Teaching Psychology to Elementary School Gifted Students



Fourth graders are shown to be capable of developing a researchable problem, gathering data, and reporting results.

Though teaching psychology has been emphasized at
the college level, it continues to expand to earlier years of
education. Psychology courses have increased over the last
two decades in high schools and have been encouraged to
be part of the social service curriculum for senior and junior
high school students (Sandberg, 1963; Miles, 1973; Minnesota
State Department of Education, 1980). In the early 70%
People Watching (Long, 1972-1 973) was started as a journal
for teachers who introduce psychology into grade school
classes. Unfortunately, the journal did not have a wide
circulation and did not survive. Psychology has been introduced
at the elementary school level most often through the
use of the psychological techniques of values clarification
and self esteem exercises and affective education. The
authors believed that the study of human behavior can be
done effectively and creatively at the elementary school
The teaching experience began with a class presentation
to a group of 8 gifted fourth graders on what psychologists
and social workers do in their service and research
work. The students were learning the steps to creative
problem-solving (Noller, 1977) that involves the six levels of
sensing problems and challenges, fact finding, problem
finding, idea finding, solution finding, and acceptance find-
Psychology was introduced as a science and service for
problem-solving. A problem was presented to the students
and they were challenged to think like psychologists trying
to help solve the problem. The problem involved an eight
year old retarded girl who hit her nose with her fist
approximately five times a minute, 3000 times a day, and
one million times a year (Prochaska, Smith, Marzilli, Donovan,
& Colby, 1974). The facts of the case were presented,
and the children tried to figure out why this youngster hit
Experience in Hypothesis Development. Their first suggestion
was to interview the girl, but unfortunately, she was
non-verbal. The children then tried to empathize with the girl
in order to develop hypotheses about the conditions under
which such hitting might occur. One student suggested that
the girl might hit herself because she was angry or frustrated.
We then helped the students to translate this suggestion
into a testable hypothesis. If she hits herself when she is
angry or frustrated, then she should not hit herself when she
is having fun. The students realized they could observe her
having fun, such as playing a piano, and count how often
she hit herself. Such data were available and unfortunately
the youngster hit herself an average of five times a minute
while having fun, The students appreciated how data can
spoil a good idea.
One sophisticated Freudian student suggested that the
girl hit herself because of reasons in her subconscious mind.
The problem is that neither he or any of the rest of the class
could think of ways to test such a hypothesis, especially with
a non-verbal person. A more behavioral student hypothesized
that she hit herself in order to get attention from others.
The students formulated the hypothesis that if she hit herself
in order to get attention from others, then she should not hit
herself when she is alone. To test this hypothesis they said
the girl could be placed in a room alone and observed
through a one way mirror. Sure enough we had such data
and sure enough another good idea was rejected. But the
children were learning to not take such rejection personally,
but rather as a challenge to create new hypotheses.
Another idea suggested was that she hit herself when
she felt guilty, but the children reasoned that if guilt feelings
were the problem, she would not hit herself when having fun.
The final idea generated by the brainstorming session was a
vague notion that maybe there was something wrong with
her brain. The problem was that this was a difficult hypothesis
to test. There was some evidence to support it, however,
such as the fact that she had been brain damaged at birth
because of an oxygen deficit from her umbilical cord being
wrapped around her three times. Also, EEG tests had shown
abnormal patterns compatible with seizure activity; anticonvulsant
medication had worked for a couple of years to
reduce herself injurious behavior; and her neurologist's
diagnosis was that the head banging was most likely due to
some unspecified seizure activity.
Ideas for Treatment. But even such evidence could not
prove the hypothesis, The question arose as to whether we
could help solve someone's problem even if we were not
certain of the causes of the problem. The students were
willing to try even though they appreciated that they might
have more success if they were sure of the causes.
In brainstorming about possible solutions one of the first
suggestions were to tie her hands to her side. We indicated
that the use of such restraints did work in some cases, but
the data in this case showed that she might then hit her nose
against a wall or door and hurt herself even more. Rewarding
her when she was not hitting herself was also considered,
but the data showed that attempts at reinforcing
incompatible behaviors such as playing the piano, had not
One fascinating idea from a fourth grader was to numb
the girl's nose with novocaine so she could not feel it when
she hit herself. Even though a half dozen psychologists and
several special educators had spent hours brainstorming
about this case they had never thought of this creative
solution. We indicated to thee class that had we thought of
this idea previously we might well have tested it out to
determine its effect.
The students appreciated that with a lot of human
problems, talking out the problem would be part of the
solution, but in this case they were stymied by the girl's lack
of verbal communication. Alternatives, such as using a
time-out room or trying more or different medications had not
worked in the past. The students were stuck!
One of the advantages of psychology being a science
and a profession is that we do not have to rely just on
ourselves for solving problems. We can turn to the literature
to discover alternative strategies that other psychologists
have found to be successful with difficult problems. We
showed the students copies of journals that psychologists
use to share good ideas and data that support or reject the
The scientific literature had indeed suggested the possible
solution of using contingent punishment for treating
intractable head banging. The students were quick to appreciate
the ethical issues raised by the use of moderate but
painful levels of shock as a possible solution. Under what
conditions would it be ethical for a psychologist to use
painful punishment to help solve a problem? The students
agreed that such an alternative should be tried only if more
positive equations had failed and only if the possible benefits
to the person far outweighed the pain they might have to
Data were presented which showed that contingent
shock had indeed reduced self injurious behavior to near
zero when she was wired up to a stationary shocking
apparatus. At first there appeared to be some generalization
to her home and school environments. But then she discriminated
that she only was shocked when wired up in the lab.
The research and treatment question for the students was to
figure out a means for the apparently effective punishment to
be given outside the lab.
One of the youngsters anticipated our solution of using a
remote control apparatus that could deliver a shock across
all stimulus conditions. The youngsters were truly impressed
that it took only four days with less than 50 shocks to have
the head banging under control. They were also impressed
that for three years she had hit herself less than 50 times
compared to the 3 million times she might have been
expected to hit herself without the help of psychology. They
enjoyed watching a film that demonstrated the girl's problem
before treatment, the stages of treatment itself, and her
markedly improved behavior after treatment, when she
could now swim for the first time, and had a boyfriend for the
first time.
Initiating a Problem.
From the above presentation, interest
in psychological problem solving increased. The students
decided to study a problem of their own-why brothers and
sisters fight-and to find solutions to the problem. A session
was spent on examining just what is sibling rivalry. The
children's story "Please Don't Fight" was read by one of the
authors to set the tone (Stevenson, 1978). The children
immediately joined in with comments on the topic and
spontaneously role played some sibling fights that occurred
at home. The children were encouraged to hypothesize
about the causes of sibling rivalry. Their ideas were taped
and ranged from "being in a bad mood" to "protecting one's
room and toys" to "proving you are number one." One child
described sibling rivalry as "natural" and that "you couldn't
live without it." The authors also presented some of the
research that has been done on sibling rivalry that primarily
involves adult researchers interviewing parents (Clifford,
1959; McDermott, 1980). Driekurs' (1964) work was also
presented with his recommendation for parents to ignore
fighting between brothers and sisters, so that the children
can learn how to settle conflicts themselves. In examining
the research the students were struck with how adults were
making recommendations and statements on sibling rivalry
without input from children. They decided to investigate the
causes of sibling rivalry and to look at what children think
their parents could be3 do to reduce the rivalry by developing
a questionnaire for the students in their regular classrooms.
The study would be from the children's viewpoint and
would be designed and administered by the 8 children in the
fourth grade gifted program.
The next session 'was spent on hypothesizing what
parents could do to stop sibling conflict. As the children
suggested alternatives such as sending children to their
rooms, keeping children busy with fun activities, giving a
punching bag to each child and ignoring the fighting, the
authors explained such concepts as negative reinforcement,
distraction, displacement, and extinction. The hypotheses
on causes and solutions were then narrowed down and
formed into a 23 item "Brothers and Sisters Fighting Survey."
Initially it was thought that the 8 students would interview
and tape their classmates on the survey question. Skills
around interviewing were presented and practiced including
rapport building, objectivity, professionalism and confidentiality.
The students themselves thought the process too
cumbersome and difficult and suggested instead that a
printed questionnaire be distributed. First they became
familiar with the survey by filling it out themselves and
changing the language on s w e items. Next they practiced
how to introduce the project to their classmates. They were
given written instructions and took turns role-playing the
asking of their peers to participate in the project. When they
were ready, they administered the survey in their classrooms
during a regular school day to a total of 149 students.
The data were turned in to the authors and then were
placed on a computer at the nearby university where t-tests
were run. A print-out of the results was distributed and
reviewed. A session was spent on interpreting what each
variable means. The surveyed students reported a mean of
4.7 fights per day with a mean duration of 8.1 minutes per
fight. Surprisingly, cooperating and having fun with a sibling (,
was reported as occurring twice as often. The 149 children
experienced sibling fights as most often due to bad moods
and next most often due to protecting one's life space.
Fighting for parents' attention was the least common cause.
Reinforcing good behavior, punishing fighting and distracting
into positive behavior were seen as the best interventions
by parents, but even these top ranked cures were seen
as having only a slight effect. Ignoring the fighting was
perceived as one of the worst interventions. Sibling rivalry
was perceived as primarily the children's problem caused
by the children's dynamics, with little the parents could do to
"cure" the problem other than decreasing the duration but
not the frequency of the fights.
The 8 young researchers recognized that children get
over fights quickly (within 5 minutes) and began to question
why parents' fights last much longer. They hypothesized that
parents have longer fights because they have no one to
break them up!
With the results in hand the 8 students began to write up
their research for publication in a children's magazine. To
further their awareness of completing a study, they took their
manuscript to the psychology department of the nearby
university where it was placed on a word processor, and
then duplicated, collated, and stapled. The computer was
also visited and demonstrated. Further questions were asked
of the data, e.g., "Do children who fight more also play more
with each other?" The children made many inquiries into the
computer's operation. As part of the tour the animal lab was
visited and experimental research was described. To broaden
their awareness of the service side of psychology the
students were shown the therapy rooms in the psychology
clinic and the two-way mirror in the treatment training room.
As one half of the children role played a family getting help
with sibling rivalry the other half observed and offered
comments through the speaker system.
Evaluation. By the end of eight weeks, the elementary
school students believed they had had an exciting introduction
to the science and profession of psychology. Informal
feedback from parents indicated that several of the students
were very interested in becoming psychologists. Also, the
number of science fair projects based on psychological
research increased the next year. One of the students from
this project, for example, completed a survey of 320 5th, 7th,
9th, and 1 lth graders to answer the question, "When and
why some students lose interest in school." Out of the 130
projects, the first prize in the science fair was awarded for
the first time to a psychology research project completed by
an elementary school student.


-James O. Prochaska
University of Rhode Island
and Janice M. Prochaska
Child and Family Service of Newpott County


Rorschach Tests


Do you see a duck or a rabbit?




Do you see a young woman or an old woman? Look closely!




g t f