Susan Saunders

Good Luck: My Journey from Early Childhood Educator to Modern Psychoanalyst by ACAP Student Susan Saunders

I have always felt very lucky in certain ways as an adult. I graduated from college with a degree in Early Childhood Education. In college I had studied a little psychology about children: we read Piaget and I carried out a few of his simple experiments with some children. It was fascinating! Now: fast forward to my very first professional teaching job at a small private nursery school in Manhattan. I was straight out of college and had no idea what to do with a group of 10 or so 4 year olds. I was filled with apprehension and I had many questions.

I was lucky that the school in which I happened to land a teaching job studied children and worked to resolve their intellectual and emotional resistances to learning and to cooperation. I had the good fortune to begin my teaching career in a school that applied modern psychoanalytic concepts to teaching children. The director and her husband were students of modern psychoanalysis. The teachers and the directors met in a weekly group for over an hour each week, talking and learning to understand the children. We talked about the children’s resistances and learned some modern psychoanalytic techniques to help them mature. Even more importantly, however, we learned about our own resistances to working effectively with the children. The children evoked many feelings in us as we worked with them. One of the methods we use in modern psychoanalysis is to learn to experience the feelings the children brought up in us, and then to study how the feelings informed our interactions with the children. This kind of emotional study helps to determine where these feelings are originating. I learned to ask myself, “Is what I am feeling really something that the child is feeling? Are my feelings being triggered by the child and also bringing up my own issues? Are these feelings a combination of both the children’s feelings and my own past experiences and feelings?” I quickly realized how valuable it was to learn about contagious feelings in working with children! Once I learned to establish what I was feeling and why, I learned to use my feelings to resolve a resistance in a child, facilitating the child’s progress to the next maturational level of development.

One of the ways in which I used my new-found understanding of these concepts was to meet with the children in a group each morning. We sat in a semi-circle on the floor and we sang (I played the guitar). Then they each took a turn to talk. I encouraged them to talk about whatever they wished. Their talking was also encouraged throughout the day. By the end of the year, the children in my group developed an ability to put all their feelings into words rather than into action. They developed the capacity to learn to talk about and to resolve many of their conflicts and difficulties with one another. Some of the children who were less mature in their ability to verbalize were eventually able to talk in a more mature fashion, decreasing destructive acting out. It was gratifying to see this growth in the children. Here is one example of how I used my modern psychoanalytic training. A four year-old boy who was shy and introverted in the beginning of the school year became very angry at times, acting out physically by hitting other children. He was limited in his ability to know what he was feeling and to put his feelings into words. I worked on setting limits on his behavior, simultaneously supporting him by telling him that it was okay to be angry, but he wasn’t allowed to hit. I helped him to verbalize all of his feelings, especially anger. Eventually with lots of repetition of these directives, he was able to improve his self-control and his ability to verbalize thoughts and feelings, becoming happier with himself. This progress led to an increasing ability to make friends, and to fully cooperate in the group.

Because I began my professional career at this unique school, I developed an interest in further studies in modern psychoanalysis. I began studying at the Center for Modern Psychoanalysis (www.cmps.org), and eventually in New Jersey at The Academy for Clinical and Applied Psychoanalysis (www.acapnj.org.) As I studied psychoanalysis, my ability to work with children improved. Ultimately I decided to go back to graduate school full-time in order to get my degree and to continue my studies to become a psychoanalyst. I was lucky to start out my professional career in such a supportive and thoughtful community that embraced a philosophy that has helped me to continue to grow personally and professionally throughout my life.

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