Psychoanalytic theory & children's classroom activities

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Psychoanalytic theory was developed by Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud and has since been both criticised and expanded. These theories attempt to dissect human motivation and how motivations lead to specific actions. In the classroom, you must take a broad view by reading through and incorporating many different theories. Otherwise you risk alienating children who do not fit within a limited view.


Psychoanalytic theories seek to understand how and why humans think and behave in certain patterns from infancy. Psychologists who have developed popular and applicable psychoanalytic theories include Sigmund Freud, Heinz Hartmann, John Frosch, Jacques Lacan, Harry Stack Sullivan, Clara Thompson, Eric Fromm and Jean Piaget. Theories are divided into schools of thought and specialisations, and address motivations for action, confronting sexual desire, sadistic desire and desire for control. These theories also seek to classify actions as normal or abnormal to develop methods of understanding and solving abnormal or disturbed behaviour in children and adults.


The three components of psychoanalysis are investigating thoughts, systemising theories of behaviour and treating psychological illness. Freud's theories have been criticised since being published, specifically for the limited view his theories take on the mental development of females. Furthermore, his theories were designed with a limited view of gender, sex and sexual orientation. Since Freud's heyday, the concepts of femininity and masculinity, biological sex, heterosexuality and homosexuality, gender expression and other related topics have been further explored and expanded. When applying psychoanalysis to children or young students, a teacher must take a broad view by exploring the considerable range of psychoanalytic literature available.


When applying psychoanalytic theories to children in the classroom, activities are typically categorised into either behaviorism or cognitivism. Behaviorism focuses on tangible behaviours, such as a child who will share her toys versus a child of the same age who refuses to share. Behaviorism also looks at conditioning and social learning to understand where a child picks up his personality traits and habits. Cognitivism looks at mental processes and events rather than tangible behaviours. Cognitive structure, or the structure and function of the brain, is of particular concern here. In cognitive science, psychologists are concerned with whether behaviours can be justified chemically or structurally in biological differences between people. When behaviorism and cognitivism are understood, teachers, parents and psychologists can attempt to answer behavioural disorders from a social conditioning and chemical perspective. A behavioural problem may be rooted in either or both areas of psychoanalysis.


An example of a classic activity used for psychoanalysis in the classroom is role playing. During a role play, the teacher exercises control over the basic set-up of the scenario. Students then act within those boundaries to produce original decisions and actions. In each scenario, a student knows there are things she should or should not do. For example, if the scenario involves seeing another child break a rule, the actor in the role play must decide what to do. Should he tell the teacher, attempt to punish or correct the child himself or let the child get away with it? Classroom activities around psychoanalytic theory can be public or anonymous. An example of an anonymous psychoanalytic activity is the question and answer game. Students write anonymous questions about social situations on a piece of paper and submit them to the teacher. The teacher will pass the questions back out to students, making sure each student gets a question he did not write. Students take the questions home and answer them overnight, and resubmit them anonymously. The teacher then reads them aloud for class discussion.

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