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Positive Relationships – School Success

By Kathleen M. Minke

I really enjoy doing things I never thought I would do, like traveling to China and swimming with whale sharks. And now I find myself writing my first president’s message for Communiqué. Amazing, especially given that I found school psychology quite by accident. In 1981, I was leafing through James Madison University’s graduate catalog looking for an MBA program. But I saw the description of the school psychology program and decided that was for me. I had no idea that there was a field that would let me try to help “square peg” kids, with whom I had much in common as a student, navigate the tricky terrain of school. When I arrived in Virginia, I was assigned as a graduate assistant to the program coordinator, Doug Brown, who was then past-president of NASP. Within weeks I was involved in the planning of the Olympia Conference on the Future of School Psychology and hearing about something called the “school psychology exemption” in APA’s model licensure act. I certainly never predicted that I would be dealing with that again about 25 years later! My life in school psychology has been an action-packed adventure, working in K–12 schools, completing a PhD, working in a birth-to-three program and a hospital, and eventually landing at the University of Delaware as a professor.

As a practitioner, I valued the resources that NASP provided. In my first job, I was the only school psychologist in a rural school district with 17 schools spread over 400 square miles (oh yes, we were definitely out of compliance). In this pre-Internet world, NASP was my lifeline to the broader professional community. When I joined the UD faculty in 1991, I had the opportunity to participate more fully in NASP, first as a delegate, then as chair of the Professional Growth workgroup and as Convention chair, and now as president. Along the way, I have had the good fortune to work with generous mentors and skilled colleagues from whom I’ve learned so much. I’ve also grown personally and professionally by learning from the children, families, educators, and graduate students with whom I’ve had the privilege to work. It is these relationships that keep the work interesting and rewarding, and that allow for effective problem solving when we find ourselves in difficult situations.

So when it came time to develop a theme for the year, I decided to focus on this interpersonal aspect of our work and selected “Positive Relationships – School Success.” We know that relationships matter at all levels of schooling. Schools with positive climates, where students feel safe and fairly treated, and are connected to other children and adults, produce greater academic gains than schools with poor climates. Among adolescents, a feeling of belonging at school and connection with at least one adult reduces the risk of drop-out. When parents and teachers have relationships characterized by mutual respect, trust, honesty, and reliability, collaborative partnerships are formed that are associated with both academic and social–emotional benefits to students. As school psychologists we have the communication, problem solving, and consultation skills needed to support positive relationships in the schools we serve.

But there are other important relationship-building opportunities that we may think of less frequently. For example, how many of us have reached out to our principals, district level curriculum and pupil personnel administrators, superintendents, and school board members? Becoming known and making sure these individuals understand and appreciate the broad range of services school psychologists can provide is critical in these times of shrinking resources. Similarly, effective advocacy at the state and federal levels is built on personal connections and interactions. As an example, consider the experience of one of the participants in NASP’s Public Policy Institute this July. The week after visiting her representatives on Capitol Hill, she received a call from her U.S. Senator asking her to help draft legislation relating to children’s mental health issues. This is a pretty good return on a simple relationship investment.

As I am writing this column, I have just completed presiding over my first Delegate Assembly meeting. Once again, I am struck by the quantity and the quality of the work done by our volunteer leadership and our staff, and by the camaraderie that fuels this work. It was an energizing experience and I am excited about the year ahead. I look forward to meeting as many of you as possible during my travels to the states and at the 2011 convention in San Francisco. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me if you have ideas, questions, or concerns about NASP’s role in supporting you in your work. I hope that all of us will focus this school year on building positive, productive relationships with students, families, colleagues, and the larger community so that we can move closer to the goal of having every child experience a safe, healthy, and supportive learning environment

Kathleen M. Minke, PhD, NCSP, is a professor of education at the University of Delaware.