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Professional Ethics for School Psychologists: A Problem-Solving Casebook

Interview with Leigh Armistead, Author

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Andrea Canter:  Welcome, everyone, to this NASP podcast. I'm Andrea Canter. I'm here with Leigh Armistead to talk about his book, Professional Ethics for School Psychologists: A Problem‑Solving Model Casebook.

And this is co‑authored with Barbara Bole Williams and Susan Jacob. And, Leigh and his co‑authors form the NASP team currently working on revising the ethical standards. So how are you, Leigh?

Leigh Armistead:  I'm well this morning.

Andrea:  Good, good! So you know, Leigh, this book came out late last fall. It was right after I had to put in my order for texts for the ethics class I taught at the University of Minnesota for the first time, and I know I would have included it as a required text if I'd had it early enough.

Other than the principles themselves, isn't this the first NASP publication regarding ethical standards?

Leigh:  I think it is.

Andrea:  I think so. So what prompted this casebook, and how were you hoping it would be used?

Leigh:  Well, you know, I need to give credit to Alan Brue. You know, he really prompted moving forward in this project. Alan was on the office staff at the time in the area of standards.

He was getting a lot of questions, people calling into the office with questions about ethical and professional practices, and suggested it. And ultimately, it ended up being written by Barbara and Susan and me.

But actually, NASP tried to develop such a product back in the eighties. In the early eighties, the NASP Ethics Committee sounded me for a casebook, and Tom Barry was chairing the group at that time.

And they started collecting ethics scenarios, professional problems and issues, and had quite a collection of material for a book.

Andrea:  I think some of that ended up in the Communique, under the ethical dilemma column.

Leigh:  That could be.

Andrea:  I think Phil Bowser did that for a number of years.

Leigh:  Some of them actually ended up in our book, and I sent Tom a copy of it with our thanks. And it was interesting going through those old scenarios because a lot of them were actually written by, at that time, NASP leaders, delegates, state presidents, folks who were just getting involved in leadership.

And some of them are now senior school psychologists. But they were wrestling with some of the same issues that practitioners wrestle with today.

Andrea:  I'm sure. You know, after doing this for thirty years, I know that the last years I was in the school district were not that different in terms of the issues that came up. So how'd you foresee this was actually going to be used? You know, as a textbook? Or more as a reference for practitioners?

Leigh:  Well, you know, our intention was that it would be a good companion book for graduate courses in ethics and problem‑solving, a companion to something like Jacob and Hartshorne's text on Ethics and Law for School Psychologists. It's a nice companion for that.

Most texts on ethics include scenarios to illustrate situations, but they probably aren't as comprehensive as this is. But, we also foresee it being useful to practitioners, because you can't just get by with a course in ethics in graduate school.

It's an ongoing learning process and evolving the way you think about ethics and professional practices evolves over time. And so we thought it would be really useful to the practitioner to review it, and for use in workshops ‑ the CPD workshops. I use cases from the book in my own workshops, and the one that Susan and Barbara and I present at the convention.

Andrea:  Well, I know as I was looking at it, you know, I didn't require it for reading, but I certainly made good use of it in my course. A lot of the issues I was discussing with mostly second‑year graduate students, I wasn't sure the folks who had worked for thirty years would have better answers.

I think often, they're just as in need of some guidance as the brand new practitioners are. What ideas and principles do you find most novice practitioners need the most guidance on, and how would this book actually help them?

Leigh:  That's a good question. You know, my experience in supervision of interns and working with new practitioners, is that they tend to be very conscientious, and they've been trained in graduate school to do everything the right way. And then when they need to solve professional problems, they tend to get a little rule‑bound, they don't know what's the answer.

And so they often seek that kind of advice from their colleagues and from their supervisors: What should I do? What's the rule? One of the problems they have is that, in many cases with professional problems, the answers always begin with the phrase, "Well, it depends." And, they get very frustrated with that.

Andrea:  Yes, my students did get frustrated with me a number of times. [laughter]

Leigh:  Well, sure. Because what you're trying to do as a supervisor and as a graduate educator is to help them understand that there are a lot of nuances in professional problems. We're balancing the interests of multiple parties.

We have to look at the context of the problem and the answer to the problem might be different in different contexts. So, we're trying to help them develop a more nuanced way of thinking about ethical and professional problems.

I think the other thing that happens with new practitioners, is that they tend to remember some basic rules, such as always acting in the best interests of the child, and always maintaining confidentiality, but again, there are always nuances with those kinds of issues.

And while people continue to evolve professionally, their thinking is going to evolve and become more complex about these issues.

Andrea:  How would practitioners who've been in the field, you know, twenty, twenty‑five years find this guide useful? What kinds of issues are they facing that may be somewhat different from what a brand new practitioner is doing?

Leigh:  Well, let me think about that a couple of different ways. For one thing, even experienced practitioners need help with ethical problem‑solving, using a problem‑solving process.

And, the book not only includes cases and examples, but it includes a lot of material on how to think about and solve professional problems.

In my workshops using the model, the eight‑step problem‑solving model that we've proposed, I find that even the gray‑haired, experienced practitioners benefit from working through scenarios using the problem‑solving model, and continue to hone their skills at problem‑solving.

The specific cases we have in the book ‑ there are about 150 problems, or scenarios in the book ‑ some of them come with "solutions" ‑ I'll put that word in quotes [laughter] ‑ with, you know, what the authors think would be the right answer, if there is such a thing, to that problem.

And I think the experienced practitioner can review those and often come up with, at least, advice from some folks who thought about these issues a lot and read about them a lot and could use the book as a reference to look up what some other folks think about those issues.

Some of the scenarios include a fully what we call a "think aloud" approach to resolving the issue, and we lead the reader through a kind of step‑by‑step problem solving process where one of us thought out loud about the issues and solved the problem. Then, we wrote it down. I think the experienced practitioner can use it that way, too.

Andrea:  There's a lot of scenarios that have no solutions suggested.

Leigh:  Some of them are in there for use by graduate educators and workshop leaders and so forth as homework topics. It is not that those are the ones we didn't know the answer to share. Somebody said that in one of my workshops. I knew the answers in every one of them.

Now, we deliberately had instructional cases and then some that we explicated with what we thought was a reasonably straightforward answer, and some that were more difficult.

Andrea:  Have you gotten any emails or messages from people saying I used that case in my class. Then I realized I didn't know how to solve it either.

Leigh:  That hasn't happened, no.


Andrea:  There were a couple I almost wrote to you about. I thought ‑ well, gee, there's lots of different ways you can go about this one. I'm not quite sure what the best one is either.

I think the experienced practitioner, is one of the things I find in consulting still with the districts I used to work here, is that some of the people that have been working at this for a long time haven't looked at the ethical standards in a long time.

We think we know them, and we get a little lazy or get stuck in some old ways of thinking. All of a sudden we are confronted with an issue ‑well, gee, I haven't thought about that in a long time, but now, come to think of it, I'm not sure I would do what I've been doing all this time.

Leigh:  Of course, things in the law change and evolve. When I was training and you were training, probably, we learned that we need to maintain confidentiality of what children say to us.

But, increasingly we are aware that court decisions and rules in many states actually give that right to the parent. The parent has the privilege of privileged communication. So, we have to keep updating our knowledge and skills in this area.

Andrea:  I found that one of the things, I think, the dilemmas that drove my students nuts the most was the desire to maintain that confidentiality and at the same time deal with the issue of protecting the client welfare, like when do I have to disclose; when should I disclose? What will happen if I don't? What will happen if I do?

Leigh:  I think privacy and confidentiality is probably the area of our practice where there are probably the most land mines for us when you work in schools with multiple clients, and you're accountable to supervisors and administrators and school superintendents and school system lawyers and the legal system and the community and parents.

There really aren't any absolute rules here. The answer to all of these questions is going to start with "it depends".

Andrea:  A lot of times it depends on what state you are in, and I think we were teaching these are the principles. These are the Federal laws that fit 50 states, and you need to know where you are and what the rules are in your own state. I think that was a frustrating issue, too, because students realize that there could be 50 different ways of interpreting this.

Leigh:  And they want a rule.

Andrea:  They do want the right answer. They are grad students.

Leigh:  The right answer ‑ sometimes we need to point them to some broad principles, such as acting in the best interest of the child. That may trump to maintain that child's confidentiality.

Some of the usual examples we give our students are about welfare, if the student is a danger to themselves or others. Then, we have to do something. That's because that general principle of acting in their best interest trumps their right to privacy.

Some ethics codes, by the way, arrange the principles in a hierarchy like that so that you can make a decision a little more easily because you think about the overriding principle that trumps the other one.

I always tell my students and folks in workshops to make darn sure that they discuss the limits of confidentiality whenever they begin a professional relationship. Then ask the parents to respect the child's privacy, but keeping them informed about the general course of what is going on makes so much sense.

They actually have in most states the right to know what you talked about in the counseling session. Most of our graduate students didn't get that in their training.

Andrea:  I think one of the things we did in my class that was helpful, although it also proved how difficult all this was; we tried to do a lot of role playing, how to have that conversation with a parent and how to have that conversation with a child.

You start trying to do it, and you realize, "Oh, you've got to do this carefully". You don't want to put people off, but you want to make sure they are informed.

Leigh:  I sometimes talk with students, graduate students, about the need to do it more than once.

Andrea:  That is a really good point.

Leigh:  In the first session you introduce the concept, but in first sessions folks don't walk away remembering everything you talked about and maybe the handout.

Then, you need to bring that up again. As the relationship evolves in counseling or consultation, then we need to remind people about the limits of confidentiality. You need to be very clear about that.

Andrea:  I think we have to remember even if we're talking with older students, you know, high school students, they may not interpret what we said the way we meant it.

Making sure the whole issue of checking for understanding probably has to come up over and over again because ‑ do you know what I really meant when I said I will have to disclose if you tell me x, y and z? Or they think they can renegotiate it which, of course, most teenagers think they can do.

You mentioned how some other standards organize things differently. I know you are at work now on the next revision of the NASP ethical standards that are due out in 2010 or so. Will there be much of a change in any of the content or the organization?

Leigh:  You know, I think the obvious change ‑ a draft is being reviewed right now. The obvious change in the draft that we prepared is in the organization. The existing document is kind of organized around areas of work; relationships with parents and so forth.

You go through it looking for what you are doing, and then you get some advice on how to behave while you are doing that. So that has resulted in sometimes some conflicts within the document.

So, the new document is organized around four broad overriding ethical principles. The first one is respecting the dignity and rights of all persons.

The second one is professional confidence and responsibility. The third one is honesty and integrity in professional relationships. And the fourth one is responsibility at schools, families, communities, the profession and society.

These are very close to four ethical principles that are in the Canadian Psychology Association's Ethical Standards, that we have discussed in that book. One way to think about them is that these are overriding aspirational principles that can guide conduct, when we don't have clearer guidance or specific guidance.

But, then underneath each of those broad principles are more specific principles and then very specific standards. Maybe I can give you an example of that without getting into too much detail.

Andrea:  Well, OK.

Leigh:  Under respecting dignity and rights of all persons, there are principles having to do with autonomy and self‑determination for the client. Getting consent and getting assent of clients.

The second one has to do with privacy and confidentiality. And the third one has to do with social justice. Since we’ve been talking a lot about privacy and confidentiality maybe we could look at that.

Principle i2 says, "School psychologists to respect the rights for persons to choose for themselves whether to disclose their private thoughts, feelings, beliefs and behaviors." That's pretty good guidance. But then, the draft document goes on to have seven specific standards, giving advice on when and when not to disclose private information.

What we tried to do in coming up with these specific standards is include everything that was in the old standards, but then combine and clarify, where possible, to minimize some of the confusion and so-called dilemmas that were presented by the previous standards.

So, it gives specific advice for informing children about the boundaries of confidentiality when you establish a professional relationship. But, then goes on to talk about when we need to disclose the information to protect the client.

So, we think it is going to be easier to teach the ethical principles, whether to organize it this way. It would be easy to find advice that you are looking for and we hope it will reduce the number of competing and conflicting standards that are in the existing one.

Andrea:  Actually it sounds like it will even better follow the format that Susan Jacob and Tim Hartshorne have been using in their textbook, which is as far I know the only textbook specific to school psychology and the one most of us have used in teaching.

Because they include of course the mass standards, but they actually organized that book more around the Canadian ones...

Leigh:  Uh‑huh. Exactly. And of course because Susan's one of the authors, her influence was clear.

Andrea:  Right. So, will we have a new casebook when this is finished?

Leigh:  Yeah, we’ll probably have a second edition. Because, the case book, I don't know whether we mentioned this earlier, is kind of organized around all the standards.

Andrea:  That's right.

Leigh:  There is a scenario for every standard. So, we certainly will need to reorganize the case book when these new standards come out. And add some scenarios also.

Andrea:  Are these standards going to... I assume they’ll go into more detail regarding electronic issues. E-mail and the things that have just mushroomed in the last few years. That was a real big topic of discussion in my class.

Leigh:  Yeah, that's a good question. We did try to address some of that technology in there; without getting so specific that it would be dated quickly.

Andrea:  Right.

Leigh:  Because I could see five years for now somebody asking, "What's a flash drive?"

Andrea:  [laughs] What's Facebook?

Leigh:  Yeah. So, I think we have addressed those and because of the broader principles that will be helpful with problem solving in that regard.

Andrea:  Well, you said (let me see) when you said something a little bit we have sort of alluded to the whole problem solving issue. But, that's kind of major way the case book is organized. Could you talk a little bit about just the problem solving aspect itself?

Leigh:  Yeah. Well, we proposed an eight step problem solving model that was adapted from the literature. When you take a look at it you recognize it as pretty similar to a generic problem solving model, which you might use in other areas of our professional work.

Steps quickly: describing the problem situation; objectively stating the issues or controversy; then taking a look at what the ethical and legal issues are that are involved and trying to state those clearly and accurately. Looking at any available ethical and legal guidelines such as in Jacob and Hartshorne’s book and best practices and things like that.

Step four would be consulting the supervisors and colleagues who are familiar with that particular situation. Step five is to take a look at the rights, responsibilities and welfare of all affected parties. This is where you really begin to start problem solving.

Andrea:  Uh‑huh.

Leigh:  That's once before gathering the information, defining the problem. And now, we start to look at how everyone is affected. This sensitizes the problem solver to looking beyond the immediate client and consider other people who are affected.

And then, step six, as with any problem solving model, kind of brainstorm alternative solutions, and then look at the consequences of each of those both long term and short term. Then make a decision and take responsibility for it. Monitor the outcomes and sometimes revise your decision.

So, that's kind of the long version. We explicate some cases in the book using the full model. But, we also suggest in the book that there are many situations that are more straightforward and you can use an abbreviated version of it.

You don't have to do quite so much do processing of information to get to a good solution. And we propose in the book and our workshops that, when you solve a work related problem that's a professional problem this way, the solution you come up with ‑ although others may disagree with it ‑ the process that you use to reach it is defensible.

If you’re criticized, if you need to explain yourself in some venue, then you can show how you came up with that solution, even if others don't agree. And we think that's a reasonable way to approach work‑related problems.

By the way, I've kind of stopped using the word "dilemma". You might have heard me saying things like "professional problems", "work‑related problems". It occurred to me in a workshop last week in Texas that when I talk about "dilemma", that leads me to think of these situations as not having a solution.

Literally, "dilemma" means "I'm stuck. I can do this, or I can do this. I don't know which to do, so I've got a real dilemma on my hands." But I think that's the wrong way to think about professional problems. We have to make professional decisions every day, and some are more difficult than others.

Andrea:  Maybe "dilemma" is step one.

Leigh:  Yeah.

Andrea:  Because maybe initially, you're going, "I'm not sure what to do."

Leigh:  "Not sure what to do." You need to use a problem‑solving process.

Andrea:  I think maybe we also got into using the word "dilemma" ‑ which may not have been the right way, according to Webster's Dictionary ‑ because we aren't doing things that have an absolute right answer. Even on a case‑by‑case basis, there may be more than one way ‑ in fact, I told my students that there is often more than one way to solve a problem appropriately.

And yeah, of course it depends on all those factors that we've talked about, but sometimes you could actually come up with a satisfactory solution going maybe in more than one direction.

And, which way you went may depend on a number of factors, and the next time the very same thing came up, it might be OK to go a different direction. So, maybe that's another issue, so we need a new word!

Leigh:  Now maybe we talk about professional decision‑making.

Andrea:  Well, that's it for the problem‑solving model ‑ the idea of data‑based decision‑making and ethics‑based decision‑making. Now, are some of the changes in the standards reflecting some of the changing roles of school psychologists? Do you think that's part of what's driving some need for some change?

Leigh:  Yeah, that's an interesting question. We have a lot of discussions about changing roles. You know, there was a time when school psychologists were kind of, you know, real independent.

They would come into schools kind of in an expert/consultant model kind of approach, and do some testing and tell people what they needed to do. And, there are probably still some places where you can function that way.

But more and more, folks are finding themselves in fairly complex school systems, where they're working with other student services personnel; they may be working with community mental health people, a wraparound service kind of delivery system.

They're working with special educators, special ed directors, and a more complex legal framework.

And so there are a number of places in the book where we kind of emphasize the interdependent nature of our work, and the need to acknowledge that in some cases the school system is responsible for some of the things we do. And, you know, we try to influence those decisions, but...

Well, you know, for example, I know you've written a lot about‑‑actually, I tell people you wrote the book on storage of protocol.

You're probably tired of requests about that, but you did write the definitive articles and good advice on protocols and making copies of protocols, and all that, something that continues to come up.

We recognize in dealing with the standard on that book, that ultimately, for most of us, it's the school system that is responsible for storage of protocol, and destruction of them when appropriate, and notifying families and so forth and so on.

And, we can encourage school administrators to do the right thing, but we can't really hold ourselves personally responsible or professionally responsible that way.

Andrea:  Not as long as we're doing what we can to make sure that people we work with know what our concerns are.

Leigh:  Yeah, we do what we can. We raise the issue and try to sensitize people; we use our skills as a psychologist to influence people. But ultimately, if the school system is copying protocols and handing them out to parents, we don't have to fall on our professional swords in protest.

Andrea:  Yeah.

Leigh:  Because we're part of that system.

Andrea:  We aren't going to be locked up in school psychology jail.

Leigh:  Yes, exactly. So I think we've provided some guidance in that way, in the standards.

Andrea:  Any other issues that we haven't touched on that make the book a unique product? And, anything else you want to say about the new standards?

Leigh:  Well, one more thing about the book: you know, the ethical scenarios in the book came from practitioners. We solicited through email and listservs and websites and so forth, and so we ended up using about 150 scenarios, at least one for every standard. So, 84 different school psychologists contributed to this. So readers ought to understand that we didn't make these things up.

Andrea:  Right. [laughter]

Leigh:  They are real problems that real people are dealing with and solving every day.

Andrea:  I think anybody with any experience at all will recognize that, looking at these things. They go, "Oh, gee, I had something like that, or my colleague told me about something like that." These are all very, very believable.

Leigh:  And so, as we begin to think about the next edition, we will continue in our soliciting suggestions for situations. I was doing a workshop in Texas last week. A fellow mentioned something having to do with an issue related to a diverse population of students, and I asked him to send it to me in an email, for consideration for the next book.

And I would say that to the listeners of this podcast, too. If they have something interesting they don't think we've covered in the book, send that to us and we'll look at that for the next edition.

Andrea:  So, how do they send things to you?

Leigh:  Email, for me. The easiest way to email is: larmistead@earthlink.net.

Andrea:  Well, I'm hoping you'll get a lot of new dilemmas ‑ we can't call them dilemmas ‑ new situations.

Leigh:  We're looking forward to it.

Andrea:  Well, I'll thank everyone for joining us on this NASP podcast. And for more information on this and other resources NASP has, just go to our website at: www.nasponline.org.