An investigation of the origins and working though of emotional difficulties by young children in a specialized psychodynamic educational environment
Michael O’Loughlin, Adelphi University
Leon Hoffman M.D., Pacella Parent Child Center of the New York Psychoanalytic Society and Institute
Carrie Catapano, Head of School, West End Day School
January 2013 – 2015
West End Day School has served the needs of children in New York City for almost a hundred years. The school is dedicated to providing a nurturing space for children with emotional vulnerailities and their parents to find nurturance and support in negotiating their particular difficulties and in achieving academic success that allows these children to pursue their lives and career aspirations unhindered by long-term impairments. West End Day School is an exemplary school from a psychoanalytic perspective. Its mission embodies values of humanity, affirmation of potential, a commitment to understanding the origins of children’s difficulties rather than rushing judgment, and a commitment to creation of a psychodynamically informed therapeutic and educational milieu that is growth-inducing and healing. Our team (a collaboration among West End Day School, Adelphi University, and the Pacella Parent Child Center of the New York Psychoanalytic Society and Institute) has had considerable discussion about the kind of research initiative that might best serve the needs of West End Day School children and their families, and that might also contribute to dissemination of knowledge about the important work being done for children in sites such as West End Day School. In developing our research plans a number of considerations were important:
- The study should be non-intrusive, as far as possible on the school community
- Participation in the study should have no adverse consequences for children, families, or the school.
- The study should assist West End Day School in refining its curriculum and pedagogical approach to meet the needs of individual children as needed
- The study should demonstrate how applied psychoanalysis helps illuminate the needs of children with complex difficulties and how psychodynamic tools can be used to develop both a conceptual understanding of such children’s difficulties and how they can point to therapeutic and pedagogical interventions that matter
With respect to research strategy, we settled on a narrative approach, which is a scientifically recognized approach to the systematic study of individuals. We propose to develop a series of portraits of children that will serve to introduce child professionals to the heuristic and practical value of psychodynamic ways of working with children and of conceptualizing emotionally supportive, humane, communitarian, culturally responsive, and imaginative school environments and processes. For professionals conversant with ways of working deeply with children’s emotional experiences and in creating emotionally and imaginatively facilitative environments these portraits will serve as a handbook for sharing the wisdom of the field. For child professionals seeking deeper and more psychodynamic ways of conceptualizing their understanding of children and their professional practices, these portraits will serve as a professional introduction to psychodynamic conceptualization and best practices. We envisage this research culminating in perhaps a dozen portraits which we anticipate publishing as a book. This study will yield qualitative case study data to supplement the pedagogical and clinical discussions in a comprehensive volume entitled Working with children’s emotional lives: Psychodynamic perspectives on children and schools, currently being edited by Michael O’Loughlin. We anticipate these case studies will be combined into a companion volume.
The child portraits will be constructed using a variety of metrics. Once 15 families and children have been chosen, they will be systematically studied in three groups of five, each of which will be studied successively for approximately six months. As each case study proceeds we will assemble the necessary information and construct preliminary draft portraits. We will then repeat this process with the second and third group of five children and families. Each child portrait will attempt to address the particular difficulty that a particular child experiences; the possible origins and development of that difficulty; illustration both of the strengths and resiliencies of the child; and ways in which interventions at West End Day School and with the family are scaffolding the child to enable the child to negotiate his/her way around the difficulty. Information for these portraits will be derived from school records; targeted observations by school personnel; and the generation of some new data through family interview and brief child and family assessments using formal measures. Portraits will be developed collaboratively with school staff and all drafts will be reviewed by West End Day School staff and signed off by Carrie Catapano, the Head of School. All material will be disguised to protect identity.
Parent and family data
- Parent intake information and current school records
- Family history, and family dynamics interview
- Parent Function interview (modification from Christian, C., Hoffman. L , Bucci, W., Mulroe, M., and Worth, M. (2010). Symbolization and Emotional Engagement In Mothers’ Reports of Child Care Activities. Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies 7(1):22-39. [Appendix A2]
- Please describe a moment or incident in the last two weeks when you and a child/adolescent really “clicked.” Write what the youngster said and/or did and what you said and/or did, and what happened in the end. Write what you understand about the child/adolescent’s motives for her/his behavior during the interactions. Write how you felt about the youngster at the time of the interaction. About how old was the child/adolescent?
- Please describe a difficult moment or incident in the last two weeks when you and a child/adolescent really were not “clicking.” Instructions same as above.
The following will be assessed in scaled manner with instructions for scoring: Insight into child’s motives, Complexity in description of child, Maintenance of focus on child, Richness of description of child, Coherence of thought, Acceptance
- Parent Child Relationship Inventory (PCRI) by Anthony B. Gerard, Ph.D. Western Psychological Services [Appendix B]
- A Parental Bonding Instrument. (PBI Parker, G., Tupling, H., & Brown, L. B. (1979). British Journal of Medical Psychology, 52, 1-10. [Appendix C]
- Child data will come from observation by teachers during the ordinary course of the school day. Key events for that particular child [e.g., moments of breakthrough or moments of particular difficulty] will be documented through observation of situations such as, play, dyadic interaction, small-group interaction, dealing with challenge, ambiguity, adversity, anxiety, disappointment, conflict, separation, academic tasks, etc. Advice from the research team as to what particular difficulties to document for a particular child will be offered as indicated. The research team will not have direct contact with children.
- Clinical therapeutic data will come from observation by staff social workers during the ordinary course of therapeutic activities with each child. Key events for that particular child [e.g., moments of breakthrough or moments of particular difficulty] will be documented through observation of situations such as, play, dyadic interaction, small-group interaction, dealing with challenge, ambiguity, adversity, anxiety, disappointment, conflict, separation etc. Advice from the research team as to what particular difficulties to document for a particular child will be offered as indicated. The research team will not have direct contact with children.
- Psychodynamic psychiatric interview of child at admission and periodic updates [Appendix D]
- Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) [Appendix E] [Completed by parent]
O’Loughlin, M. (2001). The development of subjectivity in young children: Theoretical and pedagogical considerations. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 2, (1), 49-65.