You’re who? The school psychologist.

School psychology is a broad field. Its researchers and practitioners have a wide range of training and expertise. This can make it hard to explain exactly who school psychologists are, but it’s also one of the field’s greatest strengths.

A quick google search will tell you a lot about who school psychologists are not. We’re not guidance counselors, adjustment counselors, social workers, or psychiatrists (MDs) — although we may work with each of these professionals. Sometimes we’re both school psychologists and licensed health service provider psychologists. Some school psychologists hold specialist degrees (MEd/CAGS or EdS) and some hold doctorates (PhD or PsyD). Sometimes school psychologists are also behavior analysts (BCBAs). Some states have separate licensure for educational psychologists. Confused yet? You’re not alone.

School psychologists are mental health professionals who are trained in education (particularly special education for students with disabilities) and psychology across the areas of prevention, assessment, intervention, and consultation with teachers and families. School psychologists help teachers and parents find solutions to academic, social, emotional, or behavioral challenges their children are experiencing. In addition to working with individuals, school psychologists work at the systems level to ensure the school as a whole is meeting the needs of all students. Importantly, the profession emphasizes evidence-based practices — meaning scientific research guides their decisions and actions.

If you’re interested in learning more about the specifics, I discuss what a day might look like for a school psychologist and the types of training school psychologists typically have.

Beyond the 50 minute hour

When people think of psychologists, they typically imagine them providing individual therapy in hour long sessions. You or someone you know may have participated in these therapy sessions. Although school psychologists do provide some counseling to both individuals and groups, the general practice of school psychology does not often involve the 50 minute hour that clinic-based services can offer. Many school districts have one school psychologist for more than 1000 children. Providing individual therapy to each student who needs support is often not possible. Counseling services are thus usually brief, skill building, and solution-focused.

So if school psychologists don’t hold counseling sessions all day, what does their day look like? While it differs from district to district, a day might involve any combination of: conducting psychological evaluations for special education eligibility, designing and implementing behavioral interventions, running social-skills groups, conducting screenings for social, emotional, or behavioral concerns, helping school staff collect and interpret data, consulting with teachers and parents, responding to students in crisis, attending special education team meetings, or working on prevention programming and systems improvement.

If you’d like to learn more, take a look at this resource from the National Association of School Psychologists.

A look at the alphabet soup

The minimum standard for certification as a school psychologist is typically what’s called a specialist degree. This degree is 60 graduate credits — sometimes thought of as a ‘masters + 30’ — and an internship that is at least 1,200 hours. This amounts to three years of graduate education. The education specialist degree is abbreviated EdS in most states or MA/CAGS (certificate of advanced graduate study) in some others. This training qualifies the school psychologist to obtain certification under their state department of education. School psychologists at the specialist level are also eligible to become Nationally Certified School Psychologists (NCSPs), which denotes that their training conforms to the standards of the National Association of School Psychologists.

School psychologists can also have doctoral degrees, which are typically at least 90 graduate credits and include at least 1,200 hours of internship. Many doctoral internships require significantly more than 1,200 hours. This typically takes 5 to 6 years of training. These school psychologists have PhDs or PsyDs (and sometimes EdDs) and are also certified by their state department of education and are eligible for the NCSP. They may also teach and conduct research at universities.

Some doctoral level school psychologists also become licensed health service providers. This is the license that doctoral clinical psychologists and counseling psychologists have, also called the ‘professional psychology’ license. This allows for independent practice (i.e., private practice, practice at clinics, hospitals, etc). This requires a doctoral degree, an internship meeting a number of specific requirements, and typically at least one year of post-doctoral supervised hours.

An increasing number of school psychologists are pursuing the Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) credential. As school psychologists often conduct behavioral assessments and interventions, this is seen by some as a logical choice to advance their careers and improve their skillset — especially if they have a passion and expertise working with students with developmental disabilities like autism spectrum disorder. Many states now offer licensure for BCBAs that allows for independent practice. This credential requires additional coursework in applied behavior analysis and supervised practice hours.

Interested in becoming a school psychologist? NASP has a page to help you chose the right path.

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