Psychologists like me believe that small changes can make a big difference, and can even change a child’s future. In my parenting support to families, I encourage them to break things down into small areas of action. This avoids parents from becoming overwhelmed. Here’s an example of the power of small changes, based on a “real-life” child!
Naomi’s mother Jennifer brought her to see me because she was anxious about school, since starting the new school year. Seven-year-old Naomi would cry every morning before school. She would also tell her mum she had a tummy ache. She said she didn’t know why she just didn’t like school. Jennifer did not know what was causing the anxiety and did not know how to respond as a parent. Should she be strict with her daughter and make her go to school despite the anxiety? Or should she empathize and allow her to miss school if she complained of a tummy ache? It was starting to put a strain on the parent-child relationship, not to mention Naomi’s happiness and academic progress.
Understanding the problem
Recommending parenting support through small changes is all very well, but you have to know what to change, and in which order of priority.
In the case described above, the three of us worked on a formulation together. A formulation is something clinical psychologists specialize in. It is when we learn about the difficulties in detail. We think about what might be contributing to them, from lots of different perspectives. We think about what might have changed, how the child’s environment might be affecting the problem (for example, too much noise), and many other things. When there is a problem in school, the psychologist will chat to the teacher or special educational needs coordinator (SENCO/SENDCo). Or, they might spend time observing the child in school.
In Naomi’s case, it turned out that she was struggling with the work, and this was the main reason for her anxiety. When we looked deeper, we could see that Naomi was bright and could produce a high standard of work. However, she struggled to process and follow instructions. She was easily distracted by background noise, or by another activity. The main changes this academic year? The classes had been mixed up and her current class was noisier than the previous one. Furthermore, her new teacher was more softly spoken and therefore didn’t always catch Naomi’s attention.
Small change – a big difference!
The teacher agreed that she would give an instruction to the whole class, then follow up with Naomi individually. She would say Naomi’s name and wait for her to give eye contact. Then she would give a simple instruction (one part at a time only), and ask Naomi to repeat it back to her. After only a week this started to make a huge difference to Naomi. She could complete her work to a high standard and started to get lots of reward stickers and house points. Her confidence soared, and her anxiety disappeared almost overnight.
As you can see, if you get to the bottom of the problem, a small change can massively affect a child’s psychological wellbeing. This is why psychologists advocate parenting support through small changes, and we notice that these so often lead to micro-improvements which then start to gather momentum and make a real difference.
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