School psychology is a field that applies principles from educational psychology, developmental psychology, clinical psychology, community psychology, and behaviour analysis to meet the learning and behavioural health needs of children and adolescents.
It is an area of applied psychology practiced by a school psychologist. They often collaborate with educators, families, school leaders, community members, and other professionals to create safe and supportive school environments.
School psychologists primarily work with students who have learning disabilities, behavioural difficulties, mental disorders, and other health issues. They carry out psychological testing, psychoeducational assessment, intervention, prevention, counselling, and consultation in the ethical, legal, and administrative codes of their profession.
School psychology dates back to the beginning of American psychology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The field is tied to both functional and clinical psychology. School psychology actually came out of functional psychology. School psychologists were interested in childhood behaviours, learning processes, and dysfunction with life or in the brain itself. They wanted to understand the causes of the behaviours and their effects on learning. In addition to its origins in functional psychology, school psychology is also the earliest example of clinical psychology, beginning around 1890. While both clinical and school psychologists wanted to help improve the lives of children, they approached it in different ways. School psychologists were concerned with school learning and childhood behavioural problems, which largely contrasts the mental health focus of clinical psychologists.
Another significant event in the foundation of school psychology as it is today was the Thayer Conference. The Thayer Conference was first held in August 1954 in West Point, New York in Hotel Thayer. The 9 day-long conference was conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA). The purpose of the conference was to develop a position on the roles, functions, and necessary training and credentialing of a school psychologist. At the conference, forty-eight participants that represented practitioners and trainers of school psychologists discussed the roles and functions of a school psychologist and the most appropriate way to train them.
At the time of the Thayer Conference, school psychology was still a very young profession with only about 1,000 school psychology practitioners. One of the goals of the Thayer Conference was to define school psychologists. The agreed upon definition stated that school psychologists were psychologists who specialise in education and have specific knowledge of assessment and learning of all children. School psychologists use this knowledge to assist school personnel in enriching the lives of all children. This knowledge is also used to help identify and work with children with exceptional needs. It was discussed that a school psychologist must be able to assess and develop plans for children considered to be at risk. A school psychologist is also expected to better the lives of all children in the school; therefore, it was determined that school psychologists should be advisors in the planning and implementation of school curriculum. Participants at the conference felt that since school psychology is a specialty, individuals in the field should have a completed a two-year graduate training program or a four-year doctoral programme. Participants felt that states should be encouraged to establish certification standards to ensure proper training. It was also decided that a practicum experience be required to help facilitate experiential knowledge within the field.
The Thayer Conference is one of the most significant events in the history of school psychology because it was there that the field was initially shaped into what it is today. Before the Thayer Conference defined school psychology, practitioners used seventy-five different professional titles. By providing one title and a definition, the conference helped to get school psychologists recognised nationally. Since a consensus was reached regarding the standards of training and major functions of a school psychologist, the public can now be assured that all school psychologists are receiving adequate information and training to become a practitioner. It is essential that school psychologists meet the same qualifications and receive appropriate training nationwide. These essential standards were first addressed at the Thayer Conference. At the Thayer Conference some participants felt that in order to hold the title of a school psychologist an individual must have earned a doctoral degree.
The issues of titles, labels, and degree levels are still debated among psychologists today. However, APA and NASP reached a resolution on this issue in 2010.
Social Reform in the Early 1900s
The late 19th century marked the era of social reforms directed at children. It was due to these social reforms that the need for school psychologists emerged. These social reforms included compulsory schooling, juvenile courts, child labour laws as well as a growth of institutions serving children. Society was starting to “change the ‘meaning of children’ from an economic source of labour to a psychological source of love and affection”. Historian Thomas Fagan argues that the preeminent force behind the need for school psychology was compulsory schooling laws. Prior to the compulsory schooling law, only 20% of school aged children completed elementary school and only 8% completed high school. Due to the compulsory schooling laws, there was an influx of students with mental and physical defects who were required by law to be in school. There needed to be an alternative method of teaching for these different children. Between 1910 and 1914, schools in both rural and urban areas created small special education classrooms for these children. From the emergence of special education classrooms came the need for “experts” to help assist in the process of child selection for special education. Thus, school psychology was founded.
Important Contributors to the Founding
Lightner Witmer has been acknowledged as the founder of school psychology. Witmer was a student of both Wilhelm Wundt and James Mckeen Cattell. While Wundt believed that psychology should deal with the average or typical performance, Cattell’s teachings emphasized individual differences. Witmer followed Cattell’s teachings and focused on learning about each individual child’s needs. Witmer opened the first psychological and child guidance clinic in 1896 at the University of Pennsylvania. Witmer’s goal was to prepare psychologists to help educators solve children’s learning problems, specifically those with individual differences. Witmer became an advocate for these special children. He was not focused on their deficits per se, but rather helping them overcome them, by looking at the individual’s positive progress rather than all they still could not achieve. Witmer stated that his clinic helped “to discover mental and moral defects and to treat the child in such a way that these defects may be overcome or rendered harmless through the development of other mental and moral traits”. He strongly believed that active clinical interventions could help to improve the lives of the individual children.
Since Witmer saw much success through his clinic, he saw the need for more experts to help these individuals. Witmer argued for special training for the experts working with exceptional children in special educational classrooms. He called for a “new profession which will be exercised more particularly in connection with educational problems, but for which the training of the psychologist will be a prerequisite”.
As Witmer believed in the appropriate training of these school psychologists, he also stressed the importance of appropriate and accurate testing of these special children. The IQ testing movement was sweeping through the world of education after its creation in 1905. However, the IQ test negatively influenced special education. The IQ test creators, Lewis Terman and Henry Goddard, held a nativist view of intelligence, believing that intelligence was inherited and difficult if not impossible to modify in any meaningful way through education.] These notions were often used as a basis for excluding children with disabilities from the public schools. Witmer argued against the standard pencil and paper IQ and Binet type tests in order to help select children for special education. Witmer’s child selection process included observations and having children perform certain mental tasks.
Granville Stanley Hall
Another important figure to the origin of school psychology was Granville Stanley Hall. Rather than looking at the individual child as Witmer did, Hall focused more on the administrators, teachers and parents of exceptional children He felt that psychology could make a contribution to the administrator system level of the application of school psychology. Hall created the child study movement, which helped to invent the concept of the “normal” child. Through Hall’s child study, he helped to work out the mappings of child development and focused on the nature and nurture debate of an individual’s deficit. Hall’s main focus of the movement was still the exceptional child despite the fact that he worked with atypical children.
Bridging the gap between the child study movement, clinical psychology and special education, Arnold Gesell, was the first person in the United States to officially hold the title of school psychologist, Arnold Gesell. He successfully combined psychology and education by evaluating children and making recommendations for special teaching. Arnold Gesell paved the way for future school psychologists.
Gertrude Hildreth was a psychologist with the Lincoln School at Teacher’s College, Columbia then at Brooklyn College in New York. She authored many books including the first book pertaining to school psychology titled, “Psychological Service for School Problems” written in 1930. The book discussed applying the science of psychology to address the perceived problems in schools. The main focus of the book was on applied educational psychology to improve learning outcomes. Hildreth listed 11 problems that can be solved by applying psychological techniques, including: instructional problems in the classroom, assessment of achievement, interpretation of test results, instructional groupings of students for optimal outcomes, vocational guidance, curriculum development, and investigations of exceptional pupils. Hildreth emphasized the importance of collaboration with parents and teachers. She is also known for her development of the Metropolitan Readiness Tests and for her contribution to the Metropolitan Achievement test. In 1933 and 1939 Hildreth published a bibliography of Mental Tests and Rating Scales encompassing a 50-year time period and over 4,000 titles. She wrote approximately 200 articles and bulletins and had an international reputation for her work in education.
Issues Related to School Psychology
One of the primary roles and responsibilities of school psychologists working in schools is to ensure the interventions they utilise effectively address students’ behaviour problems. Issues arise when school psychologists do not select interventions with sufficient research-based evidence in being effective for the individual with whom they are working. School psychologists, as researchers and practitioners, can make important contributions to the development and implementation of scientifically based intervention and prevention programmes to address learning and behavioural needs of students (National Association of School Psychologists (NASP).
There is a concern with implementing academic and behavioural interventions prior to the determination for special education services, and it has also been proposed that MTSS (Multi-Tiered Systems of Support) may address these concerns. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) recognises the need for evidence-based prevention and intervention practices to address student learning, social emotional development, behavioural performance, instructional methodology, school practices, classroom management, and other areas salient to school-based services and improving student outcomes (National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). Intervention and prevention research needs to address a range of questions related not only to efficacy and effectiveness, but also to:
- Feasibility given resources (e.g. time, money, staffing);
- Acceptability (e.g. teacher, student, and community attitudes toward intervention strategies);
- Social validity (the relevance of targeted outcomes to everyday life of students);
- Integrity or fidelity (the extent to which individuals responsible for implementing an intervention can do so as intended by its designers); and
- Sustainability (extent to which school staff can maintain the intervention over time, without support from external agents).
A specific example of an intervention that has recently become popular among school psychologists is the School-wide Positive Behavioural Interventions and Supports (PBIS). Authorised under IDEA, the PBIS offers a “preventative, positive, and systemic framework or approach to affect educational and behavioural change” and can be used in the support of Tiers 1-3 in the education system. Research from single-case design studies and group studies demonstrates that the intervention can result in a reduction of major disciplinary infractions and aggressive behaviour, improvement in academic achievement, an increase in prosocial behaviour, a reduction in bullying behaviour reported by teachers, and much more. Through consistent and strong implementation fidelity, PBIS can provide school psychologists opportunities to assist the administration, teaching staff, and students in broad and specific ways.
A way in which school psychologists can help students is by creating primary prevention programmes. Information about prevention should also be connected to current events in the community.
Issues with Assessment Process
Empirical evidence has not confirmed biases in referral, assessment, or identification; however, inferences have been made that the special education process may be oversimplified. The National Research Council has called attention to the questionable reliability of educational decision making in special education as there can be vast numbers of false positives and/or false negatives. Misidentified students in special education is problematic and can contribute to long term negative outcomes.
During the identification process, school psychologists must consider ecological factors and environmental context such as socioeconomic status. Socioeconomic status may limit funding and materials, impact curriculum quality, increase teacher-to-student ratios, and perpetuate a negative school climate.
With the ever growing use of technology, school psychologists are faced with several issues, both ethical and within the populations they try to serve. As it is so easy to share and communicate over technology, concerns are raised as to just how easy it is for outsiders to get access to the private information that school psychologists deal with everyday. Thus exchanging and storing information digitally may come under scrutiny if precautions such as password protecting documents and specifically limiting access within school systems to personal files.
Then there is the issue of how students communicate using this technology. There are both concerns on how to address these virtual communications and on how appropriate it is to access them. Concerns on where the line can be drawn on where intervention methods end and invasion of privacy begin are raised by students, parents, administrators, and faculty. Addressing these behaviours becomes even more complicated when considering the current methods of treatment for problematic behaviours, and implementation of these strategies can become complex, if not impossible, within the use of technology.
To incorporate topics in a school, utilise lesson plans for students and staff because the teachers need to ensure the content is connected to other meaningful topics covered in the class/school.
Racial Disproportionality in Special Education
Disproportionality refers to a group’s under or overrepresentation in comparison to other groups within a certain context. In the field of school psychology, disproportionality of minority students in special education is a concern. Special Education Disproportionality has been defined as the relationship between one’s membership to a specific group and the probability of being placed in a specific disability category. Systemic prejudice is believed by some to be one of the root causes of the mischaracterisation of minority children as being disabled or problematic.
“Research on disproportionality in the U.S. context has posited two overlapping types of rationales: those who believed disproportionate representation is linked to poverty and health outcomes versus those who believed in the systemwide racist practices that contributed to over-representation of minority students.”
The United States Congress recently received an annual report on the implementation of IDEA which stated that proportionally Native Americans (14.09%) and African Americans (12.61%) were the two most highly represented racial groups within the realm of special education. In particular, African American males have been overidentified as having emotional disturbances and intellectual disabilities. They account for 21% of the special education population with emotional disturbances and 12% with learning disabilities. American Indian and Alaska Native students are also overrepresented in special education. They are shown to be 1.53 times more likely to receive services for various learning disabilities and 2.89 more likely to obtain services targeting developmental delays than all other Non-Native American student groups combined.] Overall, Hispanic students are often overidentified for special education in general; however, it is common for them to be under-identified for Autism Spectrum Disorder and speech and language impairments in comparison to White students.
Minority populations often have an increased susceptibility to economic, social and cultural disadvantages that can affect academic achievement. According to the US Department of Education, “Black children were three times as likely to live in poor families as white children in 2015. 12 percent of white and Asian children lived in poor families, compared with 36 percent of black children, 30 percent of Hispanic children, 33 percent of American Indian children, and 19 percent of others.” There may be other alternative explanations for behaviour and academic performance as well. For example, Black children are twice as likely as Whites to experience heightened levels of lead in the blood due to prolonged lead exposure. Lead poisoning can be known to affect a child’s behaviour by increasing their levels of irritability, hyperactivity, and inattentiveness even in less severe cases.
Some school psychologists realise the need to understand and accept their own cultural beliefs and values in order to understand the impact it may have when delivering services to clients and families. For example, these school psychologists ensure that students who are minorities, including African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans are being equally represented at the system level, in the classroom, and receiving a fair education.
For staff, it is important to look at one’s own culture while seeing the value in diversity. It is also vital to learn how to adapt to diversity and integrate a comprehensive way to understand cultural knowledge. Staff members should keep the terms race, privilege, implicit bias, micro aggression, and cultural relevance in mind when thinking about social justice.
School psychologists are involved in the implementation of academic, behavioural, and social/emotional interventions within a school across a continuum of supports. These systems and policies should convey clear behaviour expectations and promote consistency among educators. Continuous reinforcement of positive behaviours can yield extremely positive results. Schoolwide positive behaviour supports A systematic approach that proactively promotes constructive behaviours in a school can yield positive outcomes. These programs are designed to improve and support students’ social, behavioural, and learning outcomes by promoting a positive school climate and providing targeted training to students and educators within a school. Data should be collected consistently to assess implementation effectiveness, screen and monitor student behaviour, and develop or modify action plans.
Academic interventions can be conceptualised as a set of procedures and strategies designed to improve student performance with the intent of closing the gap between how a student is currently performing and the expectations of how they should be performing. Short term and long term interventions used within a problem-solving model must be evidence-based. This means the intervention strategies must have been evaluated by research that utilised rigorous data analysis and peer review procedures to determine the effectiveness. Implementing evidence-based interventions for behaviour and academic concerns requires significant training, skill development, and supervised practice. Linking assessment and intervention is critical for determining that the correct intervention has been chosen. School psychologists have been specifically trained to ensure that interventions are implemented with integrity to maximise positive outcomes for children in a school setting.
Leaders in the field of school psychology recognise the practical challenges that school psychologists face when striving for systems-level change and have highlighted a more manageable domain within a systems-level approach – the classroom. Overall, it makes sense for school psychologists to devote considerable effort to monitoring and improving school and classroom-based performance for all children and youth because it has been shown to be an effective preventive approach.
School psychologists play an important role in supporting youth mental wellness, but identifying youth who are in distress can be challenging. Some schools have implemented universal mental health screening programs to help school psychologists find and help struggling youth. For instance, schools in King County, Washington are using the Check Yourself digital screening tool designed by Seattle Children’s Hospital to measure, understand, and nurture individual students’ well-being. Check Yourself collects information about lifestyle, behaviour, and social determinants of health to identify at-risk youth so that school psychologists can intervene and direct youth to the services they need. Mental health screening provides school psychologists with valuable insights so that interventions are better fitted to student needs.
Crisis intervention is an integral part of school psychology. School administrators view school psychologists as the school’s crisis intervention “experts”. Crisis events can significantly affect a student’s ability to learn and function effectively. Many school crisis response models suggest that a quick return to normal rituals and routines can be helpful in coping with crises. The primary goal of crisis interventions is to help crisis-exposed students return to their basic abilities of problem-solving so the student can return to their pre-crisis level of functioning.
Consultation is done through a problem solving method that will help the consultee function more independently without the intensive support of a school psychologist.
The three major elements that comprise social justice include equity, fairness, and respect. The concept of social justice includes all individuals having equal access to opportunities and resources. A major component behind social justice is the idea of being culturally aware and sensitive. American Psychological Association (APA) and the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) both have ethical principles and codes of conduct that present aspirational elements of social justice that school psychologists may abide by. Although ethical principles exist, there is federal legislation that acts accordingly to social justice. For example, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA) address issues such as poverty and disability to promote the concept of social justice in schools.
Schools are becoming increasingly diverse with growing awareness of these differences. Cultural diversity factors that can be addressed through social justice practice include race/ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status (SES), religion, and sexual orientation. With the various elements that can impact a student’s education and become a source of discrimination, there is a greater call for the practice of social justice in schools. School psychologists that consider the framework of social justice know that injustices that low SES students face can sometimes be different when compared to high SES students.
A major role of school psychologists involves advocating and speaking up for individuals as needed. Advocacy can be done at district, regional, state, or national level. School psychologists advocate for students, parents, and caregivers.
Consultation and collaboration are key components of school psychology and advocacy. There may be times when school personnel may not agree with the school psychologist. Differing opinions can be problematic because a school psychologist advocates for what is in the best interest of the student. School psychologists and staff members can help facilitate awareness through courageous conversations.
School psychologists offer many types of services in order to be multiculturally competent. Multicultural competence extends to race, ethnicity, social class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, disability, age, and geographic region. Because the field of school psychology serves such a diverse range of students, maintaining representation for minority groups continues to be a priority. Despite such importance, history has seen an underrepresentation of culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) school psychologists. which may appear alarming given that the diversity of our youth continues to increase exponentially. Thus, current professionals in the field have prioritised the acquisition of CLD school psychologists. School psychologists are trained to use their skills, knowledge, and professional practices in promoting diversity and advocating for services for all students, families, teachers, and schools. School psychologists may also work with teachers and educators to provide an integrated multicultural education classroom and curriculum that allows more students to be represented in learning. Efforts to increase multicultural perspectives among school psychologists have been on the rise to account for the increased diversity within schools. Such efforts include establishing opportunities for individuals representative of minority groups to become school psychologists and implementing a diverse array of CLD training programmes within the field.
In order to become a school psychologist, one must first learn about school psychology by successfully completing a graduate-level training programme. A B.A. or B.S. is not sufficient.
School psychology training programs are housed in university schools of education or departments of psychology. School psychology programmes require courses, practica, and internships.
Specific degree requirements vary across training programmes. School psychology training programs offer masters-level (M.A., M.S., M.Ed.), specialist-level degrees (Ed.S., Psy.S., SSP, CAGS), and doctoral-level degrees (Ph.D., Psy.D. or Ed.D.) degrees. Regardless of degree title, a supervised internship is the defining feature of graduate-level training that leads to certification to practice as a school psychologist.
Specialist-level training typically requires 3-4 years of graduate training including a 9-month (1200 hour) internship in a school setting.
Doctoral-level training programs typically require 5-7 years of graduate training. Requirements typically include more coursework in core psychology and professional psychology, more advanced statistics coursework, involvement in research endeavours, a doctoral dissertation, and a one-year (1500+ hour) internship (which may be in a school or other settings such as clinics or hospitals).
In the past, a master’s degree was considered the standard for practice in schools. As of 2017, the specialist-level degree is considered the entry-level degree in school psychology. Masters-level degrees in school psychology may lead to obtaining related credentials (such as Educational Diagnostician, School Psychological Examiner, School Psychometrist) in one or two states.
In the UK, the similar practice and study of School Psychology is more often termed Educational Psychology and requires a doctorate (in Educational Psychology) which then enables individuals to register and subsequently practice as a licensed educational psychologist.
Employment in the United States
In the United States, job prospects in school psychology are excellent. Across all disciplines of psychology, the abundance of opportunities is considered among the best for both specialist and doctoral level practitioners. They mostly work in schools. Other settings include clinics, hospitals, correctional facilities, universities, and independent practice.
According to the NASP Research Committee, 74% of school psychologists are female with an average age of 46. In 2004-2005, average earnings for school practitioners ranged from $56,262 for those with a 180-day annual contract to $68,764 for school psychologists with a 220-day contract. In 2009-2010, average earnings for school practitioners ranged from $64,168 for those with a 180-day annual contract to $71,320 for school psychologists with a 200-day contract. For university faculty in school psychology, the salary estimate is $77,801.
Based on surveys performed by NASP in 2009-2010, it is shown that 90.7% of school psychologists are white, while minority races make up the remaining 9.3%. Of this remaining percentage, the next largest populations represented in school psychology, are African-Americans and Hispanics, at 3% and 3.4% respectively.
Shortages in the Field
There is a lack of trained school psychologists within the field. While jobs are available across the country, there are just not enough people to fill them.
Due to the low supply and high demand of school psychologists, being a school psychologist is very demanding. School psychologists may feel under pressure to supply adequate mental health and intervention services to the students in their care. Burnout is a risk of being a school psychologist.
Bilingual School Psychologists
Approximately 21% of school-age children ages 5-7 speak a language other than English. For this reason, there is an enormous demand for bilingual school psychologists in the United States. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) does not currently offer bilingual certification in the field. However, there are a number of professional training opportunities that bilingual LSSPs/School Psychologists can attend in order to prepare to adequately administer assessments. In addition, there are 7 NASP-Approved school psychology programs that offer a bilingual specialisation:
- Brooklyn College-City University of New York- Specialist Level.
- Gallaudet University- Specialist Level.
- Queens College-City University of New York- Specialist Level.
- San Diego State University- Specialist Level.
- Texas State University- Specialist Level.
- University of Colorado Denver- Doctoral Level.
- Fordham University- Lincoln Centre – Doctoral Level.
New York and Illinois are the only two states that offer a bilingual credential for school psychologists.
International School Psychology
The role of a school psychologist in the United States and Canada may differ considerably from the role of a school psychologist elsewhere. Especially in the United States, the role of school psychologist has been closely linked to public law for education of students with disabilities. In most other nations, this is not the case. Despite this difference, many of the basic functions of a school psychologist, such as consultation, intervention, and assessment are shared by most school psychologists worldwide.
It is difficult to estimate the number of school psychologists worldwide. Recent surveys indicate there may be around 76,000 to 87,000 school psychologists practicing in 48 countries, including 32,300 in the United States and 3,500 in Canada. Following the United States, Turkey has the next largest estimated number of school psychologists (11,327), followed by Spain (3,600), and then both Canada and Japan (3,500 each).
In order to work as a school psychologist, one must first meet the state requirements. In most states (excluding Texas and Hawaii), a state education agency credentials school psychologists for practice in the schools.
The Nationally Certified School Psychologist (NCSP) credential offered by the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). The NCSP credential is an example of a non-practice credential as holding the NCSP does not make one eligible to provide services without first meeting the state requirements to work as a school psychologist.
State psychology boards (which may go by different names in each state) also offer credentials for school psychologists in some states. For example, Texas offers the LSSP credential which permits licensees to deliver school psychological services within public and private schools.
- Paediatric School Psychology.
- Systems Level Consultation.
- School Based Mental Health.
- Behavioural School Psychology.
Professional Organisations in the United States
- National Association of School Psychologists.
- American Psychological Association.
- Psychology in the Schools.
- School Psychology Quarterly.
- School Psychology Review.
- School Psychology Forum: Research in Practice.
- School Psychology International.
- Canadian Journal of School Psychology.
- International Journal of School & Educational Psychology.
- Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment.