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Published: 3 month

Contemporary abuse, bullying and expectations - 2000 children belong to her: a day in the life of school psychologist Rita Karikó

Verbal or even physical abuse, teasing, problems fitting in, teacher and parental expectations, family arguments, mum and dad getting divorced - there are many reasons for a child to be anxious, especially in today's fast-paced, impatient, not very empathetic world. So there is a huge need for professionals who are sensitive to the emotional life and problems of children, especially teenagers. We talked to Rita Ráczné Karikó, a school psychologist from Kecskemét, about the challenges, importance, difficulties and beauty of her profession.

Karikó Rita, iskolapszichológus-

Why did you choose this profession and vocation?

I am a teacher by education, I worked as an English history teacher for a few years in secondary schools and language schools. In my last job, in a vocational school, I was confronted every day with what I had only heard about from the news: children were not interested or motivated in learning, especially in general subjects.

What situations should we think about, what did you face?

The children were unable to manage and resolve conflicts and constantly resorted to aggression, verbally and physically abusing their peers. Teachers were not physically bullied, but I was personally threatened by a ninth grade girl, for example, that if I dared take her phone in class, she would call her parents in to beat me. It was a thought-provoking experience for me. Just like when a student in class took out his weed and started rolling cigarettes on the bench. Sadly, we also had examples of children coming to school drugged, or seeing girls getting out of cars in the morning with tinted glass. One time, a tenth-grade girl, aged 16, came up to me at recess saying she was pregnant and couldn't continue school, so how was she going to get a grade in English and history.

These things really hit me emotionally. I felt that there are a lot of problems of extreme poverty, under-education, disadvantage, and that they reinforce each other, and that the children who are struggling with this should be dealt with in a different way, in a different way from traditional education, not just trying to pass on knowledge. Anyway, I have always had a greater social sensitivity, so when I went on childcare leave I decided to do a degree in psychology so that I could later support children as a trained professional.

How long have you worked as a school psychologist?

I have been in this field since 2013. After graduating, I worked part-time in a kindergarten in Kecskemét, at that time there were very few such positions in the city, I can say I was one of the first swallows. Later, I started working as a psychologist in a primary school in parallel with the kindergarten, and since 2019 I have been working full-time in three secondary schools in Kecskemét. This means almost 2,000 students, while according to the Public Education Act, a school can apply for a half-time school psychologist for every 500 students - so there should be at least two positions for every child. Unfortunately, there are still few of us in the network.

What are the problems and causes of anxiety among teenagers today?

One of the biggest problem areas is peer abuse, bullying, which unfortunately is already present in preschool groups, and is very prevalent in primary schools, especially in the fifth to eighth grades, but even in high school in the ninth to tenth grades, after which the children are somehow more mature and more grown up. In my experience, the problems can be traced back to, among other things, existential difficulties in families, insecurity, livelihood problems and family crises such as a failing marriage, a situation close to divorce, divorce, the loss of a family member, domestic abuse.

But many children are also anxious about their academic performance and how well their achievements meet the expectations of parents and teachers. They are under a lot of pressure, and they are also terribly overwhelmed - not just by themselves, of course, but by their parents and teachers. They have very little free time, so they are not really able to build, develop and strengthen peer relationships, which is what adolescents need most. The teenage identity crisis, the rebellion against parents and teachers is a normative crisis, and if it is accompanied by a so-called accidental crisis - for example, a parent loses his or her job, someone dies in the family, parents divorce - it is a very difficult situation to cope with. Most of the time, this is when people seek help from professionals.

How can you help, how does an average day go?

I work 22 contact hours a week in the three high schools, so I can spend an average of seven hours a week - forty-five minutes per week, depending on the class - with a child, parent, teacher, or group or class. The times are of course agreed in advance, discussed and I contact the family concerned. Then, of course, it may happen that due to illness or some school programme, I can't hold the session, in which case I try to rearrange the programme and talk to another child.

So, during the day, I am in school as much as the teachers, but I take turns in one of the three institutions. I also stay until 4pm in the afternoons so that I can be available if the parent's work allows. My work does not end when I leave school, as I can basically prepare for the sessions at home, have time to evaluate the tests I have completed at home and prepare the materials in the same way. Also, of course, like the teachers, I administer in the Chalk system when I have done what session.

How can students participate in school psychology sessions outside of their lessons?

It always depends on the teacher, it is up to his/her goodwill whether the child can come to the consultation from his/her class or not - sometimes he/she does not let him/her go. I can honestly say that it is not easy to organise a series of five to ten sessions, but you have to find a way. For some children, there is a particular need to talk to them to help them cope with difficulties. I tried for a while to get the children to come after school because they are free, but that doesn't work because after classes and lunch all the students rush home to study, or to extra lessons or training. The attitude of the headmasters is also very important in terms of how much they support the work of the school psychologist. In some places it is accepted and helpful, in others it is more difficult to achieve.

Rita Karikó, school psychologist

Rita Karikó, school psychologist

In addition to individual consultations, how else do you work with students?

I hold small group sessions or preventive classes for a whole class. Topics may include smoking, sex education, bullying, cyberbullying, stress management techniques, social skills, or even otherness, eating disorders or depression. We can incorporate these into the timetable if the class teacher or a subject teacher gives me their lesson. At the beginning of the school year, I also organise afternoon workshops, which are voluntary and can be attended by anyone who wants to and has time after class. For example, I also organise a film club, a relaxation course or a psychology course for students who are interested in psychology and would like to study it at university. Unfortunately, these are really limited due to the fact that the kids are very busy and don't have the time.

How do parents feel about having a psychologist talk to their child?

It varies, some families and parents are very supportive and unfortunately some are not partners. Under the age of sixteen, I definitely have a consultation with the parent at the beginning, which the child attends, but after that the sessions are focused on the student. However, if the parent is not willing to acknowledge the child's problems, if he or she does not want to deal with them, then unfortunately there is nothing I can do, because the sessions require parental permission for children under the age of 16. For children over this age, it is sufficient for the parent to sign a consent form.

Why do parents object and why don't they want a professional to help them?

They are embarrassed and therefore hide the problem, they may not have the time. I come across a lot of excuses. I can understand a lot of them, but I think that if a parent really cares about their child, sees their difficulties, their stuckness, and knows that a professional could help, they will somehow find it, create the opportunity, make it happen, come in for a face-to-face consultation - even if it means taking a day off. But anyway, I think that parents are often anxious about going to see a professional, because they are afraid that they will find out that they have done something wrong, that they have brought up their child badly. It's important to ease this anxiety, and I try to make them understand that even if something has gone wrong, it's not because of bad intentions, and it's not worth the parent blaming themselves. There may be many other components to a child's emotional distress, and these should be explored and discussed. It is important for parents to be open, to work in partnership, not to see the psychologist as an enemy or rival, but to develop a trusting relationship based on cooperation.

You hear about a lot of difficult situations in your work, you meet children with psychological problems, how can you deal with them?

You have to be able to separate work and personal life, and you have to take care of your own mental health, focus on yourself. As a basic rule, we no longer work at home. Of course, it happens unintentionally, but it has to be kept to a minimum so that I can come in the next day recharged and able to listen to the other person. I have to separate my own problem from the problem of the person I'm talking to, and I have to learn to do that too.

What gives you the greatest pleasure in your profession?

The best is when I feel I can help someone, whether it's a child, a parent, a teacher, a class. Of course, the feedback is not immediate and often not direct, but indirect: I find out later how what I said to someone was helpful to them, reduced their symptoms, made them feel better. So it may not be a very spectacular, there is no concrete product, the impact is harder to measure, but we are talking about psychological processes.

It's also inspiring that it's a very varied job, I would compare it a bit to a GP. You need to understand a lot of things to be able to provide it well, and that requires a lot of training. I also feel the weight of responsibility, as it doesn't always matter in which direction I delegate a child or family. Overall, I see it as an important and valuable profession.

I am extremely motivated by the fact that I have complete professional freedom, I decide what tools and methods I use to help. This is good, because it gives me independence, but at the same time it is a bit difficult because I cannot really discuss problematic cases with other professionals, with a team. It is also a great pleasure for me when a child or parent comes in who is interested, open, motivated, finds our discussions useful and learns from them.

And what are the biggest difficulties?

As I mentioned, I have roughly two thousand children, when there should be two statuses for that number. Unfortunately, I often end up fighting fires instead of doing prevention. Another problem is that I cannot really send the children on. Of course, I can send them to the child psychiatry, but the waiting time is two or three months. What will happen to him in the meantime? Not everyone can afford to see a psychiatrist or a private psychologist. In addition, there is state-subsidised, social security-funded psychological care, educational counselling up to the age of eighteen - then the child leaves secondary school, and adult services are very limited in the country. Above the age of eighteen, we cannot even talk about social security-funded therapy, at most crisis consultations in the county towns and larger cities. Why is this not supported by the state?

Nor our training. We are paying to get smarter, to get knowledge, and not everyone can afford that on a starting salary, however much they want to be a trained professional. And I haven't even mentioned that we buy our own tools, props and toys, with our own money. But I would really encourage young people to think about this profession, because it has a lot of beauty and challenges, as well as difficulties.

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