Atypical Development psychology course offers students important experiential learning opportunities

Children in a classroom

Experiential education (EE) is now an increasingly popular feature of undergraduate courses, but York University’s fourth-year Atypical Development child psychology course was far ahead of the trend.

For at least 20 years, students in PSYC 4460, a fourth-year honours seminar on child psychology, have spent 32 hours working one-on-one with students from schools throughout the City of Toronto as a way of broadening their understanding of child and youth development. They are participants in community service learning, a type of experiential learning where students engage in activities that support community priorities while meeting their learning goals.

Jennifer Connolly
Jennifer Connolly

“Our students enjoy this aspect of the course and they really benefit,” said Professor Jennifer Connolly, Chair of the Department of Psychology in the Faculty of Health, one of the original course instructors who developed the EE project. “I think this type of applied, practical experience comes at the right point for them – they have a lot of academic knowledge, and they’re at a point where they’re really ready to be in an applied setting and see their knowledge at work.”

Alumna Saman Farah worked at William B. Davis Public School when she was a student in the Atypical Development course.

“There are a lot of times when you read something in the textbook but when you’re dealing with an actual person it’s very different,” she said. “[…] having that experience in the classroom with the student and bringing it back to the classroom at York and debriefing about it. […] it’s good to have your peers give their insight and the professor give their advice as well.”

PSYC 4460 students do their community service work in a number of different schools, some organized by the department, others proposed by the students themselves.

Lisa Conte, a special education teacher at Shoreham Public School, says her school believes in the benefits of this type of community service work.

“We were drawn to this opportunity as a way to invite caring adults into our school and a way to offer additional support to our students and a positive impact to our community.”

The children that the York University students assist and mentor are recommended by the classroom teachers as needing special attention and are chosen for a variety of reasons: they may be shy, have trouble with reading or math or find it hard to sit still in the classroom.

“It’s very individual,” said Connolly. “Our students work with the classroom teachers to get guidance on what each teacher thinks would be helpful. They may sit beside a shy child in a group setting and encourage them or work with a child on math skills. Our students provide mentorship and individual attention.”

Feedback indicates that the schools are appreciative of the support the York students provide, said Anda Petro, the experiential education co-ordinator for York’s Faculty of Health, who provides ongoing administrative support alongside the teaching assistant and Psychology Department staff. Shoreham’s Conte has seen firsthand the impact the York students have on the youngsters they mentor.

“Mentors become supportive role models who promote healthy relationships with family and peers; provide academic support, behavioural redirection, encouragement, motivation, supervision and inspiration,” she said. “Mentors share their life stories: How did they go from once being in Grade 4 to now attending university?; What are they studying?; or What is university like?, which our students are keenly interested in hearing about as they begin to imagine their own life paths.”

A lot of thought goes into the students’ classroom time. Farah says that planning to work with her young mentee turned out to be a very collaborative endeavour.

“I would speak to the student’s educator, the teacher, and we would collaborate on ideas, and then pitch it to the class [at York] and the professor to see what they thought about the approach,” she said. “You also hear your peers’ and other ideas and that inspires you to take a similar approach and tweak it in a way that your student would appreciate.”

The students also complement their onsite work with a product that demonstrates what they’ve learned, whether it’s a poster, a written reflection or a presentation.

Connolly says that the PSYC 4460 course draws students from a variety of programs. Farah, for example, was undecided whether to pursue a career in education or in occupational therapy.

“It also helped me figure out if I wanted to use the education route instead of the medical route,” Farah said. “I was looking into teaching or healthcare, I decided to go with healthcare.”

Magdalena Wojtowicz
Magdalena Wojtowicz

Magdalena Wojtowicz, an assistant professor of psychology and one of the current course instructors, is delighted by this opportunity to provide students with experiential education related to their studies.

“Students have an opportunity to genuinely engage with the concepts taught in the course through this EE experience,” she said. “They draw connections between course content and their community placements, have an opportunity to build on their professional skills and engage in problem solving with their peers. It’s a real pleasure to see their growth throughout the year.”

Given all the benefits of the partnership between the students and their mentees and York, it is no wonder that this community service opportunity has lasted for more than 20 years.

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus, with files from Anda Petro