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Communication Matters

What Makes a School Psychologist a School Psychologist?

By Katherine C. Cowan, Director, Marketing and Communications

What makes a school psychologist a school psychologist as opposed to a "regular" psychologist, counselor, therapist, or other related professional? Why does the distinction matter to student success? Can you answer this question easily and succinctly? More importantly, can anyone you work with answer it?

These are not idle or theoretical questions but rather point to a potentially serious problem for the profession: the risk of failing to articulate to all critical decision makers school psychologists' distinct and irreplaceable contribution to positive outcomes for students, families, and schools.

Over the past decade, school psychology (in large measure due to NASP's efforts) has made significant strides in raising awareness of the profession and the issues that affect children's behavior and learning. To some extent, we have been pushed to the fore by the darker side of kids' lives as a result of high-profile school violence, terrorism, and natural disasters. Our work in this area has been stellar and I think it is safe to say that, in most education circles, school psychologists are recognized as leaders in school crisis prevention and response. Beyond crisis, though, we have made noticeable progress in improving stakeholder understanding of the links among mental health, development, and learning; the critical importance of prevention; the need for evidence-based interventions; and the interrelationship between environmental (external) and child-based (internal) factors that shape student outcomes.

We have been particularly successful in the area of children's mental health and the school's role in providing services. Stigma and skepticism still exist but far fewer people look askance when you mention the issue. Indeed, mental health just may be the next big frontier in school reform. School-based mental health is a major focus in proposed federal legislation right now and has been addressed legislatively in a number of states. I regularly field press calls on mental health issues in school. And, although perhaps a few degrees removed from direct mental health services, initiatives like PBIS and RTI are further evidence of efforts to bring the whole child into focus in the school setting. Notably, these efforts also seek to infuse in the general education environment the focus on evidence-based early intervention and problem solving historically found in special education.

All good news in terms of the role of school psychologists, right? Maybe.

As much as it pains me to say this as NASP Director of Communications, it is not at all clear what the ultimate outcome for school psychologists will be as a result of our success in generating attention for the issues or even the services needed to address those issues. Don't misunderstand me. NASP has effectively advocated at the national level for school psychologists as specifically trained and necessary to successful schooling for all children. The House bill on school mental health clearly reflects this effort, as does inclusion of school psychologists in the recently passed federal loan forgiveness bill. Our long-standing collaborative work with allied professional organizations has helped generate support for NASP's opposition to APA's removal of the exemption for school psychologists from its model licensure act. Groups such as NCATE, the National School Boards Association, the Council of Administrators of Special Education, the American Counseling Association, and others have written letters to APA urging them to reinstate the exemption. But NASP (or your state associations for that matter) cannot make the case for the profession in every arena where many critical decisions are made. This is particularly true at the local and district level where important "grassroots" perspectives and constituencies are formed.

In the 8 years that I have been here, I have observed a natural reluctance among school psychologists to appear self-serving when discussing what is in the best interest of children. We need to get over this. The reality is that in many critical arenas the discussion about the "what" and "why" with regard to services for students does not necessarily also include the "who" with specific reference to the need for school psychologists. This distinction does not come naturally to our consumers or policymakers. The risk of being marginalized is real as other professions are either drawn by demand or actively seek entry into expanding school-based services. Most alarming is APA's decision to remove the school psychology exemption from their model licensure act. The potential ramifications of this are obvious. Look at how APA defines in the model act what a psychologist does. You can see how easy it would be for decision makers to ask, "Exactly what do the ‘people-formally-known-as-school-psychologists' do that a general psychologist can't?"

In some districts in Texas, where many talented and dedicated "people-formally-known-as-school- psychologists" work, behavioral specialists are being hired to provide the interventions normally provided by school psychologists (or those still known as school psychologists in other states). Is this bad for students? Perhaps not. What is bad for everyone involved is that, because the line between behavior and mental health can be fuzzy, these behavioral specialists are also being asked to provide mental health services, which for the most part they are not trained to do.

Consider also the State of Connecticut where the legislature recently passed a bill allowing Marriage and Family Therapists (MFT) to work in schools (see related article on page 33). The decision acknowledges the need to support students' mental health and the opportunity to do so in schools. This is good. It also is likely that MFTs will be a positive addition to school services with regard to therapy and counseling. Yet, you have to consider how stakeholders will view these services as distinct from therapy and counseling provided by school psychologists (or school social workers and counselors), or where in their minds the distinction ends. If a MFT can provide counseling, can they also recommend classroom interventions? Provide teacher consultation? Implement bullying prevention programs? Serve on the PBIS team? Realistically, Connecticut is more likely to represent a beachhead than an isolated solution to inadequate availability of children's mental health services. It behooves all of us to watch how MFTs are integrated into the school team in Connecticut and whether or not the efficacy of school-based services and the roles of trained school-employed professionals (including school psychologists) are preserved.

I suppose the one "upside" to APA's current stance on the model act is that it has refocused our attention on the need to be doggedly intentional about answering the question posed at the outset of this article. Exactly what makes a school psychologist a school psychologist and why does this matter to student success? In many cases, this may require raising the question with stakeholders in the first place. If we wait until policymakers or administrators are trying to figure this out on their own, it may be too late. The primary purpose of the Communication Matters column is to help NASP members identify opportunities or avenues for engaging in this dialogue.

Your training and expertise don't lend themselves to sound bite descriptions but it is possible to hone in on the key points. How these lay out may vary a bit for each of you and in each instance should be strengthened with specific examples. General key messages include:

  • All services provided in schools should be appropriate to the learning environment and support the mission and purpose of schools. Those that are not risk being ineffective or even counterproductive.
  • Schools are unique environments with very distinct mandates, laws, considerations, processes, and dynamics. Just as children are not simply small adults, schools are not merely private clinics with chalk boards. Being trained to work within this culture is essential to being effective.
  • School psychologists have specialized training in child development, mental health, learning, and school systems. Their unique expertise lies in how these elements interact to shape children's behavior, learning, and overall adjustment.
  • School psychologists are trained in education (ESEA/NCLB, IDEA) and relevant civil rights (Section 504) laws. They understand reporting requirements, consent, and privacy and disclosure laws and how their application in schools differs from applications in private or community practice.
  • School psychologists are skilled at identifying barriers to learning and differentiating between those raised by issues such as cultural, language, poverty, or family issues and those stemming from mental health, instructional, or child-specific learning difficulties.
  • School psychologists understand classroom dynamics and the pressures on and capacities of teachers. They are trained in learning, curricula, and instruction as well as in how to monitor student progress and response to interventions, establish outcomes measures, and design appropriate accommodations. They are able to help teachers modify instruction and implement interventions in a way that is feasible for the teacher and matches the student's learning and behavior needs.
  • School psychologists understand the relationship between environmental (external) and child-based (internal) factors that shape student outcomes. They know the factors within the school context that motivate (e.g., getting peer attention) or inhibit (e.g., avoiding the task at hand) student behavior. Identifying these factors is critical to addressing a problem.
  • School psychologists are skilled at consultation and collaboration with school personnel, team facilitation, and the team approach to problem-solving that underlies contemporary school processes. School psychologists must be responsive to the needs and perspectives of the child, the teachers, the parents, the administration, and the laws that govern services to students.
  • School psychologists are focused on systems-level prevention and strength-based wellness programs. They understand how these prevention efforts support the learning environment and individual students, as well as how they ground the three-tiered prevention and intervention model.

We have developed a handout (see insert) that briefly lays out school psychologists' "defining skills." The challenge is to be proactive about defining the distinct role of school psychologists without dismissing the contribution of other professionals to the health and welfare of children and families, or of other school-based professionals to school success. There are plenty of children and challenges to go around. Moreover, we want to be upfront that, with proper training and supervision, related community professionals, such as clinical child psychologists, can work effectively in schools.

NASP will continue to work on these issues. We need you to do so as well. Use the NASP resources identified below. Share yours with us (kcowan@naspweb.org or jjkboyle@mchsi.com). Toward that end, please let us know if you have data from your research or work in your districts that specifically address outcomes from school psychological services.  This is vital evidence-based information.


What Makes a School Psychologist a School Psychologist? (Communiqué insert)

This will also be available online at http://www.nasponline.org/communications/index.aspx

What Is a School Psychologist? (brochure)

School Psychology: A Career That Makes a Difference (brochure)

School Psychologists and Mental Health Services (handout)

What Is a School Psychologist? A Guide for Teachers-in-Training (PowerPoint presentation)

Number of School Psychologists and Ratio of Students to School Psychologists by State in 2004 (fact sheet)

Supporting Student Success: Remedying the Shortage of School Psychologists (handout)

NASP Comments/Recommendations on Reauthorization of NCLB (letter to Congress)

School-Based Mental Health Services and School-Wide Interventions – remarks by Rivka Olley

School-Based Mental Health Services and School-Wide Interventions – remarks by John Desrochers

NASP Position Statement on Pupil Services: Essential to Education

Create Your Own Webpage

Resources Relevant to APA Model Licensure Act Revision (multiple resources)

School Psychology: A Blueprint for Training and Practice III (booklet)

School Psychology: Past, Present and Future, Third Edition (book)