Projective assessment in EP work
The publication of Learning from the Unconscious sparked increased interest in psychodynamic ideas among educational psychologists.
A background to projective approaches
Projective techniques are some of the more widely used approaches from this school of thought among EPs, though there is limited research into their use in UK (King, 2017). Such techniques are ideographic, focusing on the individual’s experiences, in contrast to nomothetic approaches that try to establish generalisations that apply to all people. Ideographic measures have a long history of unpopularity in the therapeutic and academic communities in favour of more standardised tools (Chandler, 1994) such as questionnaires and cognitive tests. However, there is increasing acknowledgement of the need for theoretically well-grounded assessment tools that give space for the unique representation of the self (Binney & Wright, 1997)
A core element of psychoanalytic theories is the importance placed on the unconscious. Freud’s (1900, 1905) model of consciousness uses the analogy of an iceberg to represent the idea that most of what goes on in the mind is hidden.
- The conscious mind, the mental processes we are aware of, is like the visible tip of the iceberg.
- The pre-conscious sits just below the surface and consists of everything stored in memory that can easily be brought into conscious awareness.
- The unconscious is the vast portion beneath the surface. It contains repressed ideas and experiences as well as primitive impulses and desires, which are too anxiety-provoking or disturbing for the conscious mind.
Defence mechanisms such as projection, denial and repression are used to avoid knowledge of unconscious desires or motives. Freud argued that much of our behaviour comes from factors outside our conscious awareness. Therefore, trying to understand the unconscious and inner world of a child can help us to understand their behaviour (Frosh, 2002).
The projective hypothesis
Projection is a defence mechanism that helps people to guard against painful feelings. It can be defined as “The process of unwittingly attributing one’s own traits, attitudes or subjective processes to others… and perceiving objective stimuli in line with personal interests, desires, fears or expectations” (English and English, 1958).
The projective hypothesis argues that a person’s response to tasks will bear traces of the way they relate to others, and understand the world around them. Projective techniques use deliberately ambiguous stimuli (such as the ‘ink blots’ in the Rorschach) that invite the respondent to show something of their internal world in order to complete the task (e.g., being asked what they can see when shown the ink blot image). Other projective tests ask the respondent to complete sentence stems, draw pictures or tell stories based on images (Kennedy & Eastwood, 2021 ).
The use of projective tools by EPs is considered contentious by some. There remains:
- suspicion of the psychoanalytic frame in the field of applied psychology, leading to criticism that projective techniques are ‘unscientific’ or rely too much on interpretation
- A lack of consistent training in projective techniques across initial EP training courses
- limited availability of supervision
- A range of responses to EPs taking projective material to supervision, from curiosity to outright hostility.
Projective techniques in practice
I have used projective techniques with almost every child and young person I have seen in my practice as a local authority EP for over a decade. In my experience these tasks can be used flexibly to support engagement and are a rich source of data across different domains of functioning. It is important to treat themes that arise from projective tests for what they are; as hypotheses rather than facts.
Managing uncertainty is a core part of the EP role. Parents and school staff generally approach us in search of answers when they feel that they have exhausted their ordinary options. We must tolerate our clients’ frustration that we cannot give them strategies that will instantly solve their problems, but instead help them to shift their understanding of the child in a way that gives rise to more helpful ways of responding. Projective assessment requires the EP to remain in that liminal space of not knowing, and remaining curious and open about what might be going on.
I will provide two vignettes that illustrate times where projective tools have led to a turning point in my understanding of what was going on for a child or young person.
John – a door opened*
John, 13, attended a mainstream secondary school where I was the link EP. I was asked to write the psychological advice for his education, health and care (EHC) needs assessment. John had a diagnosis of autism.
I met with him to get his views about school. John seemed willing to talk to me but I felt our discussion was at the surface level. When asked open questions, John gave the impression that everything was fine at school. I felt frustrated because I sensed that that there was more going on that I was not getting to.
After around half an hour, I decided to offer John a sentence completion task. I read out the beginning of a series of sentences and asked him to finish them in whatever way came to mind. I found myself amazed at some of the answers he gave. After I had administered the fifty sentence stems, I asked John if any of his answers had surprised him. It was as if a door had been opened.
John talked with me about his social difficulties and experiences being bullied at school, e.g. When I was little “I used to play with my friends”; No one lets me “play with them”; The students in my class “are rude (but nice)”. John felt that his peers were not respectful towards him and had been making personal and unpleasant remarks about his weight and learning ability. Suddenly I understood why, when asked to draw a person, John had chosen to draw the misanthropic ogre Shrek.
Some of John’s responses also indicated greater awareness of his difficulties than he had been able to express when asked directly. For example, At night time “I don’t sleep”; I don’t understand “any of the work”; The happiest time “is when I am out of school”; I suffer “with anxiety”; Most adults “don’t understand me”; My mind is “very challenging.”
John let me know that the SENCo was one of the few adults he trusted at school. He gave me permission to share our conversation with his mother and the SENCo. Thanks to the insights that John and I had reached together using the projective material, we were able to have a fruitful conversation about his social and learning needs.
Diego – the feelings beneath the quiet exterior
Diego, 7, attended an out-of-borough primary school. Again I had been asked to write the advice for his EHC needs assessment. Diego had witnessed domestic violence against his mother from a young age, culminating in the family fleeing to a shelter. Diego had to move schools. There was a significant difference between the Diego described at home, where the Police were frequently called so great were the worries about his behaviour, and at school where he was described as mild and passive.
I observed Diego in class and saw the quiet boy described in his school reports. I met with Diego and cognitive assessment indicated skills broadly within the average range. I am always cautious about bringing up too much about the family when I know that the child has had a difficult start to life. However in this case I felt it was warranted and asked Diego to do a kinetic family drawing. The instructions are fairly simple, “I would like you to draw me a picture of your family. And I would like everyone to be doing something.” He clearly found this task difficult and did a much more simplistic drawing than I had seen when I had asked him to draw earlier in the session.
I was able to catch a glimpse of the difficulties seen at home when Diego was stirred up by the task. He found it difficult to accept or name the feelings he was having, saying ‘No’ when I commented that he seemed unhappy. Diego said that he felt fine, but his behaviour indicated otherwise. He scribbled on and then tore up some paper. Diego was able to regulate when given time to explore the room we were in. He chose to go into a sensory space and get some of his frustration out physically. Diego was then able to choose a calming task before I took him back to his classroom.
The drawing helped me to understand the strong feelings beneath Diego’s quiet exterior. In the consultation we were able to explore the importance of finding an attachment figure at school who could monitor his emotional needs, and be aware if any learning themes might be triggering for him.
Building a deeper understanding
As I explain to schools when I contract my work with them, my aim in a psychological assessment is to get a holistic snapshot of what is going on for the child at that point in time. As I hope these examples have illustrated, projective tools can provide a way to see parts of a child’s world that would otherwise be difficult to find out in the brief involvement typical in the EP role. As Kennedy and Eastwood suggest:
“While a psychometric orientation puts the test centre stage, projective testing puts the client centre stage. The aim of the use of projective testing is to understand the client in their complexity and uniqueness, with the view of making use of the understanding gained to make decisions about future interventions”.Kennedy & Eastwood, 2021
Psychodynamic approaches highlight the link between a child’s cognition and emotional worlds. Emotions permeate educational experiences (Linnenbrink-Garcia & Pekrun, 2011) but they are often not given much thought. Projective material can provide opportunities to engage clients in discussions that can build a deeper understanding of the child and their behaviour, and therefore bring about meaningful change.
Some considerations for practice
- It is always helpful to think about why a child is acting in the way that they are. Could this link to something they have experienced in their life?
- Children and young people can struggle to share their experiences directly. Approaching sideways with a neutral task such as a drawing can help them open up.
- Strong emotions are contagious, and feelings of anger or anxiety when working with children who have had difficult experiences are common. Unfortunately, this means that it can be more difficult for such children to form positive relationships with adults, which they desperately need. It can help to take a step back and ask where the feelings might be coming from, and whether they are really directed at you.
* The vignettes are based on case material from two or more children with similar themes. They contain no information from which anyone could be identified or recognise themselves
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Chandler, L.A. (2003). The projective hypothesis and the development of projective techniques for children. In C. R. Reynolds & R. W. Kamphaus (Eds.), Handbook of psychological and educational assessment of children: Personality, behavior, and context. New York: Guilford.
King, R. (2017). An exploration of the use of projective techniques by educational psychologists in the UK (Unpublished doctoral thesis)
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Linnenbrink-Garcia, L. & Pekrun, R. (2011). Students’ emotions and academic engagement. Contemporary Educational Psychology 36(1). 1-3