A Q&A with Jalak Patel – our new senior educational psychologist

We recently welcomed Jalak Patel to Real Group. As an educational psychologist (EP), she has wide-ranging experience of working with young people in both the UK and Hong Kong. We spoke with Jalak about her time in Hong Kong, what led her to her new role and how SEND challenges differ between the two landscapes.

As an EP, what are your areas of interest?

‘Recently I’ve spent a lot of time working with children and young people who experience social cognition challenges (which might be known as social thinking challenges). These individuals find it difficult to understand that other people’s perspectives may differ from their own, and this disparity can have a huge impact on their social lives, their academic lives and their academic work. I am interested in helping this group achieve their individual social goals. These goals may include the ability to share space, work effectively with others and be more effective in reading the social environment around them, learning how to work as a member of a team, or developing and maintaining relationships with others.’

You have broad international experience as an EP (having worked in both Hong Kong and the UK). Can you tell me about your recent time in Hong Kong? What took you there and what did you do there?

‘I worked in Hong Kong for four-and-a-half years and in Coventry for eight years before that – so two very different places. Throughout my career, I’ve always been interested in how different cultural backgrounds and experiences impact on how we think, feel or behave, and how that might then influence a student’s emotional well-being or their academic progress. So, for me, the opportunity to live and work in a completely different culture was just thrilling really.

‘In Hong Kong, I worked as an EP for the English School Foundation, which is a foundation of 22 settings covering pre-school children up to secondary level. During this time, I was also the foundation’s advisor for SEN training and development. In this role, I worked with schools to find out what their development needs were, wrote and delivered training based on these needs, supported others to do the same, and then worked with different settings to embed their new learning and skills. What was particularly interesting about the position was that my work was not just limited to the English School Foundation’s pool of international schools. We were keen to broaden our remit to support and influence the practice of other schools within South East Asia. In this way, through inter-school discussions and conferences, we shared good practice.

‘Of course, living in Hong Kong was such an amazing experience: the food is delicious and I’ve developed quite a taste for dim sum. And at the weekend, there’s so much to do too: you can go hiking or you can go to the beach – so life was really good fun there. I had so many opportunities to travel and feel really lucky to have travelled to every South East Asian country on my list.’

Before this, you were in the UK. In the world of SEND, what are the similarities and differences between the two landscapes?

‘I think both the UK and Hong Kong have an increasing understanding of the importance of ensuring that the needs of all students are met (whether they have SEND or not). In the UK, we have a long-held understanding that we have a part to play in this, and I did wonder before I went whether it would be the same. I’d say that in Hong Kong, there is also an understanding that we need to meet the needs of all students, and educators are becoming even more interested in how this can be done, especially when thinking about meeting the needs of children and young people with SEND.

‘In Hong Kong, there is often a high expectation for children and young people to succeed academically.  However, there is also a growing awareness of the links between these expectations and increased levels of stress, (or decreased levels of emotional well-being). This is in line with the UK’s recognition of the importance of mental health challenges and how these can impact on students. The raft of new legislation that’s come out and the kind of discussions that are taking place, are illustrative of how much the UK has developed in this area in just the few years that I worked abroad.

‘Differences: I suppose that the main difference would be in terms of behaviour. In the international school context, we saw a lot less of what might be termed in the UK as challenging behaviour. People in South East Asia tend to have a real respect for education and they very much expect their children to do well – sometimes to their detriment. They can be a little bit pushy or work their children very hard. In general, however, children and young people have a healthy respect for education and want to do well. So, if they are exhibiting challenging behaviour, it’s not from a desire to get out of the classroom, or to cause problems. More so, it’s because they are genuinely experiencing difficulties stemming from other challenge areas – such as, say, social cognition challenges, or mental health issues.

‘I suppose that one of the other big differences is that the curriculum that we worked towards in our particular schools was very concept-based, rather than skills-based. So, children and young people were really expected to think in an abstract way. In this context, some children with SEND faced challenges because they found flexible thinking difficult, or weren’t able to access a language-heavy curriculum. In contrast, the curriculum in the UK is a lot more skills-based, so it’s much easier to differentiate. But just to clarify, not all curricula in Hong Kong or South East Asia is concept-based, that was just the case in the foundation that I worked for.’

At the time of the interview, you have only recently touched down in London. What drew you to this role?

‘Well, Real actually came out to Hong Kong. Jen [Wills] flew over, and delivered the Certificate of Competence in Educational Testing (CCET) to a number of staff within our foundation. We contacted Real because we’d heard about them and their reputation. During that time, I held a dual role, one part of which involved advising the foundation on SEN training and development. Following the course, I spoke to staff to find out what they thought about CCET: they were struck by the clarity and rigour of the training, and could clearly see how this was going to help them and how they could move forward. The knock-on effect was that I was very impressed with the quality of the course and Real’s reputation. After conversations with EP friends back in the UK, I became more aware of the organisation’s positive reputation, the forward-thinking nature of the company, and its willingness to embrace new ideas and thinking.

‘I felt that I’d learnt a lot from working in Hong Kong, and wanted to make sure that my wealth of international experience would benefit and complement any organisation that I worked with in the UK. I got the sense that Real would be willing to harness some of that, and bring that on board with what they were doing. So, all in all, it seemed like a good fit!’

As you start your role with us, what areas are you particularly looking forward to working in?

‘I’m keen to get involved in delivering some of Real Training’s courses, as training is something I really enjoy doing. I’m eager to share some of the ideas and approaches that I’ve come across whilst working in Hong Kong, some of which aren’t really being used in the UK. I’ve been quite heavily involved in the training, implementation, and evaluation of certain approaches, and have delivered good outcomes for students. I would like to develop that further here. And of course, I am looking forward to getting to know everybody at Real too!’

Finally, in the coming months, you will tutor on some of our courses (e.g.: the Certificate of Competence in Educational Testing). With this in mind, why is assessment and educational testing training so important to education professionals and young people with SEND?

‘First and foremost, there are a lot of reports that are written and sent about different individuals, and it’s really important that we are able to fully understand them. There are many different tests available, and they are standardised in different ways, so it’s vital to be able to read a report, understand it, and know what that test was specifically focused on. This will allow us to know what those outcomes mean for a young person – in terms of next steps and how best to support them. To put that another way: you have to know where you are, to know where you need to go! Education professionals are willing to do the hard work and they want the right thing for their students, but aren’t always certain what information they need and/or how to use what they do know. So, coming on these kinds of training courses and gaining that knowledge, experience and understanding, is vital, because it provides certainty and enables us to be sure that everything we are doing is right for each individual student.’

Jalak will be working with both Real Psychology and Real Training in her role.

What do you think?

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