As we begin a new school year, we spoke to the Orthodox family psychologist Tatiana Viktorovna Bulatova about the importance of positive attitude in learning and the specifics of her work as an Orthodox psychologist.
—Talking about my professional experience, we should probably start at the very beginning: My diploma states that I am a child psychologist, and at first I worked in schools. But later on, during the difficult 1990s and early 2000s, I tried working in other areas such as human resources and as a business coach in the retail sector. But my destiny seems to have taken a sharp 360 degree turn and in early 2010 I found my way to back to working in education. I worked as an early childhood psychologist in a kindergarten setting and also had a private practice as a family counselor. For the last ten years, I have continued working as a private family counselor, as well as the psychologist at a private kindergarten called “Mary Poppins.” I am also a psychologist at a charitable foundation that works with families in crisis.
—At the beginning of September, the schedules of our children and, consequently, us parents, undergo drastic changes due to the start of a new school year. What could you advise us to do in order for this process to go smoothly and to help the schoolchildren to adapt to the learning process without too much stress?
—The three months of summer freedom and rest are over and the learning process has started all over again. Much depends on how the children and their parents handle the beginning of school. If your family members, as soon as the school is mentioned, say things like “Oh, my goodness, here it comes again, we’ve got to survive it, so, here, enjoy these last moments of fun, as it’s almost time for all that hard work and learning,” —then the children will have the same attitude. How your child adjusts depends largely on the right mindset, so my first advice would be: take every new school year as a step towards further growth and development of your child. Let your feelings about the school year remain generally positive and joyful, as if in anticipation of something interesting, rather than frightening, that is to happen.
Think of the new school year as a step in your child’s growth and development
To help the initial adaptation period go smoothly, try to create fond memories about it. Perhaps your child can shop for and choose his or her own notebooks, pens, and pencils, or you can discuss the first day clothes, or buy new school supplies or textbooks that are exciting enough to take a quick look at right away. You may also talk with your child about interesting discoveries that await him in his studies.
The closer you get to the first day of school, the more you need to think about your child’s usual summer routine and how to gradually adapt his day to the upcoming school schedule, that is, getting up early and going to bed at the same time. You may need to pay attention to other daily school-related issues, such as food and snacks or getting school clothes ready in the evening.
School life is about the ability to organize your life and plan your day, to perform certain tasks and to use your willpower to reach the goal. It is important to develop all these skills at home. If a child has small tasks and household chores, or when he can take care of someone and show his self-organization skills in everyday life, it will be easier for him to show the same qualities in a school setting.
—What are the important factors that parents of first-graders should pay attention to?
—For first graders? Of course, it will be a very special day for them. First and foremost, it is a celebration. It should be a celebration for both the parents and their child. This is a time when a child encounters a lot of new things and many changes in his life. A new adult-led environment, new children, a new place for the child to be, and, of course, new sets of rules. Therefore, it will be very important to make sure that your first-grader is ready.
Probably, the first thing we should do is to assess his psychological readiness which has to do with motivation in the emotional-volitional area, i.e. whether the first-grader wants to go to school, if he is interested and eager to learn—this is the most important thing that can be formed in a future student. Unfortunately, it often happens that children are already exhausted by all kinds of training courses, extra classes and early education. For them, their new life at school has already become a burden even in the first grade. Therefore, my dear parents, do not let it happen, but make it all come in a timely fashion. And, again, I will repeat, a positive attitude to the learning process and a positive emotional setting when it comes to learning is probably the number one thing for the first-grader, and for schooling, in general.
Positive emotional background that has to do with learning is the number one thing for learning at school
I would like to say a few words to parents who say, “We went to the first grade,” “We began to learn…” Please, keep in mind that this is about your child and you are always on the support line, ready to help, but not to learn instead of him. The most important thing for your child to learn in the elementary school is to learn to study, and not for his parents to do the learning instead of him.
—Some children exhibit certain patterns of behavior, there is much talk these days about hyperactive children, or when they are seemingly bored at school. How can you advise parents, homeroom teachers, and children, and what should teachers be aware of?
—Every child has his or her own personality, peculiar temperament and specific traits of physiological character. Sure, there are children with attention deficit disorder, or hyperactive children, and I think it is necessary to consult a specialist in time to identify the existing problem and help your child. Psychologists, like doctors, specialize in a certain area, so you can turn to a neuropsychologist or a neurologist if necessary. This would help to identify the causes and provide timely help to such children, leading to a successful learning process at school.
I recommend that adults—both parents and teachers—stop comparing children with each other, because we are all different. Some have strengths in one area, others have different strengths; one child is diligent, and another one is time-efficient. Work efficiency is different too—that’s why you should only compare a child with himself. Now, of course, try to be more positive and hold more upbeat conversations. Try to talk about things he is already doing well, what he likes about school, ask him what he has learned there. Try not to scold him for something he didn’t do on time, or forgot to write down, or wrote with crooked letters. As we psychologists, say: Use the “rule of the green pen,” that is, see the good in people and avoid focusing exclusively on their mistakes.
—Does a consultation with a psychologist usually have to do with a difficult life situation, going through a crisis, or getting an illness?
—Psychologists have a joke: “The main thing is that a person is happy with his diagnosis.” But it really is a joke. There are people who will never go to a psychologist, they think they can solve any problem or, task and they find answers to all the questions that come up in their lives. Then, there are also the people who need support, help, clarification, and most importantly—a mutual search for ways out of a difficult life situation. A psychologist is simply a tool, and we help people solve difficult questions and find a way to get out of a difficult life situations.
—You position yourself as an Orthodox psychologist. What is the specific nature of your approach —is it a particular attitude to a person’s worldview or the choice of techniques in counseling?
—In our days, psychology had a large number of focal areas developed and used by the specialists in their work with clients. I believe that a person’s worldview contributes to his or her profession. So, if a specialist is a man of faith, and an Orthodox Christian who regularly attends church, it affects the way he conducts his counseling session, treats his work and people, in general. Therefore, I surely find it more pleasant and more comfortable to work with believers who are Orthodox and who come and see the solution to their difficult situation. They see that there are problems not only in their psychological abilities, but also in their spiritual life; it is also about changing their lives, improving their inner world, the qualities and traits of their soul.
Faith and psychology do not contradict each other with regard to man’s soul
But even for such people psychological help is sometimes necessary, because psychologists have such tools, techniques that help to survive and compensate for some childhood traumatic experiences, to see the situation from the other side, to see their mistakes, to relieve emotional tension, etc. Faith and psychology are not opposites when it comes to the human soul. When I was studying at the theological courses, I realized that psychology helps to change a person’s personality and often becomes a landing step on the way to spiritual change.
—In your opinion, who needs the help of a psychologist in these troubled times?
—Practicing Christians also occasionally need help and support to look at the problem from the outside, to explore their traumatic experience, and to find a way out of a conflict. Psychology can be useful in these instances.
I specialize in two areas: image work (the symbol drama method) and body-oriented psychotherapy. I think these two methods of psychology help people in a more holistic way.
My life and professional experience tell me that when someone tries to find solutions to certain inner aspirations, when a psychologist’s goal is to help the soul, and when a priest takes care of the issues related to spiritual life (aspects of faith and the Church)—this mutual effort, along with the client’s conscious inner work, helps to harmonize his life and personality.
Certainly, there are also clients who don’t go to church or are non-believers, and I never set a goal for them or press them with the Truth at any cost. I work as a professional and use my professional knowledge. If, in the course of our communication (a certain atmosphere of trust always develops between a psychologist and his client), a person begins to think about the existence of spiritual life and that, in many ways, the answer to his question lies in reforming himself, in repentance, and in coming to the Church to participate in the sacraments of the Church, then, I’d probably consider it a good result of my work. What’s most important is to help people find our main helper in life—our Lord and God.
—What makes you as a psychologist happy when you have finished working with your client?
—I think every professional is happy when the client is satisfied and grateful to him. But in my case, I am even happier to see when the client begins to reflect on things or he feels a little confused after learning something new about himself. I think it shows that this person has effectively tried to solve important inner problems. This inner work gives him a chance to think about changing his life and solving his thorny issues, as it depends solely on his effort, not on some psychologist “wonderworker”.
In fact, the psychologist rejoices even in the smallest details; for example, when a client says that he wants to go home after work and hug his beloved spouse or his child with whom he had a conflict. This is probably a very good outcome, and I always rejoice along with my clients at these small breakthroughs.
Gratitude is probably a mutual process. I am grateful for my clients if they trust me, when they recommend me to their friends, acquaintances, or anyone else who needs my help, or when they remember me after a while and let me know that something has changed for the better in their life, family, or soul. I am happy when the family stays together, when the children in the family are happy, when the parents find mutual understanding, and when they learn to change themselves, instead of expecting changes in others.