North Wales Management School - Wrexham University

Educational psychology: supporting children and young people to learn and develop

Posted on: June 29, 2023
Psychology Test for Children - Toddler Coloring Shapes

The latest UK government statistics regarding additional learning needs, published in their June 2022 report, indicate that just under 1.5 million pupils in England alone have special educational needs (SEN). Overall, 4% of all pupils have an education, health and care (EHC) plan, and 12.6% do not have a plan but require additional learning support.

There is no singular teaching method that works best for all learners – whether individuals have additional learning needs or not. With nurseries, schools and other educational settings playing such a critical role in both the development and future outcomes of children and young people, it’s vital that appropriate, personalised support is available to help them to thrive.

But, what approaches work best? Where and when does learning occur? How can learning processes be improved to promote better educational outcomes for all?

What is educational psychology?

Educational psychology is the study of how we learn and retain knowledge. It focuses on applying psychological research, theories and techniques in order to support and promote the emotional, social and learning outcomes of children and young people.

Closely aligned with human development as a whole, it explores the social, emotional and cognitive aspects of growth and learning. Learning occurs in cross-contextual settings – both within, and outside of, traditional classroom settings. Educational and cognitive psychology also explores the impact that various factors – such as gender, age, culture, and social and physical environments – influence the ways in which we learn.

There are several overarching theoretical fields of educational psychology.

  • Behaviourism – considers learning as observable behavioural change in response to environmental stimuli. It posits that behavioural responses resulting from the stimuli, when followed by positive reinforcement, are more likely to occur in future. In terms of enhancing learning in schools, it promotes maximising structure, using regular prompts, active supervision, and teaching expectations in advance.
  • Cognitivism – focuses on the concept that learning occurs when information is received, arranged, memorised, and retrieved when needed. It deems neuroplasticity essential, whereby the learning process itself forges new connections within the brain, and requires learners to be actively engaged and ‘make their own meaning’, from the process.
  • Constructivism – a learner-centred approach based on the belief that humans learn in successive stages. Concepts, or ‘schemas’, that we hold about the world are tested as they come into contact with reality and subsequently adjusted according to new data, experiences and information we discover.
  • Experientialism – states that the facilitation of learning processes takes place via engaging students in experiences which allow them to develop their skills and apply knowledge.

While these are some of the more popular psychological theories related to human learning, growth and development, research is very much ongoing in this vast, evolving field – constantly informing and reshaping educational approaches.

What is the role of an educational psychologist?

The British Psychological Society (BPS) defines the role of an educational psychologist as one that ‘looks at how children and young people experience life within the context of their school and home environment and how different factors in these environments interact with each other.’

Educational psychologists can work across the spectrum of human development, with age groups ranging from pre-school and early years right through to adulthood.

As well as ensuring that children, young people and adults receive the correct type, and amount, of support in educational settings, educational psychologists also work closely with other relevant parties. For example, this often includes families – who may require support within the child’s home environment – together with schools, education providers, social care services and local authorities.

They can help to develop support and guidance, and create better educational experiences, for children with a broad range of SEN, including:

  • physical disabilities, such as cerebral palsy
  • additional learning needs, such as dyslexia or dyspraxia
  • emotional, behavioural needs and mental health support, such as Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
  • issues with social skills, such as those often association with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
  • difficulties with concentration, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • sensory issues, such as hearing or eyesight.

The role can be incredibly varied, encompassing, for example: consultations; psychological assessments; providing support to parents and carers; implementing strategic measures; one-to-one and group interventions; staff and professional development initiatives; and multi-agency work.

Job and career specialists, Prospects, provide further insights into the role of an educational psychologist.

Supporting learners with SEN

While children and adolescents with SEN each bring unique talents and gifts to the classroom, there is plenty that educators and others working in these settings can do to help them connect more effectively with others and access learning.

Following the Assess, Plan, Do, Review framework is a valuable way to explore the specific issue or issues, design and implement support strategies, and then evaluate their overall success and adapt further if required.

For example, a child with dyslexia may have difficulties with reading, comprehension, spelling, forming answers, and sequencing words. Whether the child has a diagnosis or not, there are a number of measures that can be established in order to support their learning such as:

  • presenting new words and language in small, manageable chunks
  • provide plenty of opportunities to recap and review what has been learned
  • make sure of multisensory activities and input
  • establish a supportive, inclusive and collaborative learning environment
  • utilise physical reading aids and presenting words on different coloured backgrounds
  • use concept and comprehension-checking questioning
  • organise support from other adults or peers, if appropriate.

Ultimately, each approach will be different and tailored to that individual child’s particular needs and difficulties.

Use psychological expertise to help support those you teach

Are you keen to better support children with learning difficulties? Want to gain the skills and expertise to foster engaging, nurturing learning environments?

Develop as an outstanding educator with North Wales Management School’s online MSc Educational Psychology programme.

Help shape and improve classroom practice in your role, meeting the varied needs of learners and helping them to access education. Designed to meet the needs of teachers, educational psychologists, classroom assistants and social workers, this flexible postgraduate psychology degree is suitable for anyone who works closely with children and young people in educational and other settings. Your studies will develop core skills and deep understanding across topics such as behaviour disorders, adolescent and child development, cognitive processes, additional learning needs, clinical and psychometric assessments, and much more.