Isaacs, Susan (1885-1948) - Early Childhood Education - Pedagogy

Early Childhood Education

Isaacs, Susan (1885-1948)


Susan Isaacs was a British educator and psychologist influenced by John Dewey in early education and Sigmund Freud in psychoanalysis. Her positions as Head of the Department of Child Development at the University of London’s Institute of Education and the Head of the Malting House School in Cambridge effectively combined her dual interests. Two books about her Malting House School experiences continue to influence early childhood educators worldwide. Intellectual Growth of the Young Child (IG) (1930) and Social Development of the Young Child (SD) (1972) capture Isaac’s educational thought and practice. A third volume of case histories explaining her observations of children was never published.

Isaacs addresses the range of children’s development from infancy through young childhood, emphasizing the infant’s acute sense of touch and the belief that very young children have feelings that reflect positive and negative attitudes and events. Isaacs’ psychoanalytic training supported her belief that even infants have a “mental” life, that they experience fear and rage from the earliest days of life.

Children possess a need for social exchange as members of a team and a family as they learn to interact and communicate. They experience and share disappointment and joy. Today, early educators discuss brain development and appropriate practices; Isaacs was among the first to describe these concepts and their practical aspects. Isaacs believed that schools are intended to stimulate the active inquiry of the children themselves, rather than to “teach” them. Children want to “find out” about the things in their world—not to be taught, but to discover by searching. Her theoretical aims were to find suitable ways of giving satisfaction to “finding out” among all the other educative impulses of children; and to discover the beginnings of the scientific spirit and method in the thought of young children.

In Social Development in Young Children, Isaacs shuns quantitative measurements of young children. This study, like the earlier volume, Intellectual Growth, is based upon the spontaneous behavior of children in the real situations of their daily life. The books’ primary aim is the direct qualitative study of the individual children’s feelings and doings as they interact with others.

Isaacs states that she “was a trained teacher of young children and a student of Dewey’s educational theories long before [she] knew anything about Freud” (Isaacs, 1972, p. 19). She emphasized, as follows, the distinctions between analysis and education, the overlap that must reflect both analysts and educators recognizing, valuing, and understanding the basic characteristics of each field.

1. The analyst must accept all feelings.. .of love and hate, acceptance and aggression, and address them all appropriately. The educator must focus primarily on the good and positive aspects of the child’s feelings.

2. The analyst must focus on the child’s therapeutic progress and how well he is handling aggression. The educator must use the unconscious only as it appears naturally as interests of the child at the moment.

3. The analyst plays various roles as he/she works with the child to uncover fears and negative feelings. The teacher mainly acts as ... the wise parent figure, thinking positively (Isaacs, 1972, p. 456).

Further Readings: Isaacs, Nathan. AIM25: Institute of Education available online at http://; Isaacs, Susan. AIM25: Institute of Education available online at; Isaacs, Susan (1966). Intellectual growth in young children. New York: Schocken Books. Originally published 1930; Isaacs, Susan (1972). Social development in young children. New York: Schocken Books. Originally published 1933; Isaacs, Susan (1968). The nursery years: The mind of the child from birth to six years. Introduction by Millie Almy. New York: Schocken Books. Originally published 1929; Lascarides, V. Celia, and B. F. Hinitz (2000). History of early childhood education. New York: Falmer Press, a member of the Taylor and Francis Group.

Edna Ranck