ACP's ABC of child mental health continues with E for Education and Experience. Supporting learning from experience

In E for Education we are looking at learning from experience and how our own expereince and training as child psychotherapists helps us to understand children and the way they learn 

The Association of Child Psychotherapists (ACP) is the main professional body for psychoanalytic child and adolescent psychotherapists in the UK. Our NHS CAMHS based four-year training ensures that all our members have first hand experience of working with children in child mental health services, where we treat some of the most disturbed and vulnerable children, with traumatic and complex histories.

ACP trained child and adolescent psychotherapists therefore, understand the devastating effect that adverse early life experiences can have on the developing personality. We also see how young children in particular, suffer when they are placed under considerable pressure to meet the unreasonable demands of adults. As part of our training, we child psychotherapists spend time each week observing a new baby through to two years old. Over these two years we witness how a secure attachment aids healthy brain development, social awareness and the capacity to show empathy towards others. We also see how children continually learn from experience, by making mistakes. How many children whilst learning to walk, never fall?

Young children make sense of their environment through practice and play. Every new step is checked out with their parent or carer and a healthy child will continue to expect – anticipate, praise and support. They rightfully deserve the approval and delight from others in their achievements and to be allowed to make mistakes as they continue to learn and grow. If we follow this logic, we would advocate for our education system allowing for a continuation of learning through experience, with the security and support from safe and inspiring adults, adults who will allow and even encourage them to risk getting it wrong. We feel that placing a grade or score on a young child’s shoulders is much too great a burden. Children will very quickly start to see themselves as successes or failures – rather than individuals with great worth and potential.

Experience, backed up by research indicates that children who are happy and emotionally secure, will be more resilient and much more likely to succeed academically. They will also be much less likely to exhibit challenging and antisocial behaviours, or drop out of the school system completely. As child mental health specialists, we are supporting the MTAS campaign to look at education and children in their learning environments, asking that young children in particular should be encouraged to learn how to relate to others and to explore their environment through play - within the context of secure relationships.

The government which recently called a review of primary school testing, recognizes the importance of early intervention and emotional wellbeing in the early years. ACP trained child and adolescent psychotherapists can help Governments think about the early experiences of children and how they learn and develop. Many work in schools and support teachers and children or young people with challenging behaviours. An ACP spokesperson said; “We would encourage the Government to take time to listen to experts or specialists such as ACP members, who understand the pressure on young people and schools (and politicians) to achieve targets, but who also understand what children need to learn and develop healthy minds.”

One young person has written to an ACP child psychotherapist about her understanding of what learning through experience means:

"The main thing I have learnt is that its not just the things you do, but how you do them and the mind set you adopt. One action approached with two totally different mindsets can have two completely different consequences. I didn’t learn that at school, I didn’t really get the whole problem solving thing. I didn’t have the skills to think around a problem for myself. I was used to following instructions and pleasing others.

Through writing my own blog I have learned to use words to process my own developments and changes in the world around me. I write about my ups and downs, fully appreciating each fluctuation or emotional wave- because a few months ago I felt I had completely lost myself. I had become what others wanted me to be. I walked around acting like I was happy but all I could feel was numbness in my feet and my brain. I couldn't remember how to cry because I was so focused on powering through, being okay and meeting targets, that I ignored all the problems that needed to be sorted. Not just in my relationships with others but in my relationship with myself. Because when everything else falls away, that is what shines through.

It's not about how many friends I have or the size of jeans I can fit into, but how much I value myself and what I have learned. Believing in your worth is beyond anything you can ever do for yourself. It underpins everything, and people don't realize how amazing they are, me included. So this is a plea to young people to embrace both good and bad days, because ultimately, both are as important as the other. I am beginning now, to learn from experience.  I wish I had been encouraged to think about these things earlier, when I was at school, along-side the drive to achieve good grades. For those with mental health problems it's even more important to think about changing education to include learning more about ourselves."

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