Works and Days

Elementary School Psychology: Maggie MacLean, Winter Shadow 2016

I participated in a two-day shadow with Moira Tofanelli, a school psychologist at two different public schools in Portland. As an art major completing a thesis that draws heavily from the field of psychology, I was excited to see where a career in psychology could take me in Portland. I will be graduating in May and I am thinking about what kind of job I would like in the near future, and teaching seems to be an obvious next step for me. It was a great exercise for me to think about what kind of school I want to be a part of and see how the public schools in Portland vary.

It was interesting for me to compare the two schools I visited, as they were very different in terms of philosophy and educational goals. In the developmental psychology class I am taking this spring, we have been focusing on different models of human development and the kinds of guidance and parenting strategies that support each model. The first school I visited, the Creative Science School, uses a constructivist educational perspective. Jean Piaget, a psychologist influential in the 1970s, is the best-known proponent of this philosophy. Constructivism values learning through experience and independent problem solving.  In general, Piaget viewed child development as a series of stages, and children as tiny scientists who learn about their world through experimentation and add new information to existing mental schemas.  In the classroom, a constructivist approach often manifests as lots of group work, experiential projects, and integration of different classroom subjects.

To me, Creative Science seems big and colorful and full of movement and the evidence of children. There are art projects all over the hallway walls, glitter-covered handprints, and photographs of the students. I had forgotten what it is like to be in an elementary school. Everything is kid sized and chaotic in the way things are when tiny humans spend six hours a day in an enclosed space. 

When I arrived I met Moira, the school psychologist, and her co-worker Jocelyn who is a speech therapist. Moira’s work is very individualized, and unlike a psychologist with a private practice who has weekly sessions with multiple clients, she works more on a case-by-case basis with students who are having problems socially, academically, or at home.  During my first day, Moira was checking-in on a child who had been recently placed in a special education classroom.

I was able to observe one-on-one meetings with students who had behavioral issues, were falling behind in their classes, and who were being tested for learning disabilities. I was reminded of what it is like to talk to adults when you are a kid – it is a much different dynamic to be sitting in the office of someone four-times your age and answering questions about your social life than it is to be talking to a peer or another adult. I remember how strange it could feel to be plucked out of class in the middle of the morning. It takes a special set of skills to seem authoritative, non-threatening, and kid-friendly all at once.

One of the interesting things I noticed about the kids Moira worked with was many of them seemed to have the same vocabulary about their emotional states. Moira has a poster on the wall of her office with a superhero character named “Superflex” who fights off bad guys called the “Unthinkables.” These characters are part of a curriculum promoting emotional intelligence, social flexibility, and conflict resolution. I was surprised that some kids actually used these characters to describe how they were feeling – without any prompting from Moira! The “Unthinkables” are useful to talk about social issues that kids might be having. “Rock Brain” makes people get stuck on their ideas instead of being open-minded. “Space Invader” gets in others’ personal space and makes them uncomfortable. “Worry Wall” makes worries block out the view of everything else, and “One Sided Sid” makes people to talk only about themselves. Moira used these characters with her students to talk about how they were feeling and what was going on in class and at home.

During my second day, I got the opportunity to see a very different school, Woodstock Elementary. Woodstock is a Mandarin immersion school where students spend half the day taking classes exclusively in Mandarin and the other half of the day taking classes in English. About two thirds of the students participate in the Mandarin program, while the rest take only English classes. It was cool to hear kids speaking Mandarin in the halls between classes – immersion seems to me like the best possible way to learn a language.

At Woodstock I was able to see Moira work with a student on a diagnostic test for learning disabilities. These tests are very long and often tedious for kids to complete, so the tests need to be broken up into sections. The test for dyslexia takes six hours! It was great for me to see how working one-on-one with kids, especially for multiple years and watching them progress, can be really rewarding. A lot of times, figuring out why child is struggling in school is a complicated puzzle with many different factors, and so much of the job is building relationships with kids so that you can understand and help them. 



Tags: winter shadow, externship, education, children, psychology, special education, portland