Secret Life of 4 and 5 year olds

7 November 2017

Channel 4’s award-winning documentary series has returned (Channel 4, 8pm), featuring our own Laverne Antrobus, Consultant Child and Educational Psychologist, as one of the guest experts. Laverne will feature in the 3rd and 4th episodes of the 4 part series. 

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Laverne Antrobus is a consultant child and educational psychologist in our family mental health team. She is also a clinical supervisor on the professional doctorate in child and educational community psychology, working to train the next generation of psychologists.

She has been a consultant child and educational psychologist for over 20 years, since training with us at the Tavistock Clinic. Laverne works with children and families in the most need of help and is passionate about helping children to achieve their potential and grow into confident adults. 

In this interview from Channel 4, Laverne explains her motivation for joining the series:

Why were you so keen to join the team?

I’d watched it when it came out originally and had been fascinated by it, so I was really pleased to be asked to join the team. It really speaks to the work I do, almost on a daily basis. I’m a child psychologist and we have children and their families being referred to us for a number of reasons and often part of the process of trying to think about the issues that are presenting is through observing children, so this felt like a very good fit for me.

What is your area of expertise?

I work in a family mental health team at the Tavistock clinic. The sorts of referrals we have in are quite complex and wide-ranging – including children who are having problems managing their behaviour or anxiety. We help parents think about what’s ordinary development and what isn’t, so where they need to be concerned and where things are developmentally appropriate and may work themselves out. I’ve also been a primary school teacher of 7/8/9 year olds so Secret Lives felt very relevant to the sorts of experience I’ve had.

What were you hoping to learn?

Lots of psychologists are very highly skilled and trained to observe children’s behaviour and what I couldn’t believe when I watched Secret Lives, is how much language as an observer you don’t get to hear. When you’re in a classroom and observing children, you're often there with their parents’ permission, so you’re trying to pick up on some of the central things that are going on for them in the setting. So to suddenly hear a whole different level of language as part of this observation is dramatic. You hear the intricacies of their conversations in a way I just hadn’t and to have a window in to that was amazing.

What sort of language surprises you?

They can fall in to these really interesting roles you wonder if that’s how they see these things at home or just their own observations of adults. So when they’re in the home corner and putting each other to bed saying, ‘I’m just going to come back darling don’t worry!’ It’s incredible the sorts of narratives they’re forming from being part of their own families. How they connect up with each other is also interesting. They might do something that’s quite repetitive because they want to be friends with someone. Or one minute they’re really having quite stern words with each other and the next they’re like yeah ok! You think couldn’t it always be like this! That people didn’t bear grudges or feel that they couldn’t get over things. It’s a good experience for the viewer to see things from a child’s perspective.

What was your most memorable moment?

I was really impressed by the risk taking. At 5 you start to know things about rules and in certain tasks, it was interesting to see which children would take the chance without thinking about the consequences, and what impact that had on other children who felt more worried about what the adults might say. Often adults don’t follow the rules and we can feel uncomfortable - just like a little one we might be thinking, ‘Please don’t do that!’ I loved the circle times too when they sat together, because the most amazingly honest conversations were had; what it felt like to be part of a group or not have friends, it’s really exposing. It’s a real opportunity to say things and have others listen to you.

Are we creating a more emotionally intelligent generation because we talk about things more?

I’d hope so because it’s the thing that keeps tripping us up. We don’t keep lines of communication open. As children get older play starts to have a slightly different role in the curriculum, so they don’t have that as an outlet to manage their emotions. You see children playing with a particular toy that you can tell is making them feel less anxious, so no are words required. Once you move away from those toys, you have to use words so spaces like circle time where you talk about things and encourage others to listen and empathise are what we want to teach children to do. If someone feels they've been treated unkindly by someone else it’s a wonderful way of not poking your finger and saying you did this, but instead saying I felt a bit sad today when this happened. And then the others can think oh was that me? I need to think about how I am with everybody.

Is it important to include someone with a disability so the group’s representative of society?

It’s important to have diversity however that looks. We did have quite a diverse group of children with particular cultural diversity and different needs, and what’s lovely about this programme is you begin to see very different things in the children. You’re not looking for the one that is, or the one that isn’t, you’re looking at them in the round which is pretty much how we want society to operate. So if parents are happy and confident, which is a key part of this process for their children to be part of this, then I’m with them because they know what their limits might be. It’s illuminating for some parents to see their children responding to each other in the way they do; they’re in love, they’re not in love, they’re getting married, they’re not any more, they want to be boys, they want to be girls. The shake down is phenomenal.

What are the tasks that you most enjoyed?

I was really impressed by them tasting unusual foods and some of the things they were prepared to eat. I was thinking absolutely no way would I want to eat any of those things! But they were really game for it. You get a real appreciation of the depth and range of their previous experience and that’s quite lovely because it breeds confidence in to the other children: ‘Well if she says it’s ok then I might give it a go’. Whereas with adults just because someone says it tastes nice you’re not necessarily going to eat it. There are all sorts of overlays in an adults mind that aren’t there for the children.

Has working on the show affected the way you work?

When I’m doing my observations it reminds me that I’m only capturing some of it. So much of teaching and learning is about observation and I think a lot of teachers’ eyes were opened to the things they can’t hear the children saying to each other. You have to be quick on your toes when you’re doing an observation sometimes with very young children because one minute they’ll be at the sand tray and the next they’ll be out on the climbing frame. It’s quite a skill to be able to get the most out of an observation because you want to be able to be feeding back to parents and teaching staff something that is fairly accurate about the child. I’d like to give every child in the nursery a camera to put on their heads!

Watch the episode on All4.

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Read a blog from Laverne on why kids love anarchic humour.

‘Humour is very much a social, interpersonal act’