Category Archives: Psychology

Becoming an Educational Psychologist: Part three

A big part of the training involves carrying out a piece of research called the thesis. A thesis is a dissertation advancing an original point of view as a result of research. This is an 18 month long process and I am about halfway through.

Friends sometimes ask me what my thesis is about and I have usually drunk alcohol by then and I am not always coherent in my response. So I thought I would ask myself some questions while sober and attempt to answer them, so next time I am asked I can text them the link and carrying on quaffing my wine.

What is your thesis about?

Getting teachers to increase the use of process praise in maths lessons.

Why?

To see if the increase in process praise leads to children’s beliefs about maths intelligence to change and for their effort to increase.

What is process praise?

Process praise is praise that specifies what it is for and is directed at a particular individual or defined group of individuals. It focuses on the effort and strategies employed (mastery goals) rather than the end result (performance goals).

For example:

Focusing on a maths skill: Well done, Maya, for using an equals sign to show they are equivalent.

Focusing on an interpersonal skill: I am impressed with the way you worked with your partner to solve the problem, Raj.

Focusing on the process of learning: Good effort, Rachel, you worked hard even though you found it difficult.

What do you mean by children’s beliefs about maths?

According to Carol Dweck, children have one of two mindsets about maths (and everything else).

Fixed – maths intelligence is fixed from birth you either can or you can’t do maths.

Or

Growth – maths intelligence is malleable and can grow with effort.

What sort of praise do teachers’ usually give if it is not process praise?

Lots of general praise such as ‘well done’ or ‘brilliant’ which is fine, but doesn’t tell the child what they have done well.

Also some person praise such as ‘good girl’ or ‘clever boy’ or ‘you are a natural’, which research has shown can actually been damaging as it may reinforce the belief that trying hard and practising means you are not clever, and that people who are good at something don’t have to practice.

Will giving process praise change the mindset of children from fixed to growth?

Previous research has shown that children exposed to process praise, ‘good effort, you must have worked hard’, are more likely to choose a more challenging task when offered a choice between the same level of difficulty or a harder problem than those who were praised for being clever, ‘well done you must be really smart’. However, this research was not conducted in real classrooms, rather it was an experimental set up. My research takes this idea and applies it in classrooms of children aged 9-11 years to see if it can change the child’s mindset in maths.

Why does mindset matter?

Children with a growth mindset have been found to make better progress in secondary school than those with a fixed mindset particular in maths. However, it is not clear how children develop this mindset and what works to change it.

What is your research aiming to prove?

I am not aiming to prove anything rather test a hypothesis generated from previous research findings. I want to know if getting teachers to increase their use of process praise in maths has an impact on those children’s beliefs about maths intelligence. I also want to know if this type of praise changes the children’s effort (measured by the teacher).

How will you know if the childrens mindset has changed as a result of teachers using process praise?

Because before I trained the teachers how to give process praise, I asked the children to complete a questionnaire which identifies the mindset they hold in maths. I then got the children to complete this questionnaire again after 4 weeks of process praise. I also asked another school to carry out the same questionnaire before and after the process praise intervention, however they didn’t get the training so the teachers carried on as normal (they will get the training, but after the data is collected).

This means there are two ways I can show if it worked or not. By comparing the childrens scores on the questionnaire before and after they received process praise, and by comparing the scores of children who did and didn’t receive the process praise.

I also got the teachers to give and effort grade for the children in maths before and after the process praise intervention.

So if you do find it has worked what does it mean?

It means there is a cost-effective and relatively easy to implement intervention, which will improve children’s effort in maths by changing their beliefs about maths intelligence, which may increase attainment (bearing in mind other factors such as quality of teaching, pupil absence).

And if you don’t?

I will mine the data until I do. No, I will obviously look very closely at what the data is saying and from that devise further hypotheses to test – for example if there is a small difference then I might consider if changing only one thing in the classroom is enough to promote a growth mindset when other factors do not change? e.g. setting in maths (which if not flexible can transmit a powerful fixed mindset message).

Or if there is no difference at all, do we need to tell the children about mindsets (share the psychology) in order for them to benefit from the praise messages? If so, what does that mean? Are we really changing their mindset or merely giving them the answers to the questionnaire? What about parents mindsets and wider staff in a school like lunchtime supervisors or after school club staff? What needs to be in place to foster a growth mindset in all children?

What are your best hopes?

That my data will show not only a statistical difference between the control group and intervention group, but also that the effect size will demonstrate a meaningful difference in terms of affecting actual outcomes like attainment.

Which means?

It works. By teachers adopting process praise in maths lessons and using it regularly, children begin to put in more effort and believe they can learn. This makes them feel good. The teachers feel good. And the added bonus is they achieve their earlier potential in maths, which for many children is not the case.

Give me a 30 second soundbite. What is the take home message?

You cannot over-praise a child, but if you use a lot of person praise such as ‘clever girl’ or ‘you are a natural’ this can demotivate the child and lead them to avoid challenge because they perceive ‘effort’ as meaning they are not clever. Praise the learning that they did, not the outcome. Also, introduce the word ‘yet’. Every time your child says ‘I can’t do that’ you add ‘yet’.

If you want to know more about Carol Dweck’s theory of how praise impacts on children’s theory of intelligence click here for a Prezi I put together with an embedded video of the experiment my thesis is based on.

And if you got to the end of this post without falling asleep. I appreciate the effort. Thank you.

And John, if you get this far. Thank you so very much for all you are doing. Outstanding effort! xxx

Becoming an Educational Psychologist: Part Two ~ making excuses?

I always believed my inability to take an unwavering position on something was a weakness of my character, something to be a little ashamed of. My compulsion to always see a situation from multiple viewpoints made me insubstantial and ineffective. My need to find ‘excuses’ for a child’s behaviour meant I was deficient in some way as a teacher. That I was too soft. A lefty-liberal responsible for the ‘decline’ in standards both moral and educational in today’s youth. I admired people who, despite persuasive opposition, stuck to their position.

A fence sitter lacking in the conviction of my own thoughts. A FenceSitterchameleon switching sides in an argument. Why couldn’t I just decide on one thing and STOP making excuses!

Take the issue of inclusion; on the one side you have those who believe children with learning disabilities should attend special schools and units, on the other, those who believe all children should be educated together (the environment shaped to the particular needs of the child). While I am unashamedly of the belief that where at all possible children should be educated in the same setting, I can also understand why, in some cases, e.g. challenging behaviour or profound multiple learning needs, a child would be better served in a specialist setting.

Roll forward seven months and term two of my first year as a doctoral student in Child and Educational Psychology. At last, my way of thinking (or naïve idealism as one line manager patronisingly affectionately called it when I was a teacher) has been given not only credibility but a framework in which to develop further. Now I am actively encouraged (expected) to consider as many ‘excuses’ as possible, except ‘excuses’ are not called excuses but problem dimensions – which are developed through testing hypotheses uses various tools (e.g. classroom observation).

A child or young person’s behaviour (however bad) is likely to be a response (albeit maladaptive) to internal and external factors over which they feel they have little control.

Am I weak in character, insubstantial and ineffective, or am I the exact opposite?

When a child presents with behavioural issues and the school and parents are at the end of their tether, locked into an explanation that absolves responsibility and holds the child in a permanent state of dysfunction, my ability to use psychological theory to explore potential reasons for this behaviour, offers a way forward, a route map to a better future. While it may be ‘true’ the child has a diagnosis of autism, dyslexia, or ADHD etc. This ‘diagnosis’ is not the reason for their aggressive/self-harming/distressed/defiant behaviour, rather it is an explanation as to why they may find learning/peer friendships/social situations more difficult to negotiate than other children. The diagnosis which many teachers and parents cling to as if it were the answer is in fact a dead end (unchangeable and consequently disempowering). The role of the EP is not to label to the child, but to focus on the aspects of the situation that can be changed and to empower those around the child to make that change happen. For example a child with autism may have difficulty making friends, but it doesn’t mean they don’t want friends (all human beings desire/seek connections with others). However a child with autism may need explicit and concrete help to make friends and the people/systems around them may need help to provide and deliver the best interventions to close this gap.

Taking the child’s perspective. Seeing the world through their eyes is a skill that educational psychologists must possess in order to be effective practitioners and actually make a difference to the lives of children, young people and their families.

There is nothing quite like finding a career where how you think and what you value fits like a round peg in a round hole. It is like I have come home, and, as it turns out, there was nothing wrong with my thinking in the first place, only my career choice.

Are you in a career/ lifestyle that chimes with who you really are? Or do you have supress who you really are to fit in? Please share your experiences. I would love to hear from you.

Becoming an Educational Psychologist: Part One

Becoming an Educational Psychologist is incredible and exhausting. No half term holiday for starters. But I am so glad I made the decision to leave teaching if only so I can stop saying:

I have a psychology degree but I am not a psychologist.

This time last year I had just completed the application form after digging out my ancient degree certificate, momentarily panicking that degrees have a shelf life and mine had expired. I’d toyed a few times with applying over the fourteen years I had been teaching, but talked myself out of it because we couldn’t afford to lose my wage. This time round the loss of my wage remained an issue , but at 43 it felt like a now or never moment. On top of that the odds of me actually getting a place first time around were extremely low.

I got a place. It was like winning the lottery, but without the money 🙂

So how are we managing without my wage? Well I do get a relatively substantial bursary (around 1/3 of my previous wage) and a student railcard, student bank account with free overdraft, 25% discount on Council Tax and student discount in Top Shop (although I would prefer M&S).  However to  make ends meet (particularly as our two children are at university and their maintenance loan doesn’t even cover their rent) a house move to something smaller is imminent. I am so lucky to have such a supportive husband, who encourages me all the way despite the pressure it has put on him to bring home the dosh.

I don’t think I will ever take for granted how privileged I am to be able to study full time and not have to juggle a job at the same time. The course is pretty full on with so many strands to get my head around like research methods and statistics, carrying out psychological assessments, placement competencies, RLO’s and SOP’s (don’t ask), as well as the academic stuff – theories, models, frameworks.

This half-term the focus has been on literacy and Wow! I have learnt so much?

WARNING! Nerdy stuff coming up.

Written English is one of the most difficult alphabetic scripts to learn? This makes it much harder for children to learn how to read and write than say for example children in Spain. This is because in Spanish the grapheme to phoneme correspondence is 1:1 – this means ONE letter makes ONE sound. In the English alphabet the ratio is 1 to many – this means the same letter (or letter combinations) can have many different sounds.

For example: “He took a bow.” “She wore a red bow in her hair.”

However, that doesn’t mean we should be trying to teach pre-schoolers to read , rather research has found that developing oral language significantly improves later reading comprehension.

In other words in the early years of a child’s life focusing on developing oral story telling skills is much more important for later reading comprehension than actually learning to read the words in a book.

It makes sense if you think about it.

Learning to decode letters and words on a page and understanding what punctuation marks mean is an example of transcription skills. Everyone needs them, but they alone don’t make someone or something literate. For example there are many computer programmes that can convert text to speech and read a novel, but the computer couldn’t produce a summary of the main plot points of the story (the emotional resonance). The research suggests the more words a child knows (vocabulary) before they begin to read the easier it will be for them to derive meaning from the story. And the more a child understands about story structure and how ideas link to each other the easier it will be for them to pick up what is happening in the book (the main plot points) and make predictions about what might happen next.

These comprehension skills are vital if children are going to move from learning to read, to reading to learn.

That doesn’t mean we can just let children get on with it in terms of ‘transcription’ skills. Learning to make sense of the written version of language is not innate. Alphabetic scripts (or orthographies) are relatively new in human evolution. While a child will pick up oral language without having to be directly taught it (as long as they are exposed to it), they will not spontaneously learn to read and write. For children to learn to read they must be taught the grapheme: phoneme correspondence (letter to sound), hence the evangelical focus on phonics by the government. The research certainly backs this up, but also recognises the English language is eccentric to say the least and many words are not regular and just need to be learnt (whole word recognition).

I know there is a lot of debate amongst teachers and parents about compulsory phonics with some claiming it is hindering progress, but the research does not support this view.

For a reading programme to be effective for the majority of children it must contain both phonetic and whole word recognition components.

Phonics is the tool for deciphering new words and while it can only take you so far in being able to decode unfamiliar words, good comprehension skills will aid in this by allowing the child to access the content and meaning of the sentence. Whereas as if a child has good transcription skills but poor comprehension, they will have to rely on decoding skills alone and this will become frustrating and they are likely to give up because the word won’t ‘sound out’ and make sense.

So my take on this is in terms of advice is that parents of pre-school children should focus on generating stories from pictures so the child can learn how to build a coherent narrative. This will increase their vocabulary as they search for words to express their ideas, which in turn will make comprehension of written English that bit easier once they start school.

And finally…. I now understand the reason for the made up words in phonics assessment (which also creates fierce debate from teachers and parents). It is to test if the child’s grapheme to phoneme knowledge is secure. This is vital for decoding new words. The problem is this assessment has become high stakes politically and therefore rather than schools using it as diagnostic, they are focusing on getting as many children through as possible. It should be viewed as a checkpoint so those children who are still struggling can be helped with specific interventions, not as a measure of how ‘good’ the school is.

If you got this far do you have any views on how literacy is taught in primary schools?

An open letter to Ann Saunders (Former Deputy Head Teacher – Sittingbourne Community College)

Dear Ann,

I don’t know if you will even remember me, but you gave me my first teaching job in 1995 after I responded to an ad in the local paper to teach GNVQ Health and Social Care.

Teaching was something I had always wanted to do, but without a degree I didn’t think I had a hope in hell of securing a position. At the time I was a registered nurse with a toddler and new baby, married to a Sergeant in the Royal Engineers and living on an army base in Chatham. I am not sure what possessed you to take on an unqualified and completely inexperienced novice like me, but you did.  Looking back I must have driven you mad arriving in your office every morning to show you my lesson plans and a bombard you with a million question, but never once did you act like I was a nuisance – even though, as Deputy Head, you had a zillion things to do. The eighteen months I spent at Sittingbourne Community College made me surer than ever that teaching was the career I wanted to pursue. You also saved me from certain death by mother and toddler conversations (I was never cut out for full-time motherhood). You generously gave me your time and nurtured the teacher within. I was in total awe of your ability to manage a class of boisterous fourteen year olds without ever losing your cool – and vowed to one day be as good as you. I particularly remember one student on the Child Development NVQ course who claimed to be psychic and remarked on more than one occasion that she had a strong sense of twins when we were together in the same room. Disinclined as I am to believe in the mystical, I chose to believe in her assertion – daring to hope it meant that you saw yourself in the untrained, but eager me.

It was with a huge reluctance I left Sittingbourne. My husband, John, had been posted to Hameln, Germany (the town where the Pied Piper stole all the children).  I cried on and off for days at the thought of leaving the UK and a job that I loved, but as we celebrate twenty-two years of marriage and he supports me on yet another life-changing adventure, I can honestly say I would follow him to the end of time and beyond.

In Germany, with teaching jobs in short supply, I returned to my first career of nursing, but kept my skills up to date by using my NVQ Assessor qualifications. As you know I was studying for a psychology degree (OU), which I finished in the final year in Germany in 1999. My husband left the army and we bought our first house back in my home county. We arrived in the UK just in time for my graduation. I was presented my 1st Class honours (BSc) by Cherie Blair – when Tony Blair was still riding high and we all believed this prosperity and peace would last forever. Armed with a degree and the invaluable teaching experience I gained in Sittingbourne, I trawled the papers for a teaching job – despite still not having a teaching qualification. Another wonderful teacher, Mr John Brandon, Head of Mark Rutherford Upper School in Bedford, gave me that chance and funded my training to reach Qualified Teacher Status.  A year later I repaid his faith in me and started Mark Rutherford’s first psychology department (which is still going strong today). I spent four years at the school developing my teaching and middle management skills and completing a Masters in Research Methods. I also learnt to control my classes without losing my cool (most of the time). Five years later, in 2004, with my children entering middle school and the addition of a cat and dog, plus another house move, I applied for Head of Department at a well-respected local school and got it.

In the ten years since, my two children have grown up and left home, one to Warwick to study philosophy, and one to Honduras to work as a teacher volunteer (now returned and off to UCL to study languages in September). The cat and the dog have gotten a bit decrepit (and been joined by a scruffy rescue puppy) and I have somehow reached my forties and have too  many grey hairs. In that time I have mentored five student teachers (one is now a head of department) and built a thriving, successful department as well as enjoying the challenge of enhanced roles in learning and teaching . I have taught psychology to hundreds of students and have finally mastered the art of behaviour management – almost 🙂

At forty-three it is time for me (before it is too late) to say goodbye to my role as a classroom teacher and begin a new and exciting career. A career that would not have been possible if eighteen years ago you hadn’t hired a twenty-something nurse whose only classroom experience came from watching Dead Poet’s Society (five times).  A week ago I accepted a place on the Doctorate in Child and Educational Psychology at University College London (UCL).   I am incredibly fortunate to have been offered only one of 11 places from a field of 300 applicants! In three years’ time (all going to plan) I will be a Chartered Educational Psychologist and have the skills and professional standing to enable even more positive change in the lives of young people.

So thank you Ann Saunders. Thank you for everything – it all started with you 🙂

Your humble student (and spiritual twin),

Juliet O’Callaghan

Me and my son in 1995
Me and my son in 1995
me and both my children in 2013
me and both my children in 2013

On family: coincidence or connection?

It would be fair to say, I am not one for flights of fancy. I will always look for the rational explanation for supposedly ‘spooky’ occurrences. The mind is not the objective tape recorder, many believe it to be, rather it is easily tricked and distorted (see experiments by Elizabeth Loftus on planting false memories) and it often trips over itself, for example deja vu and tip of the tongue syndrome.

Take the ghost on the staircase…

ghost on staircase

… this is a result of the mind’s acute sensitivity to the human form and our evolutionary imperative to survive  – better to see an enemy that isn’t really there, than to not see one that is.

I do admit to a softening of my stance since my sister died. They are things she experienced in her final weeks that I have trouble explaining away or putting down to the opiates. The little black cat is one. A friend mentioned that my sister kept seeing a little black cat skulking around the room. At the time I dismissed it as a waking dream brought about by the pain medication, but it wasn’t until after she died I discovered the only time my sister saw ‘the little black cat’ was when this particular friend was present – and that this friend had a black kitten as a child, which died, leaving her devastated. My sister also saw an old man coming in and out of the bathroom in her room at the hospice. She said he looked agitated, like he needed to wee but couldn’t. She would get very cross with him and tell him to find his own room.

Do I dismiss my sister’s observations as hallucinations? Or accept that in her altered state, she was able to see planes of existence the rest of us couldn’t?

Bank holiday monday, just gone, was one of those ‘spooky’ coincidences, where two or more events occurred together that do not appear to be causally related. But then why is the idea that the events happened by chance any more plausible than the idea that they are infact connected by waves of seriality (unknown forces), which carry meaning to the person experiencing them. (Wiki link)

The day before the Bank Holiday Monday we went for a walk to Maulden Woods – me, my husband and our dog. I sometimes go there as the woods back onto my old childhood home, dating from the seventeenth century. I moved there when I was twelve (my sister fourteen) and my parents were custodians of its eccentric character for nearly twenty years. After our walk we decided to stop off in the pub next door to the house, and noticed it had been ‘sold’. We briefly discussed who might have bought it and I reminisced about living there. I said I wished I could look inside and see what had been done to it in the twelve years since my parents moved out.

On Bank Holiday Monday, we decided to go for another walk which ended in a pub, but this time we left the car at home, so we could drink more beer! and headed  across Flitwick woods towards Steppingley and the French Horn, where we were assured of a dog friendly pub and sun bathed beer garden.

The garden was buzzing with people and chat. Our dog paraded around greeting everyone who had turned out to see him (his world view). A family arrived and sat down beside us. They had two little girls, with long blonde hair. The parents, I guessed, were near our age, but then I tend to think I am still in my thirties so make of that what you will. We talked dogs. They had a gorgeous, plump six month old puppy. The owner of the pub, also a dog lover, joined in and we told him we were adopting a rescue dog in a few weeks (we are going to call him Fred).  The first pint of bitter went down in a sunny, doggy haze. Eventually the little girls went with their mother to play in the nearby park. We moved from discussing dogs to where we lived. I joked about being dragged, kicking and screaming, to a village at twelve (from Luton) and being stuck in the middle of nowhere. I cautioned the father that his daughters wouldn’t appreciate village life and he laughed and said, too late, because they had just bought a house in the village of Maulden. The ‘sold’ sign flashed in my mind.

“Not to Holly Cottage, next to the Dog and Badger pub?”

“Yes,” he said, “The offer has just been accepted.”

The hairs on the back of my neck rose, deliciously.

my sister and my dad in Holly Cottage.
my sister and my dad in Holly Cottage.

His two daughters, just like my sister and I, will have the two attic bedrooms tucked under the eaves, impossibly hot in the summer and like ice in the winter. I told him about finding the vast inglenook fireplace behind the Victorian mantelpiece, and the cellar under the kitchen floor, and the death-watch beetles, tapping until dawn, (although I left out the flying ants swarming in the lounge each summer, and the fat, buzzing May bugs that invaded the bathroom in the attic). We mentally walked through the house together and I pointed out all the things my parents had added – like the huge bathroom on the first floor, with the tub in the centre of the room, and the wrap around conservatory.  We parted, swapping phone numbers and a promise that my parents (and me) get a visit when they’ve moved in, which I know will mean as much, if not more, to them. Holly Cottage was our last family home before my sister and I left to make our own lives.

I guess, in hindsight, and without the soft haze of beer, I can explain it away. If I hadn’t visited the pub next to my old house the day before, I wouldn’t have seen the ‘sold’ sign and we probably wouldn’t have discussed living in a village at all – my unconscious mind no doubt prompted me to start this particular conversation.

Or I can choose to see it as a wave of seriality, caused by unknown forces from somewhere beyond the constraints of the here and

outside Holly Cottage. my husband, daughter and me (pregnant with my son) in 1995.
Outside Holly Cottage. My husband, daughter and me (pregnant with our son) in 1995.

now. I didn’t tell him that my sister had died five years ago. It was nice to talk about a time when she was fully present, without the complications of sympathy. And who else (except my sister) would want to talk about my childhood home in such detail than the man who has just sunk everything he’s got into it.

As I said, I’m not one for flights of fancy, but maybe there are things that scientific empiricism will never be able to explain … and just maybe what happened on Bank Holiday Monday was a ‘gift’ (an enduring connection between my sister and I) – and a reminder that little black cats and ghosts on the stairs, cannot, and should not, always be explained away.

Now then, now then, now then; can we be both sinner and saint?

What to make of the scandal surrounding the late Jimmy Savile? Certainly, it appears that he was a predatory paedophile. It also appears that others knew of this and for varied reasons (benefitting financially, or because they were also abusers), Jimmy was given the impression he was untouchable and not alone in his preferences (Gary Glitter was arrested on Sunday).

[he] raised an estimated £40 million for charities

In what light do we now cast his accomplishments?  The money he raised, the causes he supported  – were they all just an excuse to get close to children?

He sponsored medical students at the University of Leeds to perform undergraduate research in the Leeds University Research Enterprise scholarship scheme, donating over £60,000 every year.[52] In 2010, the scheme was extended with a commitment of £500,000 over the following five years.[53] Following Savile’s death in October 2011, it was confirmed a bequest had been made to allow continued support for the LURE programme.

Or, uncomfortably, do we have to acknowledge that despite this despicable unforgivable side (which could have been stopped and should have been stopped), there was also a caring side, one that felt compassion for the underdog, wanted to help his fellow humans?

Jung postulated the self was made up of two distinct sides, residing in an uneasy compromise we call personality.

Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.

Freud talked about a similar dark side to our personality he called the id – the child within us, selfish and cruel, uncaring of its effect on others.

The id operates based on the pleasure principle, which demands immediate gratification of needs.

For some, childhood does not provide the nurturing environment from which our ‘ego’ the part of our personality that straddles both dark and light sides of our soul, grows strong enough to keep these two forces in check. Because our saintly side, if allowed to run rampant, can be as equally destructive – think of Norman Bates in Psycho. He may be a fictional character but he personifies an individual with weak ego strength. His overly dominant super-ego, an internalisation of his cold and dominating mother’s voice, led him to murder the ‘fallen’ girl his id desired.

A lifelong bachelor, Savile lived with his mother (whom he referred to as “The Duchess”) and kept her bedroom and wardrobe exactly as it was when she died. Every year he had her clothes dry cleaned.

For Jimmy Savile, being ‘nearly’ caught out (others knew what he was doing at the BBC) but not punished, freed his shadow or his id. The taciturn turning a blind eye to what he (and others at the BBC) were doing created the ideal conditions for a sexual fantasy to become a sick reality over and over again, but that does not mean he didn’t also want to do good.

An uncomfortable truth or a warning? No one is all good and no one is all bad. If paedophiles really all looked like Jimmy Savile, they would be easy to spot. Unfortunately they don’t. The recent case of April’s abduction, a tragic case in point. The man who is charged with her murder is related to April’s family. He wasn’t a creepy looking guy, with a comb-over and trousers too high on his waist. He was a father, a boyfriend, a colleague, a friend, an uncle, and a step uncle.

What Jimmy Savile’s  terrible crimes remind us is bad people don’t do bad thing 24/7. People aren’t born bad (though they may have genetic predispositions), rather they are warped by deprived childhoods, by institutionalised abuse, by members of their own family, who themselves were damaged by their pasts. These people do not have an integrated personality, rather they deny their shadows and in doing take no responsibility for its actions, when it rears its demonic head. They console themselves with the good things they do as if this balances out the bad. They throw themselves into helping others, join the clergy, raise money for charity.

But it is our shadows that allow these people to carry out their depravity unchecked. Jimmy Savile abused his own niece. Do we really believe no one in his family ever suspected? Or did a shadow, called greed and complacency, step into the light.

It is easy to do nothing. What you do might not be popular, might expose you in a bad light, might ruin your reputation,might halt a cash flow you rely on, or, as is the case with a lot institutional abuse, might not make any difference.

Ah, the shadow of indifference. Are we all not guilty of that?

The BBC’s shadow is now under the spotlight, will they take their part of the blame (and change), or paint Savile to be the ultimate villain, evil to the core. The devil incarnate, who they were unable to stop.

If we don’t acknowledge the shadow in each of us (and embrace it), then nothing will really have changed.

Jimmy Savile was certainly a sinner, but in his lifetime, many would have argued he was also a saint. Can we be both?

What do you think? All views welcomed.

Bad things happen to good people: The Just World hypothesis

We have three back doors in our house. Regularly someone leaves one of them unlocked. We have so many nickable items casually left in view, like this laptop (my baby), or the Samsung tablet we got free with the Smart TV. So far we’ve got away with it, though when I was pregnant with our daughter (who is now 18) a burglar burnt a hole through the back door of the house we lived in, with a blowtorch (he obviously didn’t know how to pick locks). I woke (smelling burning) and waddled downstairs to investigate, disturbing him, but he still got away with my purse and bike with a flat tyre – found discarded a few metres down the road (not the best getaway vehicle).

Of course, carelessly leaving a door unlocked is not in the same league as carelessly misplacing a child, but we have done that to. Twice my son has disappeared long enough for me to start considering the photo we would use on the missing posters. 

The first time, we’d just arrived in Germany, where my husband had been posted with the army. We had taken the children to the Social Club, where a welcome event was taking place. Outside the club there was a fantastic children’s playground and my four year old daughter marched off determinedly towards it, with our nearly three year old son struggling to keep up  – his gaze fixed on the sandpit.

I was immediately engulfed in the ‘wives of’ welcoming committee, and keeping half an eye on the play park answered their eager questions, sure my husband was watching the children.

About a minute or two later, I saw my husband come out from inside the club. My heart lifted in my throat and the hairs on the back of my neck lifted. I disentangled myself from the friendly women and strode purposefully towards the slide and climbing frame. I saw our daughter’s shock of dark hair straight away. She had already found a friend and they were jabbering at each other and holding hands. I couldn’t see our son, not yet three, but again that wasn’t unusual as he was likely to be found on the edge of things, an observer rather than a doer. However, within thirty seconds, it was obvious he wasn’t there at all, nor in the immediate area surrounding the play equipment. I ran back down the grassy slope, screaming his name. What followed was five minutes of hell as my husband and I searched the club and grounds becoming more and  more frantic. And then from across the road I saw him, in the arms of a woman I barely recognised. She was the wife of my husband’s Sergeant and she’d intercepted our son barrelling towards her, after crossing two – thankfully quiet – roads, heading, it seemed, towards our flat – obviously he was searching for his mummy.

I held him so tight to me and vowed I would never, ever let him out of my sight again. I felt sick to the pit of my stomach and still, to this day, 17 years later, my cheeks flush when I think how stupid and careless we were.

The second time, he was seven and we were camping in France. We were queuing for fish and chips at the bar, when he asked if he could play with his new friend Ben. We said, yes, assuming he meant at our tent. Five minutes later we returned. No sign of either of them. The enormity and anonymity of the campsite hit us like a lead football in the guts. There must have been a thousand people swarming the site, with cars and campervans coming and going. Thirty long minutes later, after I had convinced myself he had been whisked away and was already at the border with Spain, we found him playing with Ben as he said he would be, confused by my tearful hugs and kisses (and very embarrassed).

Then there was the time our daughter had a tantrum in John Lewis, one minute lying face down screaming in-between the dress racks, while I was doing my best to ignore her – the next she was running into the lift with the doors just about to close. Her grandmother did a ninja move any superhero would be proud of and got her arm in the way of the door, thank goodness.

So what’s my point? Just recently I have been distressed by the vitriol directed at April’s parents. It reminded me of the terrible, nasty things that were said about the McCann’s in May 2007, after Madeleine was taken from her bed in a hotel chalet. In both cases, I have no doubt the parents are torturing themselves with ‘what ifs’. If only I had called her in earlier… if only I had stayed in the chalet…


But it seems that many people need to find someone to blame (other than the sick perpetrator).

What was a five year old doing out at 7pm?

I don’t know for sure, but they’d just returned from parents evening, so maybe April was allowed to play out a bit later than usual for having a good report.

In psychology this need to blame the victim is a well known phenomena and it is called the ‘Just World Hypothesis’. This basically means we need to believe that we live in a just world, where people get what they deserve. Good is rewarded and evil is punished. When something bad happens, we need to restore equilibrium and to distance ourselves from the incident. We need to believe that somehow the victim deserved what happened to them.

Afterwards, they said that the 22-year-old woman was bound to attract attention. She was wearing a white lace miniskirt, a green tank top, and no underwear. At knife-point, she was kidnapped from a Fort Lauderdale restaurant parking lot by a Georgia drifter and raped twice. But a jury showed little sympathy for the victim. The accused rapist was acquitted. “We all feel she asked for it [by] the way she was dressed,” said the jury foreman. click here for source.

In the case of rape, psychological studies have shown that the more attractive the victim, or the shorter her skirt, the less likely it is the rapist will be found guilty.

“Both men and women who viewed a photograph of the victim in a short skirt attributed more responsibility to the victim than those who viewed a photograph of the victim in a moderate or long skirt.” Click here for abstract.

When the victim is an ‘innocent’ child, blame is shifted to the parents. We need to believe the same thing won’t happen to us, or our family because we are good parents and therefore by default they must be bad (parents).

The sad fact is; bad things happen to good people and the world is not a just place. Once we accept this, then blaming the parents, or the girl in the short skirt, becomes nebulous and we can start to address why our society fosters such rare, but despicable people. Child murderers don’t appear overnight. They will have a history of minor crimes against children and women and they often come from dysfunctional and toxic backgrounds. Intervention must begin in childhood. We must do more to protect children from abusive influences so they don’t grow up devoid of compassion for themselves as well as others. We must also ensure that police forces talk to each other, so someone with a record of child abuse cannot wipe the slate clean by moving to a new area with a new name (as did Ian Huntley). We must also examine how we deal with paedophiles, and not release them if we cannot guarantee they will not reoffend (as did Roy Whiting).

We all make mistakes. Tell me a parent that hasn’t lost sight of a child for a moment or two in crowded shopping centre or at the park. What is heart-warming is that for 99.9% of the time, nothing bad will happen; the vast majority of people are fundamentally good.

April’s parents are no more culpable than Madeleine McCann’s parents were. They, like all of us, probably believed it wouldn’t happen to them. They aren’t perfect parents, but who of us are? But they are not bad parents either. Something bad happened to their child.

Zick Rubin of Harvard University and Letitia Anne Peplau of UCLA have conducted surveys to examine the characteristics of people with strong beliefs in a just world. They found that people who have a strong tendency to believe in a just world also tend to be more religious, more authoritarian, more conservative, more likely to admire political leaders and existing social institutions, and more likely to have negative attitudes toward underprivileged groups. To a lesser but still significant degree, the believers in a just world tend to “feel less of a need to engage in activities to change society or to alleviate plight of social victims.”

Next time you hear someone blaming the victim for the crime against them, just remember; ‘there but for the grace of god, go I.’ And don’t let it be a reason to accept things as they are.

Your views on this blog post are welcome.