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Young Child Observation

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Observing young children at play is an everyday and often fascinating and pleasurable experience for many of us. It also has a great pedigree in the development of psychoanalysis from Freud's observation of his grandson's game with the cotton-reel onwards.This book describes the practice of observing young children in home and nursery settings in a systematic and non-intrusive way in order to expand our understanding of their emotional, cognitive, and social development. It uses a psychoanalytic lens to enrich the meaning of what is seen. How do minds and personalities take shape? How can we train people to see what is most relevant in helping children to develop?The chapters range from classic papers by famous practitioners of an older generation to observations completed in recent years in the UK, Europe, and the US. Observation of this sort has also spread to Latin America, India, Australia, Africa, and the Far East. The differences and continuities with Infant Observation are the starting point. What happens when a child starts nursery? How active a playmate should an observer be? How do we balance the close attention given to the observed child with the wider group of children in a nursery? How do we make sense of the marked cultural differences we see between families, nurseries, and indeed national cultures? How can we use observation as a baseline for early intervention and how can we research what we are doing?The book is written for the many students and professionals concerned with the care and education of under fives, and for parents, grandparents, and all who are interested in the mind of the young child. The meeting of inner and outer worlds, which characterizes life in these crucial years, is vividly depicted. Readers will delight in the children's capacity for imaginative thought and also find themselves pondering what makes a nursery a good-enough place for staff and children.

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19 Chapters

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1 - The Transition from Home to Nursery School

ePub

Isca Wittenberg

This chapter was written as a talk for a group of nursery teachers in Naples at an opening conference of a new project of ongoing workshops for nursery staff. It presents a lucid and evocative account of the problems young children encounter in facing the first substantial separation from mother and home and provides a fitting introduction to a collection of papers arising from observations of young children at home and in nursery settings. It is a reminder of a natural link between child psychotherapists and those involved in education in the early years. The upsurge of commitment to and investment in preschool education in Great Britain and elsewhere provides a new opportunity for such fruitful encounters.

Embarking on something new—a course of study, marriage, having a baby, moving to a new house—all such events tend to arouse hope of increasing our knowledge, pleasure, and fulfilment. It is such hopeful expectations that lead us throughout life to continue to seek out new experiences. The young child beginning to go to nursery is also filled with hope, expecting to find interesting toys to play with, to learn to do things that the older children he admires are able to do, and to meet children who might become his friends. Unless previous experiences have been too deeply disappointing, we continue throughout life to hope that some new event might bring us nearer to the fulfilment of what we desire. We may invest it with hope and indeed idealize it, but at the same time we are also likely to harbour fears and dread about what this unknown new situation will bring with it. We may be afraid that the new place or person will be frightening, the new child be unmanageable, unlovable; that the new teacher will be harsh, punitive, too demanding. We may be afraid that we will not have the physical, mental, or emotional capacity to live up to the new challenge; we may feel lost in new surroundings, confused and disturbed by new ideas. We may fear to be judged by others, thought to be stupid, ignorant, lacking talent; we may be afraid that we will be made to feel inadequate, laughed at, disliked, thrown out. All these thoughts tend to arise when we are faced with a new situation.

 

2 - The Story of Child Development: A Psychoanalytic Account

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Donald Meltzer & Martha Harris

Donald Meltzer

This morning we would like to tell a story entitled “The Genesis of Development” based on the ideas of Melanie Klein and Wilfred Bion as interpreted by Donald Meltzer. Martha Harris will comment on material presented by Romano Negri from the observation of a boy during his first days at nursery school. We will attempt, through the observation of the child, to see whether we can rediscover traces of the first phase of his life after birth in his experience of the first period of nursery school. Melanie Klein's view of this “Genesis” was definitively described in her book Narrative of a Child Analysis (1961). The Kleinian theory of child development is in fact implicit in the description of the analysis of Richard and in the notes that complete it.

The story could be told in the following way: Once upon a time there was a little creature who lived in a world of his own; it was a very comfortable world, especially because he had a close friend with him (the placenta), which seemed to understand him perfectly and to which he was strongly attached by the umbilical cord. This little world of his was perfectly suited to him for various reasons: there was enough space to move, and there were no sharp or dangerous objects; the habitat was enhanced by a delightfully diffused light, every sound was muffled, it even had a pleasant taste, and all the stimuli were perfectly suited to his delicate skin. This place was therefore extremely pleasant from every point of view, so much so that he never wanted to leave it. However, the space gradually became smaller and smaller and proved an obstacle to his freedom of movement; as the space shrank, the tiny creature became increasingly restless and felt the need to make it broader and longer by using all the strength in his body. Suddenly, however, something terrible happened, as though everything had exploded, and the tiny creature felt as though he were being forcibly sucked and dragged out of his lovely comfortable world into a much less inviting place, which differed considerably from his original habitat.

 

3 - Oedipal Anxieties, the Birth of a Second Baby, and the Role of the Observer

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Simonetta M. G. Adamo & Jeanne Magagna

“You must stay until my father arrives.”

A 4-year-old sister of a new-born baby to her observer

This chapter describes the changing relationship between a mother and her young child following mother's pregnancy and the birth of a second baby. It is based on the observations of a 2-year-old girl presented to a Young Child Observation seminar. Since this is a relatively unexplored area of observational study, a brief history of the development of this seminar within the Tavistock Training will be given first. The image of an ancient Greek vase will then help to introduce, through the evocative power of its representation, the theme of the wait for the new baby and the young child's turning to the father. In particular, the chapter will focus on the father's role, as mediated by the observer, through transferential functions assigned to him by the child. Special attention will be paid to the young child's search for a private space with the observer, physically separate from the intense intimate relationship with the mother together with her new baby. This emotional space provides a boundary around the primitive emotions experienced by the child, thus allowing the development of some capacity for self-observation and reflection.

 

4 - The Young Child Observation Seminar: New Steps in Developing the Observer Role

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Maggie Fagan

This chapter is an exploration of aspects of Young Child Observation and, in particular, its relationship to its older sibling, Infant Observation. It draws on my experience as a young child seminar leader on the Tavistock Observational Studies course (M7). The chapter seeks to investigate how the complexities of sibling feelings in both the observers themselves and in the observed family influence the way in which students establish the observer role as they struggle to find a place for themselves with the young child—a place that is neither so neutral that it risks being seen as dismissive by the child, nor so involved that it leads to a confusion of roles and boundaries, in relation to both the young child and their parents. The chapter also seeks to explore some of the ideas the young child will undoubtedly have about the observer. Who is this person who comes every week and doesn't play—at least, not very often?

I also discuss how the dynamics in a child observation group may be different from those experienced with Infant Observation because an awareness of our own sibling relationships frequently adds complexity to becoming an observer of a young child and also adds to the often intense dynamics of the seminar group. In addition, for many students, at least initially, the Young Child Observation can feel as a second-best option, a poor relation to their first love of Infant Observation. Why is this? Is it connected to a prevalent wish to be an only child and the anxiety about feeling second-best when the new baby arrives in the family, or the anxiety about losing one's special place as an only child when wondering why there aren't any more siblings? Is it that we see the study of sibling and peer relationships as second-best, preferring to concentrate on the baby's relationship with the parents? It may be that autobiography plays a greater part in the study of Young Child Observation and in the group dynamics of the seminar. Prophecy Coles (2003) has written about how, in her view, the autobiographies of both Freud and Klein may have affected the emphasis they placed on sibling relationships in their theories. Coles claims that Freud's difficult relationships with his siblings may have led him to downplay the importance of siblings in his writings, particularly the more loving aspects of sibling relationships, whereas Klein, who seems to have had a loving relationship with her brother and much loved older sister, not only writes about feelings of sibling rivalry, but also explores sibling love (Klein, 1937).

 

5 - An Observation of a Young Asian Child with Feeding Difficulties, Conceived Via Assisted Reproductive Technology

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Anjali Grier

In this chapter I discuss my observation of a 3-year-old boy, whom I shall call Suraj. He is the second child of Asian parents and has a 7-year-old sister. His parents are both immigrants, having arrived in this country in their early adulthood, and appear to be in their early forties.

Both Suraj and his sister were conceived with the help of fertility treatments after their parents endured several years of painful disappointment at being unable to conceive naturally. His sister was conceived through IVF (in vitro fertilization), and Suraj was described as being a GIFT (gamete intrafallopian transfer) child. At our first meeting his mother poignantly described the great difficulty with which Suraj was conceived: the repeated disappointments of unsuccessful IVF treatments over three years, and their decision finally to accept the alternative of a GIFT baby—implying that the “gift” was possibly both the donation of an egg, as well as the miracle of their much-wanted second child, for whom they were deeply grateful.

 

6 - Laurie and his Cars: A 3-Year-Old Begins to Separate

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Claudia Henry

In this chapter I am going to explore the struggle towards independence of the little boy I observed. I started my observation when Laurie had just turned 3 years of age. During the initial meeting with Tania, his mother, she described him as an “interesting child” who had an “obsession with cars”. He could name them exactly, including not only their make, but also their model.

I will try to illustrate how cars, both real and imaginary, dominated his early fantasies and how they represented an underlying preoccupation with becoming more separate from his parents. I will show how he expressed in his play a clear move from a phantasy of being very much fused and “entangled” with his parents, to starting to find a place of his own.

About half way through the year of my observation, Laurie's father had a car accident. Fortunately he was not badly hurt. Laurie was only able to explore this experience and his feelings about it when he became more separate and was able to show in his play that he could represent relationships between people rather than control them. A lot of Laurie's play took place in his parents’ bedroom at the beginning of the year. It was interesting that there was a clear link between Laurie being able to play somewhere other than in his parents’ bedroom and his emotional development.

 

7 - The Day Captain Antonio's Balloon Burst

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Sharon Warden

To see a human being reveal really exceptional qualities one must be able to observe his activities over many years…

Jean Giono

The title of this chapter is taken from an observation at the allotment in which our main character cast himself as Captain of a ship, while he sat singing upon a tall silver conical climbing frame. He was reliving his experience of a boat trip to Egypt on a recent family holiday. Clinging onto a side railing below, his father played a foot passenger and was instructed on and off the boat at will and reminded on one passage how he narrowly avoided plunging into the sea.

The observation reminded me of another imaginary Captain, “a small miracle whose name was Captain Antonio Corelli”. I chose to call the young hero of this piece “Antonio” after Louis de Bernières's legendary Captain, whose love of life and music wins him the hearts and minds even of those whom his forces occupy—a man whom de Bernières described as winning battles “armed with nothing but a mandolin”. It is my fantasy that the two Captains shared similar childhood experiences.

 

8 - The Observed Child, the Observing Child: The Complexity of a Child's Response to the Stillbirth of a Sibling

ePub

Simonetta M. G. Adamo

“Children find it difficult to leave their mummies, their daddies and their teachers”, said the little girl thoughtfully. “Maybe even me”, suggested the observer. “Yes, yes”, agreed the girl immediately.

The above conversation took place just before the summer holiday, between a 4-year-old girl and the observer, who had been visiting her house on a weekly basis for a year. The observation, conducted within the framework of the Young Child Observation seminar, would continue for another year, as is usual for Tavistock-model training courses held in Italy (Adamo & Magagna, 1998).

The child, named Giorgia, seems to be reflecting on her own experiences and, more specifically, on the separations and acquisitions that this year has brought her. It has been a difficult year in many ways. Her mother's new pregnancy ended tragically with the death of the baby, and this had a powerful impact on the child. However, these words also show the workings of a mind that is capable of self-observation and of sharing thoughts with a person of her own choosing. The observer has been a discreet and sensitive witness over the year of the emotional turmoil and upheaval faced by Giorgia as she navigates through oedipal conflicts. The crossing proved to be a stormy one, due in part to her internal equipment, which showed a mixture of vulnerabilities and some notable resources. It has certainly been severely tested by the traumatic event. During a later phase of the observation, the picture of a boat in a stormy sea without sails or rudder appeared in one of her drawings, and this seemed a very apt image.

 

9 - The Work of Playing: A Male Observer Gets to know a Little Boy whose Father is Absent

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Ben Yeo

Observing the fluctuations between strength/vulnerability and building/collapse in the first few weeks of a Young Child Observation, I worried how I was going to make any sense of Faizul's play. I wanted to define him as either vulnerable or confident—how else, I feared, would I be able to write a coherent narrative? As time went on, I realized it was precisely these fluctuations that are the building blocks for the healthy development of a young child. Waddell captures the rhythm between different states when she refers to the “constant interplay” or “immediate to and fro” between developmental phases more generally (Waddell, 1998, p. 8). Just as Faizul's internal object was “under construction”, so was my understanding of the complexities of child development.

Faizul carefully positions coloured wooden building blocks on top of each other. He starts by placing a small blue cube on the table and then positions larger yellow blocks on top. After four blocks, the emerging tower becomes unsteady and tumbles down. Undeterred, Faizul begins building the tower back up again, using the same smaller base block. The cycle of building and collapse is repeated several times, with Faizul managing to build the tower slightly higher each time. [Observation 1]

 

10 - Seeing Beneath the Surface: An Observer's Encounter with a Child's Struggle to Find herself at Nursery

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Elisabeth Dennis

Helena was 3¼ when I met her for the first time at her house. She is a little girl with light brown skin, with black curls cascading around her face. She has big brown eyes and a big mouth with gaps in her front teeth. Helena's parents are a mixed-race couple. Her mother is 6 feet tall, a well-built white woman, extremely friendly and outgoing. Helena's father is youthful in appearance, more slight in build, and looks as if he could be Asian. He was friendly but more reserved.

When I arrived, Helena told me to take my shoes off, as I mustn't dirty the new blue carpet. She then took me into the front room. I noticed some pictures of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the hallway. The house was comfortable but not affluent. Helena's father was sitting in an armchair cradling the baby, and I sat on the settee opposite, with Helena's mother. I recall feeling that the baby was taking up everyone's attention. While Helena's mother spoke to me, Helena was playing behind an adjacent settee, which meant that I could not see her. Her mother spoke to me about Helena as though she wasn't present and brought me some of her drawings to see. She told me that Helena was used to “being studied”! She had been observed once before for a Baby Nutrition study. Towards the end of my visit Helena came into the middle of the room bringing a whole pile of toys with her. It was decided after some discussion that I would observe Helena at the nursery.

 

11 - Thoughts on Transitions between Cultures: Jonathon Moves from Home to School and from Class to Class

ePub

Elizabeth Taylor Buck & Margaret Rustin

The observations that follow highlight one aspect of children's lives. Even quite small children often live in more than one culture of care—home and childminding, home and nursery, for example. Within the family there will, of course, be a range of mini-cultures: father and mother will themselves provide different styles of care, grandparents, babysitters, older siblings, aunts and uncles, still more new experiences. Young child observers are always mindful of the picture of home in the child's mind as a background to the response to nursery, but it is more unusual to have an example of a child's transition within nursery school from one class to another. Such moves evoke the earlier, more significant one at the start of nursery, but they also allow us to study the micro-society of the nursery class and its impact on the opportunities for personal development provided.

The intensity of Jonathon's reaction to joining a new class, even one that shared a large space with his old group and where there was overlapping of some staff, is a vivid example of the way in which a sense of personal identity and security is easily threatened at times of transition.

 

12 - “The House is a Boat”: A Group of Children Face Separation

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Simonetta M. G. Adamo

In this chapter I intend to describe how a group of nursery school children lived through and coped with the experience of separating from school, teachers, and each other at the end of the year. My aim is to show how, if teachers are sensitive and able to stand by and provide a containing environment and relationships, children may find additional resources in their reciprocal relationship. Through becoming a group, they can discover support to help them face separations and transitions.

This appears particularly important in those contexts where nursery-school classes are large and the ratio of children to teachers is far from ideal. The teacher's ability to guarantee a free and secure atmosphere, where the links between children can develop, can encourage the mobilization of new sources of support. Children's group relationships actually enable emotional states to be shared and, through free play, provide opportunities for expression and symbolic containment.

This example is taken from observations made over two years in a nursery school and discussed in a Young Child Observation seminar, which was part of the Tavistock Model Observation Course held at the Centro Studi “Martha Harris” in Naples.1

 

13 - Sewing on a Shadow: Acquiring Dimensionality in a Participant Observation

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Deborah Blessing & Karen Block

The Possible's slow fuse is lit
By the Imagination

Emily Dickinson (1867)

In the interactive space between a mother and a baby, an infant observer (and at some remove the seminar group) comes to have an experience of watching relationships unfold and a child's mind and personality come into being. While always challenged by the task of remaining in a non-initiating, non-intervening observational mode, the observer has the luxury of being profoundly affected without having to do anything more than the hard work of staying present to her own feelings and to what is going on in the room. In clinical work we call up the observing qualities of bearing powerful anxieties and attending closely to the countertransference, but we also have something quite particular to do with what we see and feel—through interventions and interpretive work we strive to effect psychic change—to foster greater reflective and emotional capacities.

In this chapter, we explore an intermediate area, that of a participant observation. This application of a Young Child Observation was in a preschool setting for children who had been unable to negotiate what was required in a more ordinary preschool. We have come to see this intermediate area—neither pure observation, nor psychotherapy—as a potential space where something transforming may take place. In this case, nothing was set out as a goal; nothing, save additional experience, was expected to happen, yet something unexpected did occur.

 

14 - A Participant Observation with a Boy Suffering from a Chronic Illness

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Anne-Marie Fayolle

Tom was born on 29 March 2005; he is now 4½ years old. He is the third child in the family. His older sister is 11, and his brother is 8. His father is a technician, and his mother is a secretary. The family get on well together. The extended family lives in a neighbouring département.

Two days after Tom's birth he was diagnosed with a mega-colon. Tom had not evacuated the meconium, and he was regurgitating his feed. After X-rays he was transferred to the University Hospital with his mother. He was suffering from Hirschsprung's disease. He was operated on when he was 4 days old. He could not feed, because he lacked the cells that normally line the walls of the intestines, so he was fed through a parenteral line.

He stayed in the regional university hospital from April to September—that is, until he was 6 months old. During this time his mother went to see him every weekday. His father went on Saturday and Sunday with his sister and brother and members of the extended family.

 

15 - Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends: Familiar Faces in an Uncertain World

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Mel Serlin

Paul was jumping up and down excitedly. Suddenly he left the trampoline, came over to where I was sitting beside his mother, and exclaimed in a fast and worried way, “Thomas. Help. Gordon. Choo-choo-train stuck.” Paul stared at me intently, with an anxious expression. When I asked him about the train being stuck, he began to look a little less anxious. He then listed the names of all the other Thomas characters in a worried way. His mother joined in with helping to name them, and after this “conversation” Paul looked as if he had been able to let go of what was troubling him and returned to his play. [Aged 2 years 7 months]

Paul was 1 year and 8 months when I began working with him. An only child, he had just been removed from home and placed with a foster carer, due to his parents’ substance use, which at times left them unable to care for him properly. As a Family Support Worker based in a Local Authority contact centre, my role was to supervise many of the daily contact sessions between Paul and his parents. In this chapter, through my observations of Paul in contact sessions, I follow this young child's emotional journey through a year in transition and explore how he tried to maintain his relationships and manage the pain of separation.

 

16 - Now we are Two, Going on Three: Triadic Thinking and its Link with Development in the Context of Young Child Observations

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Anna Burhouse

One of the most striking features of many Young Child Observations is the wealth of oedipal material in which the child is seen to grapple with the difficulties and rewards of triangular relationships. This material often highlights the varied ways in which the young child experiences what it can feel like to be included, excluded, a participant or an observer in the general hubbub of family life. Such highly charged and at times passionate encounters require underlying cognitive and emotional skills which support the child to recognize, think, and reflect upon their own position within the family. These skills include an ability to think “triadically” about the inter-relatedness of objects.

In this chapter I intend to illustrate how fundamentally important the ability to make links and to “think triadically” is to the young child. To begin with, I will describe how the ability to think triadically emerges from preceding dyadic infant/caregiver relationships formed in the first nine months of life. Next, I will demonstrate how triadic thinking is linked to both the Oedipus complex and the Kleinian concept of the depressive position and how the experience of inclusion and later exclusion help to promote a capacity for abstract and three-dimensional thought. I will illustrate some of these triangular dynamics with material from a Young Child Observation. Finally, I will attempt to show how the observer is helped to retain an ability to think triadically about their own position within the observation by the containment and reflective capacities offered by the seminar group and training organization.

 

17 - Young Child Observation used as a Research Tool: Investigating Toddlers' Development in Day Care Nurseries

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Wilfried Datler, Nina Hover-Reisner, Maria Fürstaller, & Margit Datler

Paulina's first day at the day care centre

Paulina is 2 years and 8 months of age when she, together with her parents and her 5-year-old sister Sarah, enters the nursery that her older sister Sarah has already been frequenting every day of the working week for the past two years. Paulina has often come along when Sarah was taken here in the mornings or picked up in the afternoons. But now the day has arrived when Paulina's first proper stay at the day care centre is to begin.

From the observational account written by Lisa Schwediauer (2007), which covers Paulina's first day at the centre, it can be divined that two rooms exist at the nursery, where, at certain times of the day, the younger and older children are separately attended to. The group of the younger children, of which Paulina now also is a member, bears the name “Higgledy-Piggledy”; the older children's group, which Sarah belongs to, is called “Circus Tent”.

 

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