Essential Toolkit When Working in Schools as a Psychologist #mentoring #earlycareerpsychologists #support #schools #toolkit

I have recently been in touch with a number of early career psychologists about to embark a journey of working in schools. They were asking advice about top tips and preferred resources. Over the years, I have built resources I use on a regular basis so I thought I would take the time to write down what I could call ‘my essential toolkit’.

Getting to know each other, Being together, Enjoying time together

Time spent ‘being together and enjoying time together’ is valuable when working with children and young people. For some children and adolescents, it can take a few sessions to open up and discuss their feelings and thoughts. Asking what is their favourite activities, interests and hobbies always consist of a first session activity. I tend to use a blank page and draw a mind map of the child’s likes, dislikes, being good at, needing help with. This way the session is co-constructed and not necessarily pre-planned. Children learn that what is on paper is all their ideas, feelings and thoughts. Some formats are available on on-line in the name of ‘All About Me’ or ‘One Page Profile’ for ideas. I personally like better the blank page as it often becomes a cooperative activity where the child draws too.

To promote enjoyment and fun, I have a bag of different tools that have become particularly important in building a relationship with children. These toys are carefully chosen to create a positive reaction and emotion, and encourage dialogue. In many situations, talking about the toys and experience of playing have led to opening a discussion about interests, hobbies, school, home, etc. These tools are also important to help children return to the next session and feel happy knowing they will se you again. My essentials are:

  • A box of scented pens
  • Sensory toys such as winding up toys, slime in balloons (home made) or stress balls, funny glasses, balls, balloons, noisy toys. Bubbles are also a great way to create reactions, fun and teach different strategies. All these toys were purchased from basic dollar shops.
  • A bag of classic Lego, a couple of puzzles, a tin of Spot It and UNO cards
  • A bag of little people with trees and fences (including Lego figurines, Oshis, Shopkins, Inside Out characters, animals). This can help when children want to create their own world. It can also help with teaching specific strategies through role-play. Similarly, puppets are great too for this purpose.
  • Blank pages of paper and little scrapbooks
  • Scrapbooking bits and pieces, with scissors and glue to create a Worry Book for example and any other creation comes up in a session. Ideas can be found different websites, but ideas coming from children themselves tend to be so meaningful.
  • I have also added to this football/soccer/sports cards or games for children with specific interest, as well as snap cards of specific interest such as unicorns, space, etc. and magazines on specific interests. Trump cards are also great.

Cards and Therapeutic Story Telling

St Lukes Innovations has a number of cards for various purposes. Feeling cards such as the Bears are a must and works well with children, particularly when they are finding it tricky to name and identify a feeling. In this instance, I give the child some cards and say ‘choose cards that represent that feeling’. Two Worlds cards are great to explore feelings and thoughts about children living in two homes/two different worlds. For adolescents, Deep Speak, Shadows and Inside Out are great resources to initiate discussions and also to explore deeper thoughts and meanings for feelings and behaviours.

I have developed a therapeutic story telling little library and love it! My role being in assessments in previous years did not lead me to focus so much on this type of resources before, so I am enjoying finding stories and would love to write some one day! My favourites are:

  • My Huge Bag of Worries (worries and anxieties). After reading the book, I ask the child to draw their own bag of worries and we then discuss each of them with strategies that could help making them go/fly away (as in the story)
  • The box set When I am feeling (anger, sadness, scared, happy, love, lonely)
  • Hey Warrior (anxieties): Children tend to really like this book as it scientifically explains how the brain deals with anxieties. I have used this with adolescents too, just to explain terms and the brain’s actions. It is a little long, particularly for younger children, the story is best interactively delivered.
  • The Invisible String (parental separation)
  • Volcano in my Tummy (anger) for individual and group sessions and with stories in the book
  • Monsters Inside (mindfulness, calming tools)
  • Margot Sunderland has a series of books on various issues: Ruby The Rubbish Bin, The Wobbly House, The Day the Sea Went Out and Never Came Back, for example.

Personal Construct and Self-Image tools

Rick Beaver in Educational Psychology Casework provides a number of particularly helpful tools that I have used time after time in sessions with children and adolescents such as school situations, drawings, salmon lines. Based on these ideas, I also have a series of cards of school situations collected from various sources which are explored in sessions with children.

Draw your current school and then your ideal school tends to be an activity that works well to get to know where the difficulties at school may be, particularly when engagement and participation is a difficulty.

The series of the Blobs, a number of Blob characters placed in different situations such as the classroom, on a tree, in the playground, in different types of homes and worlds, is also an activity where children and adolescents tend to respond well to and where feelings of their self-concept and personal construct can be explored.

Some questionnaires such as the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaires (SDQ) and BG-Steem can also help explore self-esteem and help scaffold a conversation.

Group Work

In schools, psychologists are often required to contribute to developing groups aiming to support the development of specific socio-emotional skills. When looking at these resources, it is best to look into the evidence behind these programmes. However, in schools, purchasing expensive programmes and needing to attend training to become an accredited ‘trainer’ can act as a barrier to providing support to children. Having some guide books (which are often based on evidence-based practices) can help design some much needed support in a more immediate way. The following resources provide a good start:

  • Socially Speaking (social skills)
  • Friendship Kids, Friendly Classrooms
  • Zones of Regulation (self-regulation)
  • Cool Connections with Cognitive-behavioural therapy (Resilience, self-esteem)

Parenting support

The Science of Parenting/What every parent needs to know from Margot Sunderland explores a number of relevant themes affecting parents such sleep, tantrums, love to name only a few.

Parents are often finding behaviour management tricky. Tools, such as the ABC, based on a functional behaviour analysis helps gathering evidence around patterns of behaviour and helps open the discussion about more problem behaviours.

A Solution-oriented meeting format where ‘what’s ok’ is explored together with exceptions can also give a sense of empowerment to parents in helping them to realise there are many aspects of their role they are fulfilling well. It can also give an outline and format as to what needs to change, providing a tool to manage and initiate change.

Working in schools provide a number of advantages and can make a difference for many children and young people who would not normally have the opportunity to access special attention and support.

***The author of this text has no relationship with authors/resources mentioned and no financial gain in promoting any of these resources.***

Essential Readings and Guide Books

Ajmal, Y. & Rees, I. (2004). Solutions in Schools. BT Press: London.

Beaver, R. (2003). Educational Psychology Casework: A Practice Guide. Jessica Kingsley Publishers: London & Philadelphia.

Cefai, C. (2008). Promoting Resilience in the classroom. Jessica Kingsley Publishers; London& Philadelphia.

Geddes, H. (2006). Attachment in the Classroom. Worth Publishing.

Rosoman, C. (2008). Therapy To Go. Jessica Kingsley: London&Philadelphia

Seiler, L. (2008). Cool Connections with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Jessica Kingsley: London&Philadelphia

Stallard, P. (2005). Think Good, Feel Good. John Wiley & Sons, LTD: Chichester

Thielking, M. & Terjesan, M. (2017). Handbook of Australian School Psychology. Springer.

Treisman, K. (2017). A Therapeutic Treasurebox for Working with Children and Adolescents with Developmental Trauma.

Sunderland, M. (2007). The Science of Parenting. DK: London.

Zandt, F. & Barrett, S. (2017). Creative Ways to Help Children Manage BIG Feelings. Jessica Kingsley: London




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