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Communication Matters

Setting Goals That You Can Achieve

By Katherine C. Cowan

Karen Reivich’s article on Goal Setting and Hope (front page, this issue) targets helping children develop goal setting skills to support their achievement. This insightful guidance is applicable to school psychologists as well, particularly for goals related to general objectives like "keeping up with developments in the field," or "managing my time better." Certainly, becoming a more effective communicator and professional advocate would fall into this category of broad objectives for many school psychologists. Don’t let this put you off. Developing a greater capacity in this regard is important. Solid professional advocacy skills are not ancillary to being an effective school psychologist. Rather, they directly support and enhance your capacity to do your job in the increasingly pressured and ever dynamic world of education. And as so many school psychologists across the country know, this isn’t a theoretical concern. Budget problems have schools trimming around the edges (at best) or, in some cases, taking the hack and slash approach, to reduce the cost of human resources that are deemed nonessential.

So, what does it mean to be an effective communicator and professional advocate? It depends a little bit on who you are, but in general you:

  • Are aware of and engaged in district priorities.
  • Identify and reach out to key stakeholders and decision makers in your building or district.
  • Recognize opportunities (even small ones) to improve services.
  • Proactively make connections between your skills and important outcomes for students.

What are the benefits of being an effective communicator? The answer to this is universal. Key stakeholders know who you are, what you can do, why it matters, and how your skills support or fit into their priorities, and they believe your value is worth fighting for and deploying on behalf of school success for their students. In short, you are empowered and supported to do your best for students.

Assess What Is Useful and Achievable

To start, you want to determine your overall objective. This should be slightly more concrete than "being a better advocate." You should be clear on your district priorities and which best suit your strengths. This may be obvious or it might require some research. Consider attending a school board or PTSA meeting or two or sitting down with your building administrators and asking where they need the most help. The idea is to target your efforts toward activities and goals that will resonate with the people you are trying to reach. Your objective could be developing a more collaborative relationship with your school principal(s), improving understanding and use of school psychological services among parents, or becoming part of the RTI leadership team. What specific tactical goals you lay out will be determined by this overall objective. Remember that professional advocacy is accomplished both through good communication and with action that demonstrates value. Goals can focus on one or the other, or ideally a combination of both. Following are a few suggestions for the types of realistic communications/advocacy goals that you can begin to identify, plan for, and implement.

Spring off mental health month. May is National Mental Health Awareness Month (see related Advocacy in Action article page 19). In addition to linking with National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day, consider distributing one of NASP’s many parent or teacher resources; featuring a mental health strategy (e.g., stress management techniques) in outreach to students, teachers, and families; or conducting a SHINE poster activity from the 2010 School Psychology Awareness Week materials. The SHINE activities emphasize the positive, wellness side of children’s mental health and have proven extremely popular with school personnel and students. See if you can link an activity to managing end–of–school year stress or goal setting for the final weeks of school. (Tip: Distribute SHINE bookmarks, which are still available for $10.00 per packs of 100 by contacting Molly Drake at mdrake@naspweb.org.)

Identify summer outreach activities. This can be as simple as developing a "Keeping on Track" newsletter for parents for June/July and a "Back to School Basics" newsletter for August. (Tip: Adapt the Back–to–School Transitions handout on the NASP website.) Collaborate with teachers to identify social–emotional learning needs and develop a set of simple activities for students and parents to do over the summer that reinforce social skills, resilience, or social–emotional awareness. NASP’s partner program, Fishful Thinking, has a number of easy suggestions at www.fishfulthinking.com. Or you and your district colleagues could undertake a more ambitious idea like the parent clinics created by Fairfax County Public School (VA) school psychologists. See Communication Matters from the March/April issue of Communiqué#233;.

Target a topic per month. If raising general awareness of your role is your goal, consider sending a brief tips handout home to parents each month or including an article in the parent newsletter. Contact your district or school webmaster and offer to supply brief articles on key topics each month. Plan ahead and target topics relevant to the time of year. Use the Create Your Own Website adaptable articles in the communication resources section on the NASP website. (Tip: Send copies of your parent communications as an FYI to district leaders and school board members.)

Plan for School Psychology Awareness Week (November 14–18, 2011). As noted above, the positive focus of the SHINE theme has been extremely successful this year. The theme for 2011 will build off this strengths–based messaging and the activitiesbased poster and materials from 2010. We will be making resources available by June so that you can plan with colleagues for either a high profile event during the School Psychology Awareness week or ongoing, even yearlong, programs that engage teachers and students. A year–long approach could include focusing on a different strength each quarter. (Tip: Don’t forget our Student POWER Award and Possibilities in Action Partner Award certificates. These are great and easy ways to acknowledge students and school staff for doing their best.)

Reach out to your school administrators. NASP has identified school principals as the most critical stakeholders with whom to raise awareness and build collaborative relationships. This probably comes as no surprise to you, given the role of the principal in building–level decision–making. Chief among the concerns identified by national principal groups are: the effective use of data, achievement for struggling learners, dropout prevention/graduation, and family engagement. Not coincidentally, school psychologists have unique skill sets in all of these areas. Use of data, however, is perhaps the most critical and tightly woven throughout all school improvement efforts. Ask your principal what his or her biggest challenges are and how you might help. If possible, be ready to make your own observations (e.g., I’ve heard teachers express concern about difficulty communicating with parents) and be prepared to offer suggestions about how you might help address the problem. (Tip: Offer to help your principal review school–wide data or even identify what data to collect—e.g., parent attitudes toward school involvement—and appropriate approaches for collecting it.)

Host an information sharing session with community providers. Poor understanding of school psychologists’ roles and services, as well as how schools function, creates some of the most common barriers to effective collaboration with community service providers and private practitioners. Consider sponsoring a "children do better when we work together" session sometime in late summer or September. Depending on your district, you might do this in conjunction with school counselors and social workers. See Communication Matters, Communiqué, October 2008. (Tip 1: Be sure to have handouts with role descriptions and a list of school–based personnel with contact information. Tip 2: Be sure to include time for the community people to share their information and ask questions as well.)

Develop key messages about your role related to a district priority. This may seem like an unnecessary step, but it is helpful to have a few coordinated messages that district school psychologists use to describe their role and value. Message development should be done intentionally and can infuse resources and materials throughout the year. Use NASP message development resources and adaptable materials. Check the NASP website frequently for new and updated information. (Tip: Put your messages in the context of outcomes and adapt them for different audiences.)

Promote the NASP Practice Model. Familiarize yourself with and work with colleagues to promote the NASP Practice Model. This can include distributing the NASP Practice Model Overview brochure, doing a brief presentation to your school board, or conducting a brown–bag for staff. Resources and guidance are available on the NASP website at www.nasponline.org/practicemodel. (Tip: Link key aspects of the Model to district priorities or initiatives. See the Montgomery County Public School, Maryland example PowerPoint available on the NASP Practice Model page.)

Offer to be a resource at the state level. Your state association could probably benefit from some of the communication resources and activities you develop. Identify those that you are willing to let your state association post on their website (e.g., resources for parents) or share with fellow school psychologists in the state (e.g., the outline and agenda for a successful community meeting). On a pure advocacy note, be sure to sign up to receive legislative alerts and be prepared to act on them. A number of states are seeing legislative activity related to issues the affect practice and, in some cases, title.

Have a Plan

The idea is to identify a concrete objective for the year (e.g., play a larger role in data use and decision–making at the school–wide level) and select a goal or two that will move you toward those objectives. Laying out an action plan is essential. It should include identifying your key audiences or stakeholders, who are your allies (who do you need involved in order to succeed), what resources you might need and how to get them, what possible obstacles you might encounter, and your potential "walk arounds" for overcoming them. Be sure to collaborate with your colleagues in the district. Identify other professional advocacy efforts that have been successful and why. Share your ideas, strategies, and hopes.

As Karen Reivich reminds us, hope and goal setting go hand in hand. "Hope leads to the drive to set and pursue goals, take risks, and initiate action. Hope fuels problem–solving and helps [people] develop personal strengths and social resources." This understanding—and the goals it can help us achieve—is not just for children.

Katherine C. Cowan is NASP Director of Communications.