Monday, 16 June 2008

Thoughts about psychoanalytic theory and the development of the "Key Person" role

I've been thinking and reading around the development of the key person system in early childhood education and care, and some of its "lost history" of development by those pioneers of psychoanalytic theory who also worked with young children - Anna Freud, Susan Isaacs, Melanie Klein. I think that a lot of the understanding of the "key person" at the moment seems somewhat boiled down to providing lots of close attention and physical care. The importance of personality development, play and creativity seem somewhat obscured...I think...at the moment.

so...my thoughts...


From the 1920s onwards, psychoanalytic thinking began to influence theory and practice in English nursery childcare, an attention to children’s emotional development which would eventually inform the development of the key person system. Susan Isaacs’s Malting House School (open from 1924-1929) for children aged from 2 upwards provided the context for the development of some of the key ideas in the Kleinian school of psychoanalysis. Isaacs provided the children with an environment in which there were more opportunities for free play and fewer prohibitions, to enable “an all-round lessening of the degree of inhibition of children’s impulses". In this context, aspects of the child’s anxiety could be expressed symbolically, and this symbolisation was seen to support the child’s ego-development and the "greater dramatic vividness of … social and imaginative and intellectual life as a whole".

This development did not just depend on the conditions of free play, however; in the Isaacs/Klein model, the infant needs a consistently available adult figure. In a 1945 paper written for the Home Office, Isaacs despairs of the impersonal “rigid routine and emotionally barren life in an institution” and proposes that instead each child “should feel himself to be the member of a small family group” in care settings.

Similarly, Anna Freud arranged for each child in her wartime Hampstead Nursery to have a constant “maternal figure”, contending that “repeated experience proves the importance of the introduction of this substitute mother relationship into the life of the residential nursery. A child who forms this kind of relationship to a grown up not only becomes amenable to educational influence in a very welcome manner, but shows more vivid and varied facial expressions, develops individual qualities, and unfolds his whole personality in a surprising way” .

Anna Freud proposes a model for the child’s development in which there is what she terms an “intimate interchange of affection” between the child and the “maternal figure”. Both Isaacs and Anna Freud emphasize this inner life of the child, the social, imaginative and creative life, which is developed only in the conditions of interchange: in other words it depends both on the child’s inner development, and the conditions and relationships provided by the adult. However, for Anna Freud the process is one of successive disengagement from relationships as the infant becomes more independent, a process which she does not significantly elaborate or theorise . Isaacs and Klein place significantly more emphasis on the inner psychic structure and functioning of the infant. They see the infant as splitting the world into good and bad, and feeling persecuted or even destroyed by the bad. Hence Isaacs argues that if a child is in an institution where there is inadequate care, “this does not mean to him the mere absence of the good he requires, a merely neutral place; it means the actual presence of positive evil.”

Whilst for Anna Freud, the assigned carer enables a process of ego development, for Klein and Isaacs, the assigned carer creates a relationship through which a drama of love and hate, care and persecution, may be played out with the desired development of the infant taking up what Klein calls the “depressive position”, in which “the ego becomes able to take in the whole person, to see that good and bad can exist in the same person”. Space does not allow for a full discussion of these ideas; there is one particularly salient point. For Anna Freud, the care offered by the adult to the child is absolutely real: real kindness, feeding, cleaning, and loving interaction, creating a climate in which the child can develop independence and an independent personality. For Klein and Isaacs, there is more of a dynamic relationship between the real world of physical needs and care, and the child’s inner world, which Klein calls “phantasy”. Juliet Mitchell summarises that “phantasy emanates from within and imagines what is without, it offers an unconscious commentary on instinctual life and links feelings to objects and creates a new amalgam: the world of imagination”.