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Professional Development: Where Competence and Advocacy Align

By Katherine C. Cowan

This is a column of questions and not many answers. Think of your participation at the NASP 2011 Annual Convention in San Francisco as your opportunity to answer the questions yourself. The purpose is to help reframe your goals for the convention so that they do not simply include the topics and skills you want to address but also a consideration of how these skills will enhance your effectiveness, role, and perceived value as a school psychologist.

Here are the first two questions to ask yourself as you prepare to come to San Francisco.

  • Am I a professional advocate?

  • How is continuing professional development a direct step toward professional advocacy?

Most people don’t think of professional development in broad terms as related to professional advocacy. We think of it in terms of competence (“Can I do this task well?”), and correctly so. Providing services for which we are properly trained and staying abreast of current research and practice is a foundational tenet of school psychology. But competence is also our greatest advocacy tool. Indeed, professional advocacy has two primary components: (a) intentional, effective communication or outreach that builds awareness, understanding, and buy-in for a particular issue, action, or strategy; and (b) actions that prove effectiveness and value. Competence plays a role in both. You have to know what you are doing and do it well, and you have to know how to communicate why you do what you do and its direct benefit to student, family, and school outcomes.

Second set of questions to ask yourself:

  • What do I spend most of my time doing now?

  • What do I not do that I could or should be doing?

  • What are my weakest skill areas relative to the needs and priorities of the schools and children I serve?

Most of us gravitate to our comfort zone. What feels like a good fit? With what are we familiar? At what do we feel pretty competent? It is instinctive to go there. Doing so is fine on most days and most certainly when we are offering expertise. But it shouldn’t guide our choices for professional development. We should be looking both to deepen our expertise in our known skill areas and to grow in our weakest skill areas. This may seem self-evident, but it is not uncommon to hear school psychologists say, “I am swamped with assessments, so I don’t need to take a session on mental health.” Or “School psychologists aren’t on the RTI implementation team in my district, so I don’t really need to enhance my knowledge of progress monitoring.” Or “I don’t serve on the leadership team, so I don’t need to know more about issues related to school improvement.”

Here again, there are two main points to consider:

  • NASP has defined and is strongly advocating for the comprehensive and integrated role of the school psychologist with the new 2010 Standards and the new NASP Practice Model. This comprehensive role is good for students and good for school psychologists because it integrates our expertise across almost all aspects of schooling. Most school psychologists have training in all 10 NASP domains of practice, but are not necessarily regularly practicing nor have genuine competence in all domains. Educational sessions at the convention represent the range of professional practice domains, offering a wealth of opportunity to build skills in areas that will strengthen your comprehensive role. We encourage you to review the domains and take a brief self-assessment tool (takes about 15 minutes) online at www.nasponline.org/practicemodel to help you target the topics and sessions that will be most valuable.

  • Ideally, you should be targeting skill areas that directly address the priorities of your district in order to strengthen your role within the system. With more than 1,100 educational sessions, you need to select sessions wisely. Think about the professional advocacy power in enhancing your skills relative to a serious need or problem in your schools (e.g., data collection regarding improved school climate and safety) and your ability to communicate this crucial expertise to key decision makers.

Third set of questions:

  • How can being a professional advocate improve my work?

  • How do I think about and act as a professional advocate on a daily basis?

  • What, if anything, is preventing me from being a professional advocate?

NASP has made encouraging every school psychologist to become an intentional and effective professional advocate a priority. The reasons are many, with the economy, job/role preservation, and the reauthorization of ESEA right at the top of the list. We are working hard at the national level to secure our services in legislation (see Advocacy in Action column on page 14). In the end, though, it’s your work on the ground that matters. While we would love to have every school psychologist writing Congress and their state legislatures (really, we would), this is not the sole or even main goal. The overarching purpose is to help you—yes, you— consciously and effectively integrate both competent action and advocacy throughout all of your work.

In many respects, this is mindset—a matter of paying attention to the issues in your schools and how your work supports major priorities. It is a matter of evaluating and shaping your presence in the school with students, parents, teachers, other staff, and, most importantly, administrators. Like everything else in school psychological practice, professional advocacy is skills based. It isn’t rocket science, but there are techniques and strategies that make you more effective (and help ease some of the anxiety around the perception of “advocacy”). The NASP 2011 Annual Convention offers many opportunities to develop your knowledge and your skills related to professional advocacy at the practice and policy levels. See your convention program for the sessions available as part of your registration.

Final questions:

  • What is the one thing I want to bring back from the convention to share with my colleagues so that we can be a more effective professional team?

  • How can I use my new knowledge to enhance my leadership role?

At the heart of school psychology is teamwork and collaboration. We are most effective when we help bring others along. This includes our fellow school psychologists, teachers and other educators, community providers, and parents. You can help your colleagues by addressing or helping to target an issue that is relevant across the district and then sharing the knowledge and resources. Be sure to consider how these efforts improve collaboration. Facilitating such collaboration is a primary form of leadership. Indeed, leadership does not depend on a title. It is an attitude, an ability, a focus on helping others bring about positive change, whether systemic or targeted. This is what you can begin or continue to build at the convention. You just need to start by asking yourself how.

Examples of Advocacy Sessions at the Convention

FS04: They Said It Couldn’t Be Done Successful, Data-Driven Systems Change in a Large Urban School District

SS03: Using Your Degree for Diplomacy: Putting Advocacy Into Action

SS21 Strengthening Relationships With Administrators: Influential Conversations

SS23: INVEST in Community: Six Steps to Building Relationships Across Cultures

SS26: Capitol Hill and School Psychologists: NCLB Reauthorization and other Public Policy Updates

SS27: The NASP 2010 Model of Comprehensive and Integrated School Psychological Services: How It Benefits Practitioners

SS31: Stand Up and Be Counted: Developing Critical Links and Pathways to Advocacy

SS32: Communication Matters: Preserving and Promoting Your Role in a Tough Professional Climate

IGO6: Systems Level Data-Driven Decision-Making Interest Group Networking Session n

Katherine C. Cowan is NASP Director of Communications.