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NASP and ISPA Response to the Japanese Natural Disaster

By Bill Pfohl & Katherine C. Cowan

It was one part serendipity and nine parts long-standing professional focus that had two-time past NASP president Bill Pfohl serving as both chair of the NASP National Emergency Assistance Team (NEAT) and president of the International School Psychology Association (ISPA) when the massive earthquake and tsunami devastated the northeastern part of Japan in March of this year. As NASP director of communications, Kathy Cowan has worked closely with Bill and the NASP NEAT team for a decade to help coordinate communications around large-scale crisis response efforts. This disaster and the subsequent response represented a unique and powerful weaving together of past experience and ongoing relationship building.

As detailed by authors of other articles in the Crisis in Japan series in this issue of Communiqué, responding effectively to this natural disaster required (and elicited) collaboration among school psychologists around the world. The issues were complex due to the enormity of the disaster and required a multidimensional response. NASP coordinated this response, which included translations of numerous NASP materials, direct consultation, and emotional support, using a model developed to respond to other large-scale disasters. However, its success truly results from the sum of its particular parts. We see a number of lessons learned.

The seeds of connectivity planted in graduate programs grow to create valuable life-long connections among school psychologists. In every way, responding to this crisis was possible because of relationships developed during graduate training among students and between professors and students. The first contact between Dr. Toshinori Ishikuma, president of the Japanese Association of School Psychologists (JASP) and NASP came through his former graduate mentors here in the United States. This connection grew to create the translation team at San Diego State University (SDSU) and fanned out to include offers of help from people at the University of Alabama, where Toshinori first trained. Equally important, graduate educators' focus on disseminating knowledge and fostering collaboration beyond their university feeds this connectivity. The international work of Shane Jimerson at the University of California–Santa Barbara (UCSB) is a prime example, resulting in, among other resources, the inclusion on the UCSB translation team of visiting professor Dr. Yayoi Watanabe from Japan. While many school psychologists, practitioners, and graduate educators experience connections like these, we all would do well to note and nurture them as a regular part of our professional development.

The United States has a rich vein of school psychologists connected to other countries who have much to offer. Translating the NASP materials would not have been possible without the Japanese and Japanese Americans from SDSU and UCSB. Whether they are American born and have maintained their cultural and linguistic heritage or came here to train and stayed to work in this country, these school psychologists are a vital resource that we should embrace and engage in work here at home. In addition to contributions like translations, they can help us to understand school psychology from a broader, worldwide perspective and to see our students through a lens other than our own.

School psychology's international network is far reaching and built from shared professional knowledge over time. Much of NASP's ability to adapt crisis response to the situation in Japan flowed from years of work with international school psychology by leaders like Bill, Shane, and many others. Bill has helped train school psychologists in Europe since 2002 in crisis response along with Bernhard Meissner, Yehuda Shacham, and Shulamit Niv from ISPA. They are part of the ISPA International Crisis Response Network. Their shared experience and knowledge was very helpful in this situation. Also helpful was the fact that Toshinori had received PREPaRE training here in the United States, so he was familiar the key concepts. He stayed in touch with his PREPaRE trainer, Melissa Reeves, who along with PREPaRE cochair and NEAT team member, Steve Brock, also provided guidance and support during the response.

The ability to provide a needed service in the moment is key to creating change. Although school psychologists in Japan had not been seen as primary responders to crises, JASP's ability to provide desperately needed information in a very short period of time was welcomed by everyone. The translated materials were the first such crisis resources available in Japan ever. This proven value helped open opportunities to conduct trainings for teachers and other relevant school staff and to begin to transform the idea of mental health services being provided in schools. Previously, such services were provided by clinical psychologists, of whom there were far too few to meet the need created by a disaster of this magnitude.

Crisis presents a unique opportunity for growth everywhere. We know this to be true for individuals who experience crisis, but it also is true from the standpoint of our profession. As school psychology is emerging in Japan, this disaster provided an opportunity to be helpful to schools, parents, and educators across the country. It seems clear that school psychologists in Japan are being seen in a more visible and positive light due to their efforts. JASP's outreach to government ministries and participation in national efforts to develop and implement plans to provide ongoing support for children and schools represents almost warp speed advances in the role and recognition of the profession.

There is no substitute for direct consultation. After many e-mails, we decided that a more personal contact was needed. Bill established regular Skype contact with Dr. Hisako Nishiyama, JASP liaison to NASP. These personal calls served two primary purposes: (a) to help JASP anticipate and know how to respond to the issues likely to arise by sharing the expertise of our international group, and (b) to offer ongoing personalized support through a care-for-the-caregiver framework. Bill was able to get an idea from Hisako about the issues of the week and, not only provide her guidance, but also help to direct selection of the handouts to translate. Perhaps most importantly, though, the personal contacts allowed Hisako to share ideas and concerns and Bill to provide guidance and reassurance about what steps to take. Skype and e-mail consultation have continued this fall.

Learning in a crisis is multidirectional. Certainly, the flow of knowledge about crisis response was from NASP and ISPA experts to the folks on the ground in Japan. But Toshinori, Hisako, and the Japanese and Japanese American school psychologists involved in the response taught us a great deal, too. We have a much better understanding of and appreciation for Japanese culture, the educational context within which school psychologists in Japan work, and the many challenges and opportunities they face to help improve services for children and schools in the country. We also are deeply impressed with the dedication, dignity, and resilience of our Japanese colleagues. From Bill's perspective, such shared learning is one of the great gifts of being involved in international school psychology.

This event again shows us that preparing for disaster before the event is much easier than trying to form a response after the event. Increasingly, school psychologists are expected to be part of the crisis response. This has played out in international disasters and incidents of school violence. NASP materials have now been translated and used in a multitude of countries to assist in response efforts. Preservice training to know how to respond, however, is essential. This is a priority for the PREPaRE program here in the United States and for ISPA around the world.

Japan will be dealing with effects of this disaster for many years. NASP and ISPA will continue to offer support as needed, building on our improved cultural understanding, lasting relationships, and the newly established support systems. And we know the support will be reciprocal. The United States has had its share of natural disasters this year. When the spring tornados devastated parts of Alabama, Toshinori was one of the first people to contact NASP, inquire about the well-being of the community where he had attended graduate school, and offer to help. We all support each other.


Bill Pfohl, PsyD, NCSP, is the chair of the NASP NEAT and past-president of ISPA. Katherine C. Cowan is NASP Director of Communications.