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Communication Matters

Communicating to Overcome Barriers: I Can't Do One More Thing!

By Terry Molony

Being part of a transforming profession on a day-to-day basis can be a challenge because of the ever-changing aspects of our jobs. Moreover, shrinking school budgets are resulting in growing demand for our time and skills in many districts. While many school psychologists agree that part of the satisfaction in our profession lies in the challenges, dealing with these challenges daily can be exhausting. There is always something new to learn and put into practice: a new way to interpret assessments; a new way to collect and interpret data; a new intervention for academic or behavior problems; or a new way to prevent a problem from occurring, such as building resilience in children.

With NASP’s 2010 Model of Comprehensive and Integrated School Psychological Services (also known as the NASP Practice Model), school psychologists are challenged to take time to assess their competencies and practice in order to stretch themselves to further develop their skills. Clearly, doing so is good for us as professionals and for the children, families, and educators we serve because it enhances our effectiveness across the spectrum of education mandates and outcomes. The same is true for raising awareness of our skills—and hence our value—with school leaders and other stakeholders. In particular, NASP is encouraging school psychologists to offer themselves to administrators as effective problem solvers who work side by side with them in addressing the school’s or district’s most pressing issues. In essence, our approach should be, "We can be part of the solution no matter the problem."

Sounds good in theory but, in reality, it can feel overwhelming. As more responsibilities are added to our daily to-do lists, many school psychologists are thinking, "I can’t do one more thing." Sometimes that might indeed be the case, but often there is a way to figure out how to do or reframe that one more thing by simply tapping our communication and professional advocacy skills. This column provides some ideas about overcoming the barriers of growing to-do lists and shrinking schedules using those skills.

Be Sure to Fully Understand the Situation

If you see the additional task or role as unnecessary or as an imposition, you are not likely to be successful at achieving it. Who can put meaningful effort into something that they perceive to be futile or cumbersome? First, consider if the task is truly unnecessary. It might not be, but if it is, use your strong communication skills to express your point of view in a positive manner to key stakeholders and offer alternative insights into the situation. Be sure to understand the goal behind the request (e.g., decrease office referrals). If possible, identify an alternative approach to addressing this goal that better suits your skills and best practice. Scheduling a short meeting instead of a discussion on the run usually works best. Develop an outline for an agenda and be clear on your communication goals. And be realistic. Oftentimes, we shoot ourselves in the foot by expecting to change our supervisor’s mind at that moment or get an immediate result; we must consider the competing interests of all of our stakeholders and be prepared to acknowledge them in our communications. However, we often can be successful in the long run if our goal is to provide information that will help others understand the situation in a more comprehensive manner.

Communicate With Data

Using the communication skills of effective listening is also essential. If we listen carefully, we can learn what is most important to the other person. Teaming up with some aspect of what is most important to your stakeholders can help your message take on stronger value. Communicating to your administrators and supervisors with a focus on the data to show the positive outcomes regarding your work is essential. For instance, if the goal of the district is to increase test scores, and you are being asked to become involved in test preparation instead of leading the social–emotional learning (SEL) interventions that you believe will have a real effect, then your message about the importance of SEL programs is strengthened by providing the research regarding how SEL can increase test scores by improving the school’s climate, which results in more productive learning environments. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning has released a comprehensive meta-analysis of 213 SEL, character education, and prevention programs that would be useful in developing key data points on this issue. It is available at http://casel.org/why-it-matters/benefits-of-sel/meta-analysis. If we are information brokers and research disseminators in our districts, our opinions will be regularly sought and eventually our messages will be heard.

Change Your Own Mindset

Sometimes situations require that we reframe our mindset to complete a new task or role; your effective communication might help to shape the new task into something that you believe in and support. If the tidal wave has been put in motion and you must accomplish a task that you think is unnecessary, then you might need to look deeply to find some value in the task or to enjoy a small part of it. There is probably something that we can gain or learn from almost any task we do. For example, if test preparation is what you need to do, your contribution might include helping students to develop relaxation skills.

Take on the Challenge With a Friend or Colleague

Most people agree that it is easier to accomplish a task with the help of a friend. Collaborating with a colleague can help us to stay on track and be more accountable. It can also be motivating to share the burden and responsibility with someone who is equally invested in the task. The daily tasks of a school psychologist can often be isolating; working together on a project can provide us with a reason to get together with like-minded colleagues.

Regarding the new practice model, the school psychologists in your district can take NASP’s online practice assessment to determine areas of strength and areas of need. The information from the group can be combined and developed into an informal district goal for school psychologists to develop competency in all areas. School psychologists can exchange ideas with each other, develop short presentations, or lead the group in areas of individual strengths, while also being assisted by others in areas of less expertise. Often this kind of interaction and communication helps everyone develop self-efficacy, as well as expertise.

Surround Yourself With Positive People

When people need to do difficult things, they often need cheerleaders who acknowledge and encourage their effort, hard work, and persistence. Identify your cheerleaders. They may be your family members, friends, teachers, principals, key parents, or other school psychologists. Communicate to them about the value of their encouragement. This can result in stronger relationships with them, while also increasing the probability of accomplishing your goal.

As school psychologists, it is essential to reinforce the work of our colleagues. We can use some of NASP’s communication tools to celebrate each other’s accomplishments as we develop even more areas of expertise. One specific resource we can tap into is NASP’s Possibilities in Action Partner Program, which enables us to recognize colleagues for their hard work and efforts. This can include teachers, administrators, aides, fellow school mental health professionals, and even parents—any adult who stands out as someone making a real difference in students’ lives. Suggested guidelines and a downloadable certificate are available online at http://www.nasponline.org/communications/spawareness.

Ask for Help When You Need It

When we do not know where to start, we need to ask for help. Asking for help is sometimes hard to do because we may feel like we should know the answers already. Most people find that many positive results follow when they ask for help. We can learn how to do something difficult or find validation in the fact that others may not know the answer either. Often that can spur partnerships, so we can work on common goals together.

Being actively involved in your state professional organizations can put you in touch with school psychologists who have expertise in many different domains. Also, NASP provides a wealth of information through its website and publications. NASP offers us information regarding training to improve our expertise in the domains, resources to communicate the issues to administrators, teachers, and parents, as well as information on best practices and model programs.

In addition, the different communication tools that NASP offers can also be helpful in communicating with others. The NASP Online Communities provide opportunities for connecting with other school psychologists across the country to collaborate, exchange ideas, and transfer information.

Be Patient With Yourself

Research indicates that we are much more likely to solve problems successfully when we are in a good mood and when we feel strong self-efficacy. There may be times during the school year when we are working to our maximum and feel we cannot do one more thing. At those times, it is important to be honest and realistic, but we must also recognize how we are communicating with ourselves when we feel overwhelmed. Are we using self-talk that is extremely pessimistic, such as discounting the positives, magnifying the negatives, putting situations in an all-or-nothing context? Recognizing when we are engaging in ways of thinking that are unconstructive and energy-zapping can help us consciously engage in strategies to readjust our thinking to a more constructive outcome. NASP has quite a bit of information on positive approaches to challenges through our work with Fishful Thinking and articles on positive psychology. These are available online in Communiqué (http://www.nasponline.org/publications/cq) and at http://www.nasponline.org/families/fishful.

Engage in Simple Energizing Endeavors

Sometimes doing that one more thing, depending on what it is, can have an invigorating effect. Writing a short article for your school’s PTA newsletter about a topic you feel is important can communicate information about your skills, your commitment, and your value as a school psychologist, while also giving you a chance to reflect on the subject and experience energizing positive feelings. We need not have accomplished something amazing to write an article. We could write about anything meaningful or important to us, including witnessing a student’s kindness to another and its relation to school climate. Simple communication like that can have a powerful impact.

Make the Most of the Summer

For most of us, summer is a good time step back, reenergize, and take stock of our responsibilities and goals for the coming year. Even if we are 12-month employees, work is often less hectic and centered more on planning. By all means, enjoy time off with family and friends. But also try to incorporate some targeted professional development. If you know that the coming year will entail new tasks, seek out training, an online resource or webinar, or even discussions with colleagues to prepare for your new or expanded responsibilities. Be proactive. Identify a need in your building and an approach that you think will help address it, and offer to help. Be sure to lay out your plan for presenting your recommendation to your building leaders and to link the recommendation to a priority within the district. This might prevent the district from assigning you a less effective task instead. Take time with your colleagues to set goals for the team, determine how these goals will improve outcomes for kids, and decide how you can best accomplish them. And plan your communications activities for the coming year. Review previous Communications Matters columns for ideas.

Consider Your Gumby Factor

The Communications Workgroup does training sessions on effective communications at the annual convention. The presentation is available online in the communications resources page. Gumby, that likeable, flexible, green fellow from childhood, plays a starring role in the presentation. His purpose is to remind us of the incredible gifts that school psychologists bring to our jobs each day, gifts that may be useful in the effort to do that one more thing. What do we have in common with Gumby? Consider the following:

Gumby's Qualities* School Psychologists' Qualities
  • Flexible
  • Helpful
  • Optimistic—all is possible
  • Honest and pure
  • Adventurous
  • Fearless
  • Loving
  • Everybody’s friend
  • Gumby represents the good in all of us
  • Flexible
  • Helpful
  • Optimistic—all is possible
  • Honest and ethical
  • Resourceful
  • Highly skilled
  • Dedicated
  • Caring
  • School psychologists see the good in all of us
*By Art Clokey, Gumby’s creator, found on the back of the Gumby package

The good news and bad news of our profession is that our jobs should be secure because we generally have a lot to do. The more ways in which we demonstrate our effectiveness, the greater our recognized value will be. The challenge lies in the word "more." Hopefully, if we can communicate effectively through listening with an open mind, collaborating, asking for help, cheerleading for each other, connecting with other positive psychologists, writing about what we do, and using NASP communication tools and resources, we will be able to overcome many of the barriers, even the ones that are within ourselves.