Throughout the process of getting an autism diagnosis we met with lots of different people working with autistic children.
After my son’s diagnosis we began the process to get an Education Health and Care Plan, again meeting lots of different professionals. Often my son would be assessed at Pre-school and I found myself wondering who the person is and what they are looking at. Many of the people working with autistic children have job titles that meant very little to me and I had no idea what they actually do. If you don’t know your Educational Psychologist from your SENCO you can check out my Glossary.
It is these professionals that have all provided input to my son’s targets and supports and many of their reports and suggestions have been very helpful. So for those of you meeting with professionals for the first time. I thought it would be helpful to do a series of interviews so we can find out a little bit more about the professionals working with our children.
First up is Sarah an Educational Psychologist
The first time I ever heard of an Educational Psychologist was in at Team Around the Child meeting where someone was listing the professionals who would be assessing my son for his EHCP. I had no idea what an Ed Psyc was or what they would be assessing. Sarah, an Educational Psychologist, has agreed to answer a few questions to give us a little more insight into her job.
1: Can you tell us what the role of an Educational Psychologist is?
We help schools and parents to problem-solve when they are concerned about a child/young person’s difficulties and progress and would like to learn more about their needs and plan ways forward. They often request our advice, placing us in the ‘expert’ role, but we use a consultation model (a process of specific questioning to help them to explore and define the problem, to look for exceptions to the problem, to generate possible solutions, including things that have worked for them with other children with similar needs previously etc.). We find it best to try to facilitate their own problem-solving as they know the individuals concerned and the environment best and will be more invested in the actions that they agree to implement if they come up with them themselves and, thus, they are more likely to be effective.
Educational Psychologists have two main roles, mostly within schools but also in early years and post-16 settings occasionally. The first is to work with schools and families at an early intervention/prevention stage (often prior to statutory assessment that determines whether or not they can access an Education Health and Care Plan (EHCP)).
We bring in Psychology (e.g. knowledge of child development, learning, autism, attachment, how systems function etc.) whenever possible and give advice around this if needed. Part of our work at this stage usually involves carrying out observations and assessments as this helps us to contribute better to consultations and in providing advice, if appropriate. We often focus on learning and may explore IQ (e.g. reasoning, memory, processing skills) using cognitive assessments. We may also use dynamic assessment to find out how a child/young person approaches a learning task and what kinds of strategies/interventions best scaffold their learning. We might also carry out assessments around emotions (e.g. complete anxiety or resilience questionnaires, use techniques to establish a child/young person’s constructs or motivations).
In our early intervention/prevention role we try to work at an organisational level whenever possible and to do this we might offer staff in the setting training and/or supervision. We can also help schools to develop their policies (e.g. around behaviour, bullying, critical incidents).
The second main role of a local authority Educational Psychologist is to provide advice to the local authority SEND Panel (made up of local authority Education Officers, SENCOs from local schools, other Educational Psychologists, representative from the Health and Social Care professions). The first type of advice is part of an initial statutory assessment (so when the child/young person is first being assessed to determine whether or not they meet the criteria/threshold for an EHCP). The second type of advice is for Annual Reviews (so if the parents and/or school feel that the child/young person’s needs have changed significantly and they feel that changes therefore need to made to the provision in the EHCP and/or type of school placement, usually a move from a mainstream to a special school). We have also recently started to offer our schools additional support to implement a new EHCP or if they are starting to find it difficult to meet the child/young person’s needs and want to avoid the placement breaking down.
2: How did you become an Educational Psychologist?
I completed a three-year Psychology undergraduate degree and then a one-year Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE). I then taught in a primary school for two years. After this I did supply teaching, mainly in special schools, for approximately 6 months. I then completed a one-year Masters in Educational Psychology (the Educational Psychology course is now a three-year Doctorate which I think is better).
3: What do you enjoy most about your job?
Helping children/young people access what they need so they have the best chance of overcoming the barriers to inclusion and achievement created by their difficulties/needs. Every now and again I get updates about individual children/young people whom I haven’t had involvement with for several years and it is very heart-warming to hear about their progress. Even when the steps seem small to an outsider, they can be hugely significant for those individuals and their families.
Equality of opportunity and social justice are very important to me. I want to do my bit to ensure that people have the chance to have a good quality of life and can be as happy, resilient and independent as possible in their adult life.
4: Who are you employed by?
I am employed by a local authority/council. Educational Psychologists commissioned by local authorities provide advice for EHCPs. Up until the academisation of schools most Educational Psychologists worked for local authorities and provided all of the prevention/early intervention services to schools as well. However, academisation meant that money for outside agencies/services was diverted and given directly to schools to choose how to spend. This means that schools can now choose from a range of private/independent Educational Psychologists. Some local authorities still provide the full range of services to schools, some are statutory only (and some somewhere in between).
5: What is your role in the Education, Health and Care Plan Process?
My role in the EHCP process is to provide Psychological advice which informs decision-making regarding whether or not a child/young person meets the threshold/criteria to access an EHCP and what level of funding should be attached to it. I draw on a range of sources for my advice (i.e. the views of the child, parent, school/setting staff, other relevant professionals, information submitted with the request for an EHC Needs Assessment, my own observations and assessments).
6: What has surprised you most about working with children with autism?
I am surprised by how autism in females has been under-identified for so long. Because females often present differently to males and professionals and assessment tools have been so tailored to identifying the signs within males, females tend to be diagnosed relatively late, if at all. This is starting to change now though.
7: What do you find most challenging within your job?
It is a very predictable response but funding, mainly prior to a child/young person having an EHCP. Schools often know what they need to do and want to take on new ideas as well but just do not have the capacity to do everything that would be beneficial. What challenges me directly at the moment is how busy we are. The number of statutory assessments that we carry out seems to increase year on year and it would be great to have a bit more time for reflection and continuing professional development on a case by case basis.
8: Can you tell us a little about yourself and what you enjoy doing in your time off?
I try to keep active as I know how important this is to my own emotional well-being. I enjoy art and craft activities and they give me the chance to be creative in a different, more practical way to my work.
9: What would you say to a parent who is waiting for an assessment from an Educational Psychologist, what can they expect?
Before meeting with an Educational Psychologist it might be good just to have a think about what you want to tell them. We take a holistic approach so your views regarding your child’s strengths, difficulties and needs in the areas of ‘Cognition and Learning’, ‘Communication and Interaction’, ‘Social, Emotional and Mental Health’ and ‘Physical and Sensory’ (also looking at independence with self-care, safety etc) will be important for us to hear about.
When we write our advice we include ‘outcomes’ so you might want to consider what you hope your child will have achieved/will be able to do in one/two/three years’ time (but also don’t worry if you find this difficult because we can share examples from similar cases as a starting point and also from our own thinking and following our discussions with the school/setting staff and other professionals). We also need to provide ‘provision’ recommendations in our advice and if you have particular examples of resources, interventions etc. that have worked well for your child so far, or that you think would be beneficial for them in the future, let us know about them.
10: What is the most memorable moment from your job working with children with autism?
I recently received some very positive feedback from a parent of child with autism. She felt from meeting with me and reading my subsequent Annual Review report that I had really understood her child. She was anxious about him due to him having frequent negative experiences at his current primary school, where she said the staff did not quite ‘get’ him. She was also starting to worry about him moving onto secondary school and it was really important to her that his next school was well prepared for him when he arrived. The fact that she felt confident that the updated EHCP described his needs really accurately, in part due to my advice, seemed to help to lower her anxieties, not only in relation to the improved quality of support that he would receive in the short-term, but also in anticipation of his big transition the following year.
Thank you Sarah for a great interview helping us understand the role of an Educational Psychologist.