A Unique Child

“Early development isn’t straightforward”

  • “Early development isn’t straightforward”

…but, Laverne Antrobus tells TEY, having a grasp of child psychology can help practitioners go the extra mile to support those in their care…

It’s easy to take childhood development for granted, to view it as something that just happens, but the journey we all make from infancy to adulthood, via several crucial stages in between, is in truth incredibly complex.

Our bodies are primed to grow according to the blueprint of our genes, the unique building blocks that influence who we are at a fundamental level, but what happens to us during that process also has a profound impact on the people we become, and the route we take to get there.

From the food we’re given to eat and the opportunities and experiences we enjoy, to the attitudes of our carers and the relationships we form with siblings, friends and educators – not to mention the unexpected events that the unpredictable world we live in may throw at us – the factors in play are myriad.

Unavoidably, this sometimes means that problems arise. When they do, unravelling the complexities in order to address them effectively is the task of specialists like Laverne Antrobus, a consultant child and educational psychologist at The Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust (and an expert contributor to TV shows such as Channel 4’s The Secret Life of 4 and 5 Year Olds, amongst others).

“What I’m trying to do is to use my knowledge and experience to think about what is ordinary development in children,” she says of her role.

“That’s in a number of areas: psychological, emotional, physical, their learning – all of the characteristics we would say make up a fully rounded individual, someone who gets some things right but also has some challenges, because without the challenges you don’t actually grow.”

That last point is key, as Laverne explains: “The truth is that development isn’t straightforward; we have some markers in terms of how we expect children to grow up and succeed, but they move backwards and forwards, and there are certain things that children are supposed to experience as part of their learning – getting frustrated, not being able to share, being slightly overzealous in their play – in order for them to learn how to manage in adulthood.”

It’s a varied role, and a vital one – both in terms of the difference it can make to those who need support and what it can tell educators about how best to teach and care for all children. 

Early development

“I think seeing it in action was the point at which my interest in children’s development and learning really took off,” Laverne tells us, recalling two educational placements she undertook while studying for her Psychology degree. “I thought, How do I get into this? How do I have something to do with it?

After graduating she spent three years as a primary school teacher, before completing her Masters in Educational Psychology and a further two years under supervision as she embarked on a career that’s seen her work with children and young people aged 0–25.

While her remit has always been wide, the early years holds a special place in her heart.

“For me, part of the joy of being an educational psychologist is being very involved in early years work,” she says.

“As part of my training at the Tavistock clinic we had to complete a nursery observation – it’s still part of the curriculum now. It was a real highlight: we had to follow a child through an hour or so’s morning play, whatever they did; observe them, then go away and write down exactly what we’d seen. Then we had supportive teaching from a clinician tutor, who would take us through our write-up.

“What I discovered was that you can’t know what you’re seeing until you really, really look.

There was a way I’d been observing the child I was given, a little boy, and he seemed to all intents and purposes to be pretty okay, but when I really watched – say, for example, at the water tray or the sandpit – I could see how he looked at the other children, took in their conversations, how he responded sometimes or not, and just how complex all those social interactions were for him. Ever since, I’ve believed that observation is at the heart of what we do – because sometimes you can feel that you’re looking at something, but there’s another way of really looking at it.”

Even if you are paying close attention, the job of separating ordinary, if sometimes difficult, behaviours from those that might be symptoms of an underlying problem is far from easy.

Although the numbers of very young children being identified as exhibiting challenging behaviour and emotional and social difficulties is on the increase, it’s often the case that issues only become apparent years later; even when this is the case, however, the early years remains an important consideration for psychologists, who will revisit an individual’s early experiences and behaviours as they build a comprehensive picture of their development to shed light on the present.

“At the Tavistock, we’re very interested in early child development, in the relational aspects of growing up,” Laverne says. “So, how children are with their parents, their siblings, other children and people, because that tells us a lot about how children manage their social relationships, their confidence and their resilience.”

While some of the children that psychologists like Laverne work with may ultimately be diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum or with conditions such as ADHD, the root causes of behavioural and developmental problems are varied: they may be reactions to stressful situations or only manifest in a particular setting.

Laverne highlights, too, the importance of not overreacting to bumps in the developmental road or periods of difficult behaviour.

“People can forget that some of the things we see in children, though they’re difficult, are quite ordinary,” she says.

“Similarly, sometimes children’s language skills will seem ahead of the mark, but then they might slow down or go back a bit. We don’t need to panic straight away because other things will be happening. It’s about tracking development around the area of concern, and asking, ‘Well, are other things going in the right direction?’

“I always look to tantrums as an example,” she adds. “We have to remember that this is a really important developmental stage; it’s not to be written off or got rid of, because children need to learn how to manage frustration. These stages become the templates of how they manage as they move through nursery, then school. They’re the building blocks of resilience.”

It’s what psychology can tell us about development in the round, as well as how we as adults observe and interact with children, that makes having a grasp of its principles so valuable for educators at every level.

“For those thinking about what place psychology has in their role, it’s really in helping them to think about their experience of working with children,” Laverne explains.

“It’s about understanding the different facets of their learning. What I’ve seen working well is when nurseries put a real emphasis on the psychological aspects of learning – they talk about children in a way that helps bring to the fore the many characteristics we need to keep in mind. They have key workers focusing on small groups of children, and the communication between staff is good, so everyone can keep abreast of these things.

“Don’t be scared to take your learning forward in this area,” she concludes. “There are many brilliant professionals working in nursery settings who I think would be further empowered by doing so.”

Talking points

1. Get the message
“All behaviour is communication,” Laverne explains. “In the heat of the moment, when you’re having to clear a space or shield children from a child who’s out of control, try to consider, what is that child trying to tell you? When you’re able to lend your mind to that level of thinking, it’s an incredibly powerful tool for beginning to understand the distress that little one must be feeling.”

2. It takes two
“We have to be aware of the feedback loops that are taking place between us and the children,” Laverne stresses. “When a child does something, we have a reaction, which then makes us behave in a certain way. Sometimes you need to step outside the context you’re working in to understand this exchange, because if a child is incredibly distressed, often you don’t have time to think because you’re managing the behaviour.”

3. A crucial role
Making time to forge strong relationships with the children in your care is hugely important in helping them to manage the challenges of a busy classroom. “There’s a level of security and intimacy at home that can’t be achieved in an early years setting,” Laverne says. “Children have to do a lot of work to manage, particularly in those first few days.”

4. Show empathy
“Young children come to us with quite potent, sharp emotions,” Laverne says. “When you’re faced with difficult behaviour, think, what does that remind me of? How does it make me feel? If it’s making me feel like that, how is it making the child feel? I don’t believe children want to be distressed and lashing out, but sometimes they feel like there’s nowhere else to go.”

5. Respond with curiosity
“If two children are fighting over a scooter in the playground, it needs an adult to come in and say, ‘Now, what’s going on here? Ah, this is a really difficult situation…’ rather than, ‘You’ve had it for five minutes, so now you…’ etc. We should show a genuine level of curiosity and enquiry: ‘What are we going to do? We’ve got a problem here, haven’t we…’”

Training with the Tavistock

Extending your knowledge of child development can be a huge benefit to your practice…

Professionals from a range of sectors train with The Tavistock and Portman Trust, which is celebrating its 100th year in 2020.

“Early years staff that are interested in looking more deeply at what’s going on for their children should really think about coming on the courses that are available,” says Laverne, who herself provides supervision for the Tavistock’s educational psychology doctorate.

“I met somebody the other day who does voluntary work with very young children; she joined one of our introductory courses, ‘The emotional care of babies, children, and young people and families’ (EC1), and it’s given her a new way of thinking about, and appreciating, what it’s like for young children in their development.

“I think we have a lot to offer educators who are thinking, I wonder what that means? How does that translate? or Why do I feel like that in relation to this? And that’s what I remember being critical about my learning: what something made me feel and how I relate to it has been the guiding light through my work in this field.”

To find out more about courses available, or to join an open day, visit tavistockandportman.nhs.uk/training.