalia Gjersoe
Many developmental psychologists research when, how and why developmental changes take place and how children differ from adults in the way that they think about and respond to the world. Sometimes this research has direct applications such as in education and supporting children with developmental delays. Sometimes developmental psychologists conduct research simply to better understand how development occurs. And it’s only later that applications for this research become evident. Catriona Havard is a member of the forensic cognition group at The Open University. For many years, she has been conducting research into how accurate children are as witnesses in court trials. And how they can be supported to improve their reliability. Her research has been instrumental in developing ways that improve children’s identification of criminals from video line-ups. Her findings are now being implemented in recommendations regarding the way that police deal with child witnesses.
Catriona Havard
The findings were that children can be as accurate as adults when it comes to correctly identifying somebody from a line-up. So in our research, we generally show people a staged event of a crime, and then after a delay, they see either a line-up that contains the person that they’ve seen previously, and obviously we’re then interested in how accurate they are at correctly identifying that culprit, but we also show some of our witnesses a line-up that doesn’t contain the person they’ve seen previously. So obviously, they’re being presented with a line-up where the person they’ve seen previously isn’t there. And what we found is that children are much more likely to choose somebody from a line-up as compared to adults.
Nathalia Gjersoe
So they’re more likely to choose someone, just someone randomly, because they feel like they have to choose someone rather than the actual culprit?
Catriona Havard
Yes. Yeah. So that’s it, I mean, when it comes to saying No, and saying the person’s not there, children seem to be unable to do this. They seem compelled to choose somebody. And this research then started off my next line of research, which was to look at methods to improve that reliability and allow children to actually not pick somebody from a line-up. So, using the same paradigm where we present children with a film of a staged crime and then a line-up, what we’ve done is we’ve placed a silhouette in the line-up and we’ve called this the mystery man, and we’ve said to children, if you don’t recognise anybody from the line-up, then you can choose the mystery man, if you want. And what we found is that this really reduces this false choosing, or false identification rate, because it allows children to choose somebody from a line-up but they’re not making a false identification.
Nathalia Gjersoe
What sort of age group are you working with?
Catriona Havard
From about 5 all the way up to about 12, 13, and the benefit seems to be throughout.
Nathalia Gjersoe
Could you tell us a little bit about the methods that you use in your research?
Catriona Havard
Yes. We use mainly experimental methods. In the first phase, which is a sort of study phase, our children will see a film of a staged crime, and then there’s a delay phase. And then, in the test phase, our children will see a line-up. And we also might ask a few questions, so sort of do, like a mini-survey, as well. We might ask about confidence. I’ve also asked whether children remember the instructions that they see prior to seeing a line-up. So one of the important instructions that all witnesses are told before they see a line-up is the person may or may not be present. And one of the issues we thought was that children perhaps are not paying attention to these instructions, but actually, our research shows that they do actually remember these instructions so this doesn’t seem to be the underlying reason for them choosing from line-ups.
Nathalia Gjersoe
The research that you are doing, do you feel that it’s relevant just for child witnesses or do you think that it may have implications for witness responses throughout the lifespan?
Catriona Havard
The work that we’ve been doing for child witnesses is also found to work with older adult witnesses. So, older adults, like child witnesses, will often feel compelled to choose somebody from a line-up, even if they don’t actually recognise anybody in the line-up. And what we’ve found is when we introduce the silhouette in the line-up, it actually will then reduce this false identification rate and make older adult witnesses’ evidence more reliable. So using the silhouette seems to be something that can work with witnesses of all ages, not just children.
Nathalia Gjersoe
Could you talk to me about what you see as the applications for this research that you’ve been doing?
Catriona Havard
We’re in the process of writing a White Paper, which will hopefully guide legislation. And the White Paper is a report that we give to the government and, from that, they can decide whether they want to change existing legislation. And we set out a number of points that we think could help to make eyewitness identification more accurate, and one of them is using this silhouette in a line-up, to increase the accuracy of children’s eyewitness evidence. The long-term aim is that it will reduce false identifications, which should reduce wrongful convictions and wrongful imprisonments. I would hope that my research, at the end of the day, will help child witnesses feel more at ease so for example, the fact that they’ve perhaps got this alternative option to choose when they don’t recognise anybody from a line-up, will make them feel more confident in their decisions and be less stressed when they’re actually faced with the situation of trying to make an identification from a line-up. I mean, the only way really that this research can help change the way police work with their witnesses is through legislation. Because the police will follow, for example, The Vulnerable Witness Act in Scotland, or in England, it’s The Police and Criminal Evidence Act, so, the hope is that by writing a White Paper to inform legislation, perhaps the legislation will be changed and this will eventually change the police guidance for working with child witnesses.
Nathalia Gjersoe
This audio should give you a flavour of the range of work that developmental psychologists do, and how important it is for understanding and supporting children. Careful research methods have enabled developmental psychologists to reveal much important regularity in the way that children differ from adults and how individuals differ from each other. This research then shows that the support and provision made for children in real-world contexts such as schools, families and the legal system is as appropriate and effective as possible. For head teacher Louisa Munton, having the help of an educational psychologist has not only allowed the children in her school to flourish but given them an insight and greater understanding of what it means to be a more rounded and tolerant human being.
Louisa Munton
I think being an educational psychologist must be a very difficult job. And I think what educational psychologists do is keep schools grounded. They help them understand actually that they can tackle a huge range of issues, not in isolation, but as part of a team. And actually, that then just skills up the staff. It allows children to have opportunities that perhaps they might not have done, allows them in turn to potentially raise aspirations being with children that may have those high aspirations to start with, so without that avenue, I think schools could become quite stagnant really, and I think, inclusion is where educational psychologists come into their own. They provide so many practical suggestions, whereas teachers are always on that big hamster treadmill wanting to do the best, wanting to make sure that the children achieve to their maximum. And actually, for some children, their maximum is not within the age-related expectation but with the educational psychologist’s help, what they allow us to do, as staff, is find that child’s talent, whether that is leadership, whether that’s acting, it may not be academic, but without that support and guidance and those suggestions, I think some children would find school a very daunting place and wouldn’t succeed in a way that they would do further on in life.
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Views on child psychology
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  • How important are developmental milestones in understanding development?
  • How can psychologists support children’s lives?
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