School psychology is a field that applies principles of educational psychology, developmental psychology, clinical psychology, community psychology, and applied behavior analysis to meet children's and adolescents' behavioral health and learning needs in a collaborative manner with educators and parents. School psychologists are educated in psychology, child and adolescent development, child and adolescent psychopathology, education, family and parenting practices, learning theories, and personality theories. They are knowledgeable about effective instruction and effective schools. They are trained to carry out psychological testing and psychoeducational assessment, counseling, and consultation, and in the ethical, legal and administrative codes of their profession.
- Historical foundations
- Social reform in the early 1900s
- Lightner Witmer
- Granville Stanley Hall
- Arnold Gesell
- Gertrude Hildreth
- Systems level services
- Crisis intervention
- Multicultural competence
- Employment prospects
- Journals and other publications
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 behaviors, learning processes, and dysfunction with life or in the brain itself. They wanted to understand the causes of the behaviors 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 behavioral 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 specialize 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 program. 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 recognized 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. That is an issue that is still debated today and is the primary difference between the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) and the American Psychological Association (APA). APA only recognizes doctoral degrees where as NASP approves school psychology specialist and doctoral programs that meet their standards.
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 labor laws as well as a growth of institutions serving children. Society was starting to "change the 'meaning of children' from an economic source of labor 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.
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.
Unlike clinical psychology and counseling psychology, which often are doctoral-only fields, school psychology includes individuals with Master's (M.A., M.S., M.Ed.), Specialist (Ed.S. or SSP), Certificate of Advanced Graduate Studies (CAGS), and doctoral (Ph.D., Psy.D. or Ed.D.) degrees. In the past, a master's degree was considered the standard for practice in schools, but the National Association of School Psychologists currently recognizes the 60-credit-hour Specialist degree as the most appropriate level of training needed for entry-level school-based practice. According to the NASP Research Committee (NASP Research Committee, 2007), in 2004-05, 33% of school psychologists possessed master's degrees, 35% possessed Specialist (Ed.S. or SSP) degrees, and 32% possessed doctoral (Ph.D., Psy.D., or Ed.D.) degrees. A B.A. or B.S. is not sufficient.
School psychology training programs are housed in university schools of education or departments of psychology; in Specialist degree programs, the former typically results in an Ed.S. degree, while the latter results in an SSP degree. School psychology programs require courses, practica, and internships that cover the domains of:
- Data-based decision-making and accountability;
- Consultation and collaboration;
- Effective instruction and development of cognitive/academic skills;
- Socialization and development of life skills;
- Student diversity in development and learning;
- School and systems organization, policy development, and climate;
- Prevention, crisis intervention, and mental health;
- Home / school / community collaboration;
- Research and program evaluation;
- School psychology practice and development; and
- Information technology Standards for Training and Field Placement, 2007.
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 including a 12-month internship (1500+ hours), which may be in a school or other (e.g., medical) setting. Doctoral level training differs from specialist-level training in that it requires students to take more coursework in core psychology and professional psychology. In addition, doctoral programs typically require students to learn more advanced statistics, to be involved in research endeavors, and to complete a doctoral dissertation constituting original research.
Doctoral training programs may be approved by NASP and/or accredited by the American Psychological Association. In 2007, approximately 125 programs were approved by NASP, and 58 programs were accredited by APA. Another 11 APA-accredited programs were combined (clinical/counseling/school, clinical/school, or counseling/school) programs (American Psychological Association, 2007).
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.
School psychologists are experts in both psychology and education. They provide many services that include the educational, emotional, social, and behavioral challenges that many children, youth, and young adults experience (typically ages birth to age 21 years). Children are their primary clients but they also work collaboratively with teachers, school administrators, parents, and community services to best serve children. School psychologists provide intervention and treatment to reach goals. They assist with trauma and crisis; work with children, teachers, and families to deal with hurdles that are preventing success; educate and expand skills to cope with problems. They utilize prevention and early intervention to limit troubles in children’s lives and in the school environment. School psychologists help create an equal and encouraging school, bring attention to mental health issues and develop ways to deal with issues individually and school-wide, they team up with teachers and parents to address effective behavior plans, and ensure acceptance and value of diversity. School psychologists administer assessments and address difficulties all students face in psychological, social, personal, emotional, and educational/learning development. They also review and revise techniques to deal with problems of students and in schools to maintain a good, safe setting. They provide consultation and case management by ensuring students’ needs are met; speak out for students in and out of the school; make sure all people involved with the student are aware of the needs of the student, what resources are available, and how to get the services; aid in the communication between parents, schools, and community services; and modify achievement plans to best meet needs of student. School psychologists seek assistance from community services in mental health, health, and crisis response; educate the public, parents, and schools through trainings on issues facing students and schools. Finally, School Psychologists are experts in research. As noted by the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP, 2007) and the American Psychological Association (APA, 2007), school psychologists adhere to the scientist-practitioner framework and make decisions based on empirical research. School psychologists must be aware of and contribute to the study of the best approaches to helping students, families, and schools reach their goals. Although school psychologists understand that schools are important in the lives of young people, not all school psychologists are employed in schools. Many school psychologists, particularly those with doctoral degrees, practice in other settings, including clinics, hospitals, forensic settings, correctional facilities, universities, and independent practice (ABPP, n.d.).
The rapid growth in diversity of school districts in the United States has proven that there is an increasing need for new guidelines and standards to be put into practice in able to provide nondiscriminatory assessment procedures to students. Although there is no clear-cut way to appropriately evaluate bias in the assessment of students who are culturally and linguistically diverse, the examiner must carefully consider each situation individually in order to develop an appropriate hypothesis that can be used in the testing procedure. In developing a hypothesis the school psychologist must eliminate any personal or professional bias that may affect their ability to make informative decisions based on the psychometric data obtained during the assessment process. Best practices prove that school psychologists who are culturally and linguistic competent are more effective in communicating to the individual or student in their native language and thus, eliminating the need for an interpreter. The use of standardized testing also must be taken into account when assessing those who are of minority and lower socioeconomic status since they are so culturally loaded. One must be able to recognize that the difference between the scores is not actually related to the ability or aptitude of the child, but to the incorrect interpretations that have been made based on the result of the scores and the significantly different standardized sample. Another important factor in nondiscriminatory assessment is the ability for a school psychologist to recognize the difference in a bilingual assessment and how to assess bilingual individuals. The apparent preference lies in using well-constructed, theoretically comprehensive, native language tests to non-native test takers rather than using limited and poor tests that are available in the test taker's native language.
Although school psychologists are traditionally viewed as “gate-keepers” of special education due to their assessment work with individual students, school psychologists’ roles have expanded as they are assuming leadership positions in schools by taking a more systemic approach to school psychology. School psychologists’ expertise and knowledge in understanding human behavior, collaboration, collecting data and problem-solving are being recognized and called upon by schools in order to achieve legislative requirements and standards such as those mandated by Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA 2004) and No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) (Curtis, Castillo, & Cohen, 2009). At a systems-level, school psychologists collect data regarding school-wide practices such as reading programs, disciplinary methods, or social issues and make decisions to promote and affect the well-being of all students in the school system. When change occurs at the systems-level, children receive the best results because issues and problems are typically prevented before the problems have a chance to develop or are intervened early enough before problems get out of hand. Types of preventive measures include multi-cultural awareness programs, health initiatives, and anti-bullying policies.
One of the greatest challenges school psychologists face with systemic approaches is cooperation between schools and families. This is sometimes hard to achieve simply due to conflicting schedules, cultural differences, and lack of trust between schools and families. Leaders in the field of school psychology recognize 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 . School psychologists offer many services to teachers and students on a classroom level. For example, school psychologists help develop classroom behavior modification plans and alternative teaching strategies. School psychologists are often consultants to teachers within the classroom level of systemic school psychological services.
Regardless of the level of intervention (individual, classroom, or system) promoting family-school collaboration is itself another example of a system service that school psychologists are striving to develop.
Improving the school climate can be one of the tasks of a school psychologist. School climate is consistently identified by researchers as a variable that is related to effectiveness of schools. Specifically, positive school climate is associated with several student outcomes including achievement, attendance, self-concept, and behavior. Therefore, school psychologists seek to improve school climate as a school-wide preventative approach rather than a reactive or remedial approach. Best practice proposes that school climate is first described and measured before a plan of action is developed and implemented. While efforts to improve school climate can be implemented at the national level with large-scale reform, or on a smaller scale at the individual school or district level, the strategies used to improve school climate need to be based on the individual strengths and weaknesses of each school.
School psychologists can play an integral part in promoting positive school climate within their schools and districts. In doing this, school psychologists should collaborate with other stakeholders including legislators, school leaders, school staff, students, and parents. Overall, it makes sense for school psychologists to devote considerable effort to monitoring and improving school climate for all children and youth because it has been shown to be an effective preventive approach.
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.
Consultation is an important part of a school psychologist’s career because it allows school psychologists to reach more children than using direct intervention techniques. Consultation is usually thought of as a triadic relationship with the school psychologist working with another individual in hopes of helping change many students behaviors/grades . The individual that school psychologists usually work with during consultation is a parent or teacher. School psychologists consult with parents to address learning and behavioral problems at home that can interfere with school progress. More frequently though school psychologists work with teachers during consultation to reach the many students in their classrooms. School psychologists mainly consult teachers on developing and implementing classroom management techniques and implementing specific interventions for specific students. School psychologists also now consult with administrators on a systems-level. When working on a systems level, school psychologists generally do not just work with one person but instead works with multiple individuals to make changes and help students on a more broad level. This can be to develop school wide programs to combat bullying or improve the entire school’s reading program.
Best practices for school psychologists are to be multiculturally competent when providing the 10 domains of practices and services. Through training and experiences, multicultural competence for school psychologists extends to race, ethnicity, social class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, disability, age, and geographic region . School psychologists realize 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, 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 special education services. School psychologists also work with teachers and educators to provide an integrated multicultural education classroom and curriculum that allows more students to be represented in learning. The types of services that school psychologists need to provide in order to be multiculturally competent are "culturally competent assessments and consultation services, social justice, sensitivity to ELL students, assessing cultural bias in tests, nondiscriminatory assessments and consultations, cultural literacy, culturally competent crisis response, disproportionality in special education, developing culturally sensitive prevention programs, culturally competent mental health services, and promoting home-school relationships with culturally diverse families". School psychologists need to use their skills, knowledge, and professional practices in promoting diversity and advocating for services for all students, families, teachers, and schools.
School psychologists are becoming increasingly involved in the implementation of academic, behavioral, and social/emotional interventions within a school, often across a continuum of tiered supports. Schoolwide positive behavior supports (SWPBS) is a systematic approach that proactively promotes constructive behaviors in a school. These programs are designed to improve and support students’ social, behavioral, and learning outcomes by promoting a positive school climate and providing targeted training to students and educators within a school. School psychologists are commonly involved in the implementation and monitoring of such programs. Teams are generally formed to address and evaluate existing policies, structures, and leadership roles. Commonly, teams will develop a set of goals to be adopted by the entire school community. To do so, teams are tasked with designing systems that address the needs of all students, including those who have repeated offenses. These systems and polices should convey clear behavior expectations and promote consistency among educators. Students should be continuously reinforced for positive behaviors. SWPBS systems set parameters for collecting data, evaluating the efficiency of systems, and establishing these practices within a school. School psychologists are commonly involved in the implementation and data collection processes. Data should be collected consistently to assess implementation effectiveness, screen and monitor student behavior, and develop or modify action plans.
As well as behavioral interventions and supports, school psychologists are often responsible for selecting and implementing academic interventions. In the 1990s, school psychology service delivery shifted towards a problem-solving focus, which is an approach aimed at developing interventions and ensuring outcomes. This was in contrast to the previous wait-to-fail model. This problem-solving approach is commonly referred to as the Response to Intervention (RTI) framework and is steadily becoming adopted by more and more schools. It is made up of a multi-tiered system of support that provides interventions and services to students with an increasing intensity based on severity of needs. RTI necessitates that school psychologists be involved in the early identification of learning and behavioral difficulties and needs. School psychologists work collaboratively with teachers and other special education staff to determine what services and supports need to be implemented to best serve struggling students. RTI includes specific components to effectively ensure that all students are making adequate progress. Included is: 1) High quality instruction and behavioral support, 2) Well-researched, evidence-based interventions that are implemented with fidelity, 3) Continuous progress monitoring and data collection, 4) Continuous collaboration of an educational team, and 5) Parent involvement and participation. These interventions can be conceptualized 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 experimental or quasi-experimental research that utilized rigorous data analysis and peer review procedures to determine the effectiveness. Implementing evidence-based interventions for behavior 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 maximize positive outcomes for children in a school setting.
The job prospects in school psychology in the US are excellent. The US Department of Labor cites employment opportunities in school psychology at both the specialist and doctoral levels as among the best across all fields of psychology (U.S. Dept. of Labor, 2006-07).
According to the NASP Research Committee (2007), 74% of school psychologists are female with an average age of 46. In 2004-05, 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 2009-10, 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.
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).