Written by Eleanor Sautelle - School Psychologist
Imagine this: you’re a Year 5 Teacher (for some of you, this won’t take too much imagination). On most days, you have a class of 30. On some days, your class balloons to 45 when the school can’t find a relief teacher.
In your regular class, every child has something on their mind. In the mornings, one girl is dropped off by a rolling cast of family members, some who don’t make a reappearance. Another is dropped off by her mum, who is always teary when she pulls up.
In the classroom, two kids, who used to be best friends, now sit on opposite sides of the room. One boy needs to follow a certain pattern and order, and when it’s not strictly adhered to, he becomes uncooperative if not violent.
Another boy doesn’t make it to class much at all and, when he does, he fumbles through ideas and concepts that he missed lessons ago, and actually still has trouble with the basics of reading. You try to help him catch up while continuing to teach the 29 other students.
You try to do everything but there’s only so much time. To compound it all, NAPLAN is in a month. You need to focus on the test.
Every day, we expect children to learn when they are going through the biggest challenges in their lives so far.
That’s where I step in. As a school psychologist, I am not an optional add on. I am the vital link that makes it possible for children to step into the classroom ready to learn. I am also a gift – to educators who are trying to understand how the students in their class learn, to parents who feel unsupported and uncertain about what to do, and to students who are working through complex feelings and experiences that they have no reference point to deal with and sometimes no words to describe them.
I work with children that are raised by their grandma, or cousin, or sibling, because that is the most stable person in the string of adults in their life. Other children are mediating between two fighting adults. They might become anxious or they need to learn to organise themselves because the adults don’t. A handful of children need to grow up very quickly when they take on caring roles for their siblings, and sometimes even their parents. These kids have to be grownups before they’ve entered primary school.
All children are learning how to navigate friendships and relationships. There are children pretending to be fine when they are humiliated by their peers. There are children who are grappling with their gender identity or sexual orientation. Others need help to learn how to manage their emotions so they don’t explode and hurt others. I can help with all of that.
Some children self-harm to manage their distress and they otherwise don’t know how to cope. Often the parents of these children are worried and unsure how to help, and teachers are too because we have to keep them safe at school.
Many children have difficulty with learning for lots of reasons – some because they have a diagnosable learning disorder, others because concentrating or holding things in their memory is really hard. Often this makes school a pretty stressful place – for everyone.
Working with these young people to understand their challenges and build the skills to manage with difficult situations – that’s what being a psychologist is all about. I work with teachers too – debriefing after a particularly rough day, helping them to know how to respond when things are going wrong or learning is just too hard, working together to keep our students safe. Many say they feel better just knowing that I am here.
Yet, despite the years of training and the high-level qualifications to become a psychologist, when I’m stretched thin across thousands of students, I often wonder whether I am doing enough, and how I could do more. I’m lucky – I love working in schools. I make strong connections with the children and the families that support them. I understand who they are. I forge relationships over time that create high levels of trust. But the doubt is still there. Am I enough?
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