Why should teaching staff ideally have a fundamental understanding of some key psychological principles, and what are they?

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow stated that we all have a variety of needs, but some needs are more vital than others, using this model teachers can understand that that unless a pupil's basic needs are met then they will not be able to focus their energy on learning because they are too busy trying to find solutions to more immediate needs, such as feeling safe.    Some pupils may feel unsafe at school (especially those that have experienced Developmental Trauma or ACES, due to their brain's development and the production of toxic stress) despite them being physically safe. If a child does feel unsafe then sometimes their behaviour is a byproduct of these feelings, and often leads them to exhibiting 'disruptive' behaviour and having difficulties managing conflicts and communicating the way they feel, these struggles leave them with little resources to 'learn'.   In these cases because behaviour is not a choice, managing it with heavy sanctions and dealing with it in a non-discursive way will not help.  What teachers need to do is try and enable the child to satisfy their needs at the time, this may be done by demonstrating mutual respect, being curious about what unmet needs are behind the exhibiting behaviours and giving the pupil gentle options and boundaries when they do feel overwhelmed.

In addition to understanding a child's basic needs, understanding some key psychology terms can really underpin the way we teach.  Many of these psychological concepts are explained in our Developmental Guides and can have a significant impact on the way we all learn.  Here are some areas in psychology that may be useful to understand in order to support our pupils, adapt our teaching and identify ways to can move a pupil forward.

Cognitive Development

Cognitive Development can have implications for learning for all pupils as well as pupils that have social and emotional difficulties. Piaget theories of cognitive development have been subject to criticism, but there is much of Piaget's theories that can help us plan teaching and learning for all pupils.  As Piaget demonstrated we can see cognitive development starting with learning through the senses - moving and manipulating objects.  Children pass from exploration and thought dominated by immediate perceptions, though to a period of understanding and using symbols (one object used to stand for another), then onto manipulating these symbols not just in the present but eventually abstractly.  But some children may be delayed in their development and still not be able to reason in the abstract despite assuming at their age they should be able to, in these cases, children may need the support of different strategies to learn.

In Vygotsky's theory then social interaction is important in cognitive development.  Dialogues can move children on from where they are to the next step in understanding by using the more experienced people to scaffold their learning.

Motivational Theories

Motivation is another key area which can impact learning. Even understanding the difference between self-efficacy, self-esteem and self-concept is important so we can help the pupil improve their capacity to learn.  Self-efficacy (a person's believe they can succeed on a particular task) is just one area that is explained in our Developmental Guides (Motivation) and demonstrates the powerful effect that self-belief can have on our motivation and behaviour.    Bandura proposes four sources of self-efficacy (1997), while Pajares (2006) suggests ways that an educator can alter the learning environment to increase a student's self-efficacy.   These are explained below:

Facilitate the process for children to develop skill sets - Get pupils to identify areas of deficit and determine what they need to do to improve. Once children know what they need to do, they need to do it again and again until they feel competent.

Modelling - One way to learn the necessary skills is to observe others. Teachers can replicate the successful completion of a task and encourage children to copy their peers so they can learn how to achieve success.

Focus on specifics - To improve self-efficacy, it is best to focus on specifics.  With general negative feedback you are less able to make changes than if people provide specific feedback. For instance, if you want a child to learn how to do dishes you don't say “These dishes aren't clean,” instead you say “Let me show you how to load the dishwasher to get the best results.”

Reinforcement - The more behaviour is reinforced, the more likely it will continue. If you want pupils to improve their self-efficacy offer praise after the completion of a task.

Another motivational area to focus on is improving a child's intrinsic motivation rather than just improving their extrinsic motivation (offering an external reward).  Educators can move motivation away from extrinsic rewards to more intrinsic rewards by encouraging feelings of autonomy, competence and relatedness.   The below tables shows you how you could do this:

Theory of Mind

One more example of a child development concept that can really influence how children think and behave is the development of Theory of Mind (ToM).   This concept involves understanding that ANOTHER PERSON'S beliefs, emotions and intentions may differ from your own view of the world.  A task to measure whether a child has developed ToM is the famous Sally/Anne Test (pictured in the image (right)).  One of the components of ToM is the understanding of false beliefs - to recognise that somebody has a false belief we must recognise that other people can have beliefs that are different to our own.  If a child recognises that Sally will look in the basket still despite Anne moving the ball into the box then they understand that Sally has a false belief and they have therefore developed ToM.  By understanding whether children have developed ToM we can better diagnose those with delays and create more effective interventions for encouraging and supporting developmental progress.  Children who have a better understanding of false beliefs/ToM are generally more advanced in their social development.  If we can understand the mechanisms behind social competence, ToM etc. we may be able to help all children meet their social life expectations.  Educators can facilitate ToM in a number of different ways, such as enhancing self-understanding, reading and talking about story books, especially those involving deception, and encouraging pretend play which involves roles and perspective taking.

To conclude, the Developmental Guides are a mind of information and can really help teachers understand why children sometimes behave the way they do and also adapt their teaching to help children learn more successfully.