An Article by an Educational Psychologist. The Value of Interests.

My name is Janet Myers and I’m an Educational Psychologist working as part of the Portsmouth City Council Educational Psychology Team. My work includes working with pre-schools, schools, families and colleagues from additional Services to explore, identify and meet the special educational needs of children and young people in Portsmouth.

Through my work as an EP, I have met and worked with a large number of families and colleagues in different parts of the country over the years, and I often find myself reflecting on young children I have worked with in the past, who will now have reached adulthood. I am curious about how their early skills and interests may have evolved over time. I wonder which aspects of early life and learning experiences have been important and valued by them and their families, perhaps shaping their development into adulthood.

I was therefore really excited to be asked to write an article for Portsmouth Parent Voice, to explore these ideas through conversation with local Portsmouth residents, Barbara and Pierre. Pierre, who is an adult with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, and his mum, Barbara, describe how Pierre’s early interests have indeed shaped his development in many ways. I hope you enjoy reading about their family journey, as their story has been a true inspiration to me, which will continue to influence my understanding of the issues we often think about as we work together. 

As Educational Psychologists, being curious and open to the thinking and ideas of others, has always been a central part of our work with children, young people, their families and the other people who are part of their lives. Through talking to Pierre and Barbara, I have become even more aware of how each person is unique, and how important it is to notice, think about and value each individual as they progress on their journey through life. I have been reminded that a small comment made by a parent about their child’s behaviour at home, or a brief observation about a young person’s response to an activity in pre-school, school or further education, can often help us to gain a better understanding of their interests, skills, needs, learning styles and most importantly, what leads to pleasure and fulfilment for the young people, and those who share their lives.

Parent Voice Article Part One: The Value of Interests.

We often hear, and say, “It’s good to have interests”. Interests can evolve into hobbies, lead to the formation of friendships and even lead us into successful and rewarding careers. We are sometimes intrigued about others’ hobbies and jobs, asking, “How did you get into that?”

As an educational psychologist, I ask questions and carry out activities with pre-school and school age children, to discover their interests as part of exploring and identifying their skills and special educational needs. Some of the young people I meet are not able to communicate verbally when I meet them, and so I like to ask their families, and those working with them, to describe their interests to me.

Why is this important? Firstly, every child and young person is unique, and exploring their unique interests helps us to learn about what is giving them pleasure and stimulation, satisfaction and in some cases, comfort. I like to consider what they like to play with and how; what they like and choose to read or talk about; and which activities they like to carry out independently, with their families and friends. This helps us to gain an insight into their knowledge and skills, how they learn, and elements of learning they may find challenging.

The importance of family insights into the origins and nature of a young person’s interests, and their behaviour and interactions around their interests is an invaluable part of such exploration.

Some of the children I meet love to talk in detail about dinosaurs, planets or train mechanics, and perhaps list features of these topics we may never have heard of, sometimes in a very repetitive manner. This may lead us to wonder if perhaps this impressive, established knowledge and behaviour enables the child to feel a sense of certainty and comfort in what may otherwise seem to be a confusing world to that child. This behaviour may also lead us to wonder if that child experiences satisfaction, achievement, pride and self-confidence due to his or her ability to share this specific knowledge.

Gaining an insight into a young person’s interests can often lead to the development of helpful interventions which incorporate their unique interests to enable them to engage in activities to develop, for example, language and communication skills, and learning and social interaction skills. Such interventions are more likely to appeal to our young people, and stimulate their engagement, both at home and in education settings.

Recognition of specific areas of interest is also important in terms of drawing attention to the value of providing focused opportunities for young people to continue to develop and apply these unique interests and associated skills as they progress through life. We would all of course like our young people to continue to experience pleasure and to reach their potential.

To return to my point about the origin and development of specific interests, next time I would like to talk about a young man who, as his mum describes, experienced severe communication and behaviour difficulties as a young child, and who has a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Pierre is now an engaging 24 year old graduate of the University of Portsmouth, graduating this year with a First Class Honours degree in Computer and Gaming Technology. Pierre has also gained an award for his work at University for the development of his own business, and he has recently embarked on an exciting new career in his chosen field. I think you will enjoy reading about his journey, which is enabling him to apply his unique set of early interests to live his professional and social life to the full.