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Life on the front line of student psychology

Eleanor Sautelle has been a school psychologist for four years and says that while it may sound like a tough and depressing gig, the greatest professional joy is being able to support a student through a crisis.

"It's actually the small wins that are most exciting. One student realising they are not 'stupid' but that their brain just works differently to others. One family seeking external support for managing behaviour at home. One teacher understanding a student in a different way and seeing success, however small."

At other times she is faced with much more serious and urgent situations – a student so distressed or a situation so complex that they require immediate assistance and a co-ordinated approach from school staff, health professionals and the family.

"We are like the GPs of the psychologist world."

Ms Sautelle came to her profession via a circuitous route, graduating from university with commerce and psychology degrees and working for a while as an actuary.

"From as long as I remember I have been passionate about education, and passionate about helping people. And while I loved the challenge of being an actuary, I missed the opportunity to directly make an impact on people's lives, which is when I made the switch to finishing my training and working in schools as a psychologist."


She now works at two schools in Canberra, assisting hundreds of students on a range of issues – meaning no two days are the same.

"Kids have trouble engaging in learning for lots of different reasons – they might have a specific learning difficulty or disability, they might be experiencing mental health difficulties, or they might have experiences in their past such as grief, loss, trauma and adversity that make engagement difficult. Our job is to help understand what is going on, and support the student to get the help they need," she said.

Sometimes that involved individual therapy with student, or supporting them indirectly through giving teachers strategies to help them in the classroom. Sometimes it meant helping families to connect with external agencies and services or helping devise a whole-of-school strategy to support wellbeing.

Ms Sautelle said by high school age, many of the issues she dealt with were more acute, with students self-referring for a range of mental health issues.

There was also the reward of seeing her work make an impact on kids negotiating relatively simple hiccups in their progress through school.

"At the primary school I work at, we implemented a reading intervention program last year for students who were identified as needing additional support. It was a privilege to be part of that process, to bring my expertise and help plan what would be the best program to use, to identify the students that needed it, and then problem-solve how we made it work logistically.

"Now we are seeing outstanding improvements not only in these students' reading ability, but also their confidence and stress levels."