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School Psychologists: Breaking Down Barriers to Learning

Problem solvers for kids, teachers and parents 

With kids settling into the new school year, and teachers getting a sense of their new charges, we thought it would be a good time to take a look at the members of the school community who are usually the first to step up when problems or challenges arise. School psychologists are the first-line problem solvers in most schools. They're the professionals that teachers—and parents, and students themselves—call on when things aren't working well for a particular student, to investigate, discuss, and propose solutions. We talked to three school psychologists who are members of the National Association of School Psychologists: Dr. Peter Faustino, Dr. John Kelly, and Kelly Caci. Here's what they had to say:

What do school psychologists do?

Kelly Caci: Here's how I explain my job to kids: I'm the person who helps kids and teachers solve problems. We do a variety of different things for the children, the parents, and the teachers in our buildings: consultation, assessment, crisis response and intervention, implementing preventive programs.

John Kelly: It's really about helping children overcome barriers to learning. And so it might be working with a classroom teacher, maybe helping that teacher understand how a particular student processes information a little differently than others, so the teacher can formulate techniques that will support that student. We call it "differentiating instruction," recognizing that one size doesn't fit all.

Peter Faustino: And there are times where the trouble in school or the poor grades are a symptom of something else in a child's life, and so our role is almost like being a detective: What else is going on that could play a factor in this?"

Kelly: Not all barriers are academic. It could be social issues. Emotional problems. It could be family issues. And so the school psychologist is really in a position to work with students to help them overcome some of those barriers, so that they can benefit from the education that's being offered to them.

Can you give us an example?

Kelly: Just this week I met with a ninth grade girl who has an anxiety disorder. She's new to the school, and wanted to come in before classes started to get to know me. But more importantly, she didn't want her teachers to misinterpret her behavior in the classroom. She was coming in to say, "How can you help me help the teachers understand that I get anxious in the classroom, and if I get up and walk out I'm not being disrespectful?" 

Faustino: We had this adorable sixth grade girl who we knew was diagnosed with ADHD, but was struggling terribly at the start of school. And the teachers were asking, "Why is she struggling?  What's going on? Is she not taking her medication?"  And with an outreach to the home, we realized that the parents had divorced over the summer. Mom was no longer in the state. Her dad was struggling to figure out how to help with homework and how to manage the girl's needs. As the school psychologist, I was able to talk to him about helping her get organized and navigating the school. It wasn't so much her ADHD that was the problem, but the support she needed at home.

Caci: I worked with a student, starting in kindergarten, who demonstrated a range of issues in learning and behavior. Over time it became clear that he was on the autism spectrum, and I counseled him for several years, helping him understand his diagnosis. As he became more socially aware, he began to realize that others viewed him as different and even weird. He and I talked about it, along with his mom and his teacher, and he decided that he wanted to share his diagnosis with his peers, so that they could better understand him and his behaviors. He and I spoke with the class, explaining Asperger's Syndrome and why he acted the way he did. The result was that his classmates were much more inclined to help and support him.

 

How do you get involved with a particular student or situation?

Caci: I work with K-5, and with that age group, the most referrals are from teachers, and the second most would be parents. But kids come to us too.

Faustino: I work at the middle school level, and I would say the number of self-referrals starts to increase at that point, and I get a lot more parent referrals. I think that's just the nature of adolescence; a lot of parents are thinking, "Help me! What do I do? Oh, I'll contact the school psychologist." And it's not just about clinical issues. It could be, "My adolescent is driving me crazy," or not sleeping, or trouble with homework, or, you know, anything. And then my role is to help direct them to the best place to get assistance. 

What training do school psychologists have?

Kelly:  School psychologists have two levels of credentialing. One is at the specialist level, which is a 60-credit master's program, with the addition of a year-long internship that includes specialized training within the school. And then you have a school psychologist at doctoral level, who either has a PhD or a PsyD in school psychology. That also includes a year of internship.

The way I like to explain it is this: school psychologists are the psychologists who know the most about education and the educators who know the most about psychology.

Do you do a lot of testing?

Caci: I divide my job up probably 30% assessment, 30% counseling and social/emotional support, and probably 30% consultation, whether that's with students, parents, or teachers. The majority of my assessment focuses on children's learning styles and abilities, and screening for issues like ADHD and anxiety, at the request of parents and teachers. I write a report and send that home to the parents, and then meet with them to explain what the results mean.

Kelly: The vast majority of assessment that we do in the school is part of the special education process; so there's a whole procedure based on the law. If someone is concerned about a child, the child is referred to us for evaluation. Parents are notified and asked for approval. And then there's a meeting, a CSE, or Committee on Special Education, meeting that's held to go over all the results, and make some recommendations to the parents to help the child. The procedure is spelled out in the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA.

But sometimes you try to assess and solve problems before they reach that point?

Faustino: There's a huge movement called "Response to Intervention," or RTI, based on the notion that you don't have to wait for a child to fail before you conduct an evaluation and only then intervene. So if there is a problem noted by a parent or a teacher, you do a classroom observation, and you use that information to develop an intervention, with the parents and teacher. You try the intervention for 6 to 8 weeks—if it works, great, and you know you've addressed part of the problem, or all of it.  And if it doesn't work, then you'd go to a higher level, collect more information and assessments and consider other possibilities. And then and then at some point, if you've exhausted all of those things, you that's where the formal IDEA process comes in.

Kelly: An important component of the RTI process is in what we call "progress monitoring." That means that we use interventions that have been researched and shown to get results. Whether it be learning problems, emotional problems, or behavioral problems, there are some good research-based interventions. And we monitor how the student is responding to them. If we see that the student's not responding to an intervention, it allows us to kind of increase the intensity of it, without needing to go to special education.  And that's the goal behind RTI—to intervene early and really work with students, and hopefully they never need to get to that intensive level.

Caci:  As part of our training, school psychologists are taught to understand statistics, and we are oftentimes the people in the building who help teachers understand data and design assessments in the classroom to collect the data we need on a particular area of weakness for a child.

If we're in an RTI meeting and the teacher says a child is struggling with reading, we know there are many different types of processes involved in reading acquisition. So we need to break it down: Does the child, first and foremost, have letter knowledge? Decoding skills? How's his vocabulary? And so we help the teachers understand where they need to be intervening and assessing.

Kelly: A current example of how we use data, and how a school psychologist can be helpful, is what's happening in New York state as we implement new state assessments. 

There's something called "the Common Core" that's a national curriculum that is being implemented in all the states. There are new assessments connected with this Common Core curriculum, and New York State implemented them this year. Long story short, we saw a dramatic decrease in terms of student scores. And where school psychologists come in is helping everyone understand that with this data there's a different baseline. You can't compare last year's data to this year's. It's not a dramatic decrease in how students are performing; it's apples and oranges. You've given a different test, and so the data is going to be different. We have a role in what we call data-based decision making—to make sure we all understand and use data effectively.

Caci: It's something relatively new that hasn't been part of teachers' training, and there's a range of openness to that.

Kelly:  It's a fun job—it really is.  We love it.

Dr. John Kelly has been a school psychologist for the past 27 years. He has specialized in advocating for mental health supports for children and youth to remove barriers to learning.

Kelly Caci  is a certified school psychologist who has practiced at the elementary level for 15 years, and an Olweus bullying prevention trainer and coach. She is the current president of the New York Association of School Psychologists.

Dr. Peter Faustino has been working as a school psychologist for more than 15 years, and maintains a private practice with the Developmental Assessment and Intervention Center (DAIC) in Bedford Hills, New York.


Published: October 1, 2013

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