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Book review: Square pegs

In this post, we hear from Susanne (a specialist senior EP), Rachel (a newly qualified EP) and Rebecca (a trainee EP) as they discuss their review of ‘Square Pegs’.

Square Pegs…tell us about the name?

Rebecca – A square peg won’t fit through a round hole. If you try and force it, hammering it and pushing it… you might eventually get the peg through, but it will be damaged in the process. The same goes for our children. School is a round hole and while many round-shaped children fit easily into the system, for those who are ‘square pegs’, there are frequently no adjustments made… only hammering.

The key idea of the book is that our one-size-fits-all education system fails a substantial number of young people, who have huge amounts to contribute, causing enormous pain as it does so. However, this is entirely unnecessary and in small pockets of practice, we see what things could look like in an inclusive system.

What’s in the book broadly?

Rachel – …A thought-provoking and hope-inducing read, highlighting the widespread challenges that children, young people and families continue to face when navigating school inclusion, belonging and attendance. It gives a collection of theory and experience that provides a wealth of knowledge, and viewpoints from a range of individuals, from headteachers and youth workers, to parents and lawyers, all offering a valuable and insightful contribution to understanding and supporting ‘square pegs’.

Susanne – It’s presented in 38 very short chapters which can stand alone and so it provides an opportunity to dip in and out.

Rebecca – There’s an emotive introduction in which the authors discuss their own experience and a variety of quotes from children are offered, then the book is split into five sections:

  • Part one explores the idea of the square peg, who are these children, what do they look like and what are the difficulties they face?
  • Part two looks at legal and systemic issues relevant to this group of children
  • Part three focuses on relationships and how these can help or hinder inclusion
  • Part four examines mental health, neuropsychology and ideas of trauma in more depth
  • Part five brings together four examples of how the ideas in this book could be implemented to support square pegs

Susanne – It provided me with some concrete ideas and practical next steps to support the young people and the schools I work with to further embed well-being, and support belonging and resilience through relational and trauma informed approaches.

It sounds like a broad and wide ranging book, did any bits in particular stand out for you?

Rachel – Unsurprisingly, as an educational psychologist, I found Chapter 6 (Popoola & Sivers) of particular value, promoting whole school approaches to supporting mental health and universally supporting all students within a setting, rather than targeting ‘square pegs’ alone. However, in light of recent findings published by the Department for Education (2023), it appears that a vicious cycle of high EP workloads, increased statutory demands and continued underfunding and staffing currently prevents this, with early intervention, training and individualised support proving difficult to access and implement at this time.

Susanne – What I liked most about the book was that it brought together different voices and stories from young people themselves in the form of letters near the outset of the book. The chapters then provided individual yet complementary narratives of those who support and work with young people, including parents, teachers, school leaders, educational and clinical psychologists, academics and legal professionals.

Rebecca – The chapters which stood out the most to me, were the stories of schools breaking the mould: Flakefleet Primary School’s dreams (chapter 30); Debra Kidd’s ‘curriculum of hope’ (chapter 23); Carr Manor Community School’s relational culture (chapter 19); Stone Soup’s family (chapter 21) and the self-directed learning models described in chapter 35. These schools all, to a greater or lesser extent, broke away from a rigid education system’s expectations and embodied values of hope, justice, love and autonomy. They show what is possible, even within the confines of OFSTED and other external demands.

Who would you say ‘Square Pegs’ is for?

Susanne – I think as a text it has relevance to all those working with children and young people particularly at risk of exclusion or emotionally based school non attendance, but also all those working with any child struggling with school in any way, for example, due to mental health needs, and or specialist educational needs and disabilities.

I would highly recommend it to Educational Psychologist colleagues, particularly those who are at the start of their careers, as it provides a concise overview of so much useful theory and research. I found it helpful to have so many authors bring ideas applicable to our work with schools, all in one book. I would also happily recommend this book or individual chapters to school staff and leaders, as the intended audience, as it communicates ideas in an accessible and concise manner.

Rebecca – As a professional, reading this book left me in equal parts frustrated at the current system and full of motivation to explore some of the suggestions made. It is a book that every professional working with children and schools should read and reflect on – who are your square pegs and what have you done recently to offer them space?

Are there any ideas you found challenging or anything you would have liked the book to have developed further?

Rachel – In places the book appears to promote Education, Health, and Care Plans (EHCPs) as a potential answer to some of the difficulties faced by ‘square pegs’, which is a notion that I don’t disagree with, having supported many within my own practice already to date. However, as suggested in the book, the most impactful support measures are those which relate to positive relationships, shifting school culture, and considering reasonable adjustments, none of which require an EHCP to achieve. This book therefore advocates for a shift in thinking across all systems, including professional perceptions of behaviour and supporting families (a concept echoed within my own research).

Susanne – The only chapter where I was left wanting more, was in relation to assistive technology, where I wanted to know what the various technology recommendations actually did and I also wanted to know where I could learn more about this vast area given one chapter’s limited scope.

Rachel – Adele Bates notes, “compassion takes effort” (pg.209), and it may be that those willing to deliver that effort may be the ones already choosing to pick up this book, rather than those who may need more support, knowledge and convincing to do so. Considering more succinct, and accessible ways to share these valuable experiences therefore remains important, to ensure that the message continues to be shared and acted upon.

So definitely a read for EPs?

Susanne – While many of the content themes were familiar to me, the book helpfully draws together ideas, research and intervention in an accessible manner, encompassing topics of belonging, trauma informed practice, well-being, positive psychology, attachment, neuroscience, relational approaches, co-production, whilst also recapping on relevant legislation. The subject matter is highly relevant to our role as Educational Psychologists as it reflects the core of our work supporting inclusivity within educational systems.

What are your key take-aways?

Rachel – My takeaway message is one of reflection, aiming to hold the experiences shared within these chapters in mind as I navigate my own practice. This includes asking myself the questions that Kathryn Riley poses in Chapter 17 about what I already see, know, and do within my role, but also extending these to the following: What might I see? What could I know? And, what can I do?

Susanne – All in all, I was left with a renewed belief that often, changing school systems is the best way we can meet the needs of individuals. In a post covid world this book gives us a timely reminder that as Educational Psychologists we play a valuable role in supporting schools to make adaptations and inclusive environments in line with legislation, rather than providing a ’one size fits all’.

Rebecca – Fran Morgan and Ellie Costello didn’t write this from a researcher or practitioner perspective, but through the eyes of experts by experience and their passion, desire for justice and genuine empathy for square pegs is evident throughout Square Pegs. One of the biggest strengths of the book is its ability to pull together so many voices and give equal weighting to experiences, case studies and theory.

On a personal note, as a former square peg, I found this book to be written with empathy, understanding and hope – just what square pegs need.

Square Pegs: Inclusivity, compassion and fitting in – a guide for schools is available through most booksellers including Hive Books.

You can follow @teamsquarepeg on Twitter

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