Female pioneers: Kathy Sylva OBE on educational psychologist and psychoanalyst Susan Isaacs CBE

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To celebrate International Women’s Day, three ACAMH luminaries shine the spotlight on the female pioneers of child and adolescent psychology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis, they most admire.

ACAMH President, Kathy Sylva OBE, Professor of Educational Psychology and Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Oxford, has chosen educational psychologist and psychoanalyst Susan Isaacs CBE, (1885-1948), the first head of the Child Development Department at the London Institute of Education.

Susan Issacs CBE

Isaacs, who gained a master’s from Cambridge in 1913, is perhaps best known for heading the progressive Malting House School where children were encouraged to learn through play and experimentation. In addition, she wrote books on child development and was one of the first to challenge the established views of psychologist, Jean Piaget.

“Susan Isaacs made a major contribution to our understanding of child development, yet is very little known, and I want to keep her memory alive.” explains Kathy who first encountered Isaacs’ work in the 1970s, after arriving in England for postdoctoral study.

“At the time, I was trained as an experimentalist. We’d invite children into the lab and give them experimental tasks. Whereas, Isaacs, rather than giving a group of children the same task, would directly observe their spontaneous play in their natural environment and put an analytic lens on her observations. I found that very exciting. She inspired my early studies of naturalistic observations of children in preschool.”

Isaacs honed her approach at the Maltings House School having answered the following advertisement published in 1924 in the New Statesman: “WANTED — an Educated Young Woman with honours degree – preferably first class…to conduct education of a small group of children…as a piece of scientific work and research.” 1

“To answer the advert she must have been both curious and brave.”

Kathy also credits Isaacs with introducing a ‘holistic’ approach to child development encompassing intellectual, social and emotional development.

“In Britain the emphasis on the holistic development of the child really goes back to Susan Isaacs. People no longer read her books, but her work has permeated educational practice to this day. Isaacs’ approach was to educate the whole child — it’s a pedagogy for wellbeing and mental health.”


  • Kathy’s book inspired by Isaacs’ work is Childwatching at Playgroup and Nursery School, London: Grant McIntyre, 1980.

1 P. Graham (2009) Susan Isaacs:  A life freeing the minds of children. London: Karnac.

Kathy Slyva CBE


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