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Seven Habits of Highly Effective School Psychologists

By John J. Murphy

Have you ever ...

  • tried to convince students that they have a problem when they don't think they do?
  • found yourself working a lot harder than the student to change a school problem?
  • felt like giving up altogether on consultation, intervention, or counseling because you simply don't have the time to do it right?

These are the types of challenges that led to the development of the seven practical habits described in this article. If you answered "yes" to any of them, then I hope you will find these ideas as useful in your work as they have been in mine.

Habit #1 Remember that change is the name of the game. Most referrals to school psychologists represent a request for change regardless of the type of service being requested. Even assessment referrals are initiated because someone, usually a parent or teacher, wants to see a change in the student's academic or social behavior. Whether evaluating a student's academic ability or consulting with a teacher regarding a classroom behavior problem, change is the ultimate goal (Murphy, 1999). For this reason, I suggest the following question as a guide for professional practice: Will this action promote the desired change? "Action" is broadly defined here to include assessment procedures, evaluation reports, placement and programming decisions, interventions, meetings, and so forth. Our usefulness depends largely on a willingness to apply this question to daily decisions and activities. As such, this is the foundation for the other habits.

Habit #2 Be a good ambassador. When foreign ambassadors arrive in a new country, they don't start telling people what to do. They look, listen, ask, and learn before dispensing any advice. They adopt a "beginner's mind" and convey a genuine desire to be useful. They ask questions such as:

  • What do you want from me and our relationship?
  • How can I be most useful to you?
  • What do you value most?
  • What do you see as the key problem and potential solutions?
  • What do you do best? What excites you the most? What are your strongest assets?
  • What advice would you have in changing things for the better?

Good ambassadors view their clients as essential teachers of local customs, cultural beliefs, and goals. The ambassador's ultimate effectiveness rests largely on an ability to match advice and recommendations to the unique challenges, interests, and resources of the people they serve. Likewise, school interventions need to be customized to the students, teachers, and parents who are expected to implement and benefit from them. Like good ambassadors, effective practitioners fit their approach to the person being served instead of squeezing the person into their preferred models and methods. They also obtain regular feedback from clients, and adjust their services accordingly.

Habit #3 Pay attention to language. Our effectiveness improves when we listen carefully to the words of others and choose our words carefully. The words people use to describe school problems provide important clues about their views of the problem and its potential solution. Consider the following two descriptions of the same problem involving a fifth grader referred for disruptive classroom behavior.

Teacher: He's very manipulative and likes to have the upper hand. When he's not in control, he'll do something to direct attention to himself so he can have an audience. Meanwhile, I lose control of the class. That's my big concern. I feel like I'm losing control while he's gaining it.
Student: She's always on my case [referring to the teacher]. I can't do anything right. Everything I do in her class is wrong. I breathe and she says, "Now Stephen, stop breathing."
[Notice the difference between the practitioner's response to each.]
Practitioner (to the teacher): I'm wondering what you could do differently to regain some control in the classroom.
Practitioner (to the student): I'm wondering what you could do differently to get the teacher off your case.

In both cases, the practitioner respects and reflects the person's language by incorporating it into a follow-up comment ("gaining control" for the teacher; getting the teacher "off your case" for the student). This takes practice, but it is well worth the effort. I have been amazed at how useful this strategy is in engaging the most reluctant or socalled "resistant" of students or adults. Speaking of "resistance"...

Habit #4 Resist "resistance." Mary was a high school student referred for defiant school behavior. Here is what Mary said upon entering my office before I even had the chance to say hello: "This school sucks. The teachers are stupid and the principal is an idiot. And now I have to come here to see you. And you're going to try to make me mind the teachers, but I'm not doing it, and you can't make me. Nobody can make me. This counseling idea sucks just like the school. I'm not crazy. I don't care what you or anyone else says."

Mary would fit most definitions of "a resistant client." Given that change is the name of the game in our work, the big question is: Does viewing Mary as "resistant" help in establishing a connection and working toward a solution? My answer is a resounding "No!" Labeling people as resistant, or otherwise invalidating their potential contribution to solutions, always hinders the change process. Consider two common responses to students like Mary: (a) the Rational Persuasion Approach of trying to talk her out of her opinion by providing facts that challenge her view of herself and others and (b) the Fatalistic Future Approach of informing her how miserable her future life will be if she doesn't change quickly. As well-intentioned as they are, these resistancecountering responses usually backfire and make matters worse. Perhaps you have experienced someone trying to change your mind about an important matter before taking the time to get to know you or learn more about your position. How did you respond?

Students who demonstrate serious and ongoing school problems often feel misunderstood, a change-deterring impression that is reinforced when helping professionals view them as resistant (including statements or implications that the student is "not trying"). It is more efficient to cooperate with the student's position instead of trying to change it. Returning to Mary, I cooperated with her position by asking what she needed to do to get out of coming to counseling. She was intrigued by this unexpected question, and gradually became more cooperative as we talked about specific behaviors that would advance her goal of not coming to counseling. Change is enhanced when we drop the term "resistance" and other invalidating labels, and take responsibility for working with students, parents, and teachers in ways that engage their motivation and cooperation.

Habit #5 Focus on what works. When it comes to helping people resolve problems, psychology has favored the medical model's emphasis on reducing or fixing "what's wrong" rather than increasing and building on "what's right" and "what works" with people. Consider the fact that the original Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) included 66 diagnoses while the newest version (DSM–IV–TR) includes 397 disorders. That's an increase of 600%, or over two new categories per month, for the past 50 years! Are we really becoming that disturbed, or has the profession's fascination with problems and pathology spiraled out of control?

The positive psychology movement (Seligman, 2005) challenges the field's fixation on pathology and problems, calling for greater attention to what works and what's right with people. Seeing students as either deficient or competent is more a matter of choice than truth. Habit #5 invites school psychologists to "search for competency" by utilizing assessment and interviewing strategies aimed at identifying people's strengths and resources. Meta-analyses of psychotherapy research indicate that "client factors" are the strongest contributors to successful outcomes—about three times stronger than the practitioner's techniques (Asay & Lambert, 1999; Bohart, 2006). Some have estimated their influence to be much higher (Wampold, 2001). Client factors refer to naturally occurring assets that students and others bring to the problemsolving table, including their resilience, strengths, successes, beliefs, values, faith, interests, coping skills, and social supports. These findings suggest that building on people's strengths and resources is one of the most powerful and efficient means of changing problems in school and elsewhere (Murphy & Duncan, 2007).

One practical way of implementing this habit is to search for exceptions to the problem. Exceptions refer to times in which a school problem is absent or less intense. Asking a disruptive student about the one class in which they don't get into trouble, instead of focusing only on problematic classes, provides helpful clues about what works for the student in regard to class format, teacher–student interaction, and so forth. This information can be used to design interventions that encourage the student and others to do more of what is already working. Practical, research-supported strategies for integrating strengths and resources into school-based consultation and intervention are provided elsewhere (Murphy, 1997; Murphy & Duncan, 2007).

Habit #6 Focus on the future. Despite sounding like a retirement slogan, this habit offers many practical advantages to school psychologists. Assessment, consultation, and intervention are most effective when they are future-focused and solution-oriented versus past-focused and problem-oriented. The past is useful only insofar as it enhances future solutions. Information regarding previous interventions and their relative success is helpful in planning future actions. However, prolonged archeological digs into the problematic past do not always provide a clear direction for change and may actually heighten people's despair. Focusing on the future cultivates hope and improves outcomes (Frank & Frank, 1991).

Questions that anticipate change and build hope are useful in helping students and others focus on future goals, actions, and possibilities. Here are some examples:

  • How will you know when things start getting better?
  • What will your daughter be doing differently when her self-esteem begins to improve a little?
  • How will classroom life change for you as a teacher when these ideas start working?

Additional questions can be found in Murphy (1997) and Murphy and Duncan (2007).

Habit #7 Remind yourself (often) that "change is the name of the game." This is the mantra of effective school psychologists and others for whom resolving problems is a daily requirement. Since every referral is a request for change, this reminder keeps us tightly focused on what is most important in our work with students and others. Like any good mantra, it should be repeated often throughout the workday.

References

Asay, T. P., & Lambert, M. J. (1999). The empirical case for the common factors in therapy: Quantitative findings. In M. A. Hubble, B. L. Duncan, & S. D. Miller (Eds.), The heart and soul of change: What works in therapy (pp. 33–56). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Bohart, A. C. (2006). The active client. In J. C. Norcross, L. E. Buetler, & R. Levant (Eds.), Evidence- based practices in mental health: Debate and dialogue on the fundamental questions (pp. 218–226). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Frank, J. D. & Frank, J. B. (1991). Persuasion and healing (3rd ed.). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins.

Murphy, J. J. (1997). Solution-focused counseling in middle and high school. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.

Murphy, J. J. (1999). Common factors of schoolbased change. In M. A. Hubble, S. D. Miller, & B. L. Duncan (Eds.), The heart and soul of change: What works in therapy (pp. 361–386). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Murphy, J. J., & Duncan, B. L. (2007). Brief intervention for school problems (2nd ed.): Outcome informed strategies. New York: Guilford Press.

Seligman, M. E. (2005, March). Positive psychology at school. Keynote address presented at the National Association of School Psychologists Conference, Atlanta, GA.

Wampold, B. E. (2001). The great psychotherapy debate: Models, methods, and findings. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

John J. Murphy, PhD, is Professor of Psychology at the University of Central Arkansas, Mental Health/Behavior Support Consultant for Conway (AR) Public School, and a former finalist for NASP School Psychologist of the Year.

Editor's note: This article is adapted from Murphy, J. J. (2001, Spring). Seven habits of highly effective school psychologists. School Psychology in Virginia, pp. 3–5.