School Psychologist Career Guide

Why Do We Need School Psychology?

The desire to nurture young minds is common across all cultures, and how could it not? The way in which children are fostered has a direct impact on how the world will look like in the near future. But if you do feel like helping kids is a cause worthy of lifelong dedication, you should also know that there are other avenues to make a career out of it than by becoming a nurse or teacher.

Some say the greatest way to positively influence young people, is to be a source of mental support for them when sometimes no one else is. This is the essence of school psychology, and here’s how to become one.

Is School Psychology Right for You?

At first glance, school psychology may seem like all fun and games. And perhaps, some aspects of it are. But once delving deeper into the field, what you’ll find is that it is primarily about psychology, and only secondly about its practical application toward children.

Although an unrelenting passion for helping and treating children with various mental problems is obviously paramount, it is also required that you have a knack for the science of human behavior.

If scientific terminology, complex research methods, and an overall aptitude for understanding how the human mind is not something you are capable of cultivating, chances are your aspirations to become a school psychologist will be short-lived.

Hence, do try to keep in mind that there’s a reason why only a slim minority of people with a fiery passion for helping children take this route to get there, and that reason is it entails a lot of hard work.

What Does a School Psychologist Do?

Do you remember school psychologists when you were in elementary, middle, and/or high school? If the answer is “no,” you are not alone. Most people remember guidance counselors and nurses, when they were children, but cannot recall ever seeing or talking to a school psychologist. Well, truth-be-told, school psychologists were around during that time, albeit not as often and not as noticeable.

Are you wondering what a school psychologist does? If so, the answer is he or she helps students get the most out of their elementary, middle, and high school experiences.

Most ostensibly, primary focus of a school psychologist is to assist children with behavioral or learning problems, as these factors can and often will affect a student’s ability to succeed at school, and later in the workforce. The main goal of a school psychologist is to work with school staff (i.e. school nurse, principal, vice principal, school counselor, guidance counselor, school social worker, and teachers) to create a safe, happy, productive learning environment for children, regardless of developmental delays and disabilities

A day at the job may involve treating emotional problems related to anger management and depression, or just as often resolving cognitive issues such as the ineffective study skills and self-discipline of a student. But unbeknownst to many, the job duties of school psychologists stretch far beyond one-on-one meetings with distraught and disadvantaged children.

The National Association of School Psychologists states that school psychologists have serious responsibilities also toward families, other teachers, and the school administration. As a student’s guide to constructive conduct, they have to reach out to parents, providing them with the tools to be more effective with their children at home.

In addition, they must regularly convene with other teachers to discuss the conduciveness of the learning environment, monitor children’s progress, and find ways to motivate them.

Working with others within the school administration, school psychologists are last but not least expected to coordinate efforts to tackle difficulties, big and small, when they surface – and surface they will.

What are the Most Rewarding Aspects of a School Psychologist?

Connecting with students, offering them a safe environment to explore issues that trouble them, and helping negotiate their lives in healthier and more productive ways are aspects that are often touted as being the most rewarding aspects of being a school psychologist. All of these mean that a school psychologist makes a difference in the lives of the students he or she works with.

The tasks of a school psychologist vary quite a bit each day and this diversity of task makes the job appealing to many.  The job entails work with individual students, facilitating groups, interacting with teachers to help them deal effectively with students in the classroom, meeting with parents, and attending team educational meetings for particular students. This variance in duties allows for little tedium and boredom to set in, increasing daily stimulation and problem solving.

In addition, many people find the collaborative nature of the job to be highly enjoyable. Working with a team takes pressure off the individual professional, and can provide the mental health professional with information about the child that is difficult to obtain otherwise.

Working with children can be particularly rewarding. It is often said that “children are the future.” It is a statement that reflects hope, and many school psychologists enjoy working with children because making changes, catching a disorder, learning coping skills, early, can make a big difference in a person’s life.

Children adapt to change easily and changes implemented early can help a child grow into a happy and successful adulthood. As children move into more positive relationships and experiences, those changes can be seen easily by those around them. This is a career in which a person can feel quite effective. Feeling effective in our work correlates highly with overall job satisfaction.

What is the Difference Between a School Psychologist and a Guidance Counselor?

Most people believe that a guidance counselor and a school psychologist is the same thing, when in reality they are quite different. To break it down, a guidance counselor’s primary function is to behave as a mentor or guide to students.

In other words, these health professionals provide direction, support, and resources to children in the educational system. On the other hand, a school psychologist’s primary function is to behave as a psychologist.

These mental health professionals assess, diagnosis, and treat students, who are suffering from psychological distress, adjustment issues (i.e. divorce, blended families, new school, new home, new addition to the family, a loss, etc.), mental illnesses/psychological disorders, and/or behavioral issues (i.e. attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

They also administer psychological assessments to students, and consult with students’ physicians, psychiatrists, social workers, and/or psychologists, in an effort to provide the best treatment. Although there are some similarities between these two psychological careers, there are also some differences, which this article will point out.

A guidance counselor, also known as a school counselor, is a combination of a teacher and a counselor. More specifically, guidance counselors provide support, resources, and academic/ college/career recommendations to children between the ages of 5 and 17 (kindergarten through 12th grade).

Some guidance counselors help older students (i.e. middle school and junior high) cope with social issues like: bullying, peer pressure, and social isolation. If a student is struggling with academic issues like: low grades, testing problems, learning disabilities, inattention, and/or a lack of motivation, a guidance counselor may find him or her a tutor, or counsel him or her on the issues (i.e. bullying or dysfunctional/abusive home situations) that are preventing his or her academic success.

At the high school level, guidance counselors help students prepare for college, by recommending colleges, universities, and degree programs. They also teach students how to set and achieve goals. These counselors also help high school seniors apply for colleges, universities, and/or training programs, financial aid, and internships.

In addition, guidance counselors may create college workshops to teach older students how to search for undergraduate programs, apply for part-time jobs, develop resumes, and enhance their interviewing skills. Furthermore, most guidance counselors help students improve their self-confidence, self-esteem, and social skills.

Lastly, they may also mediate teacher/student conflicts. These professional typically work primarily in schools (private and public). Ultimately, the primary goal of a guidance counselor is to prepare students for the “real world.” Guidance counselors typically do not assess, diagnosis, and treat pediatric mental illnesses and psychological disorders. They also do not administer psychological assessments.

On the other hand, school psychologists typically review test and psychological assessment results, in an effort to decide whether or not a student qualifies for special services (i.e. Individualized Education Program (IEP)). They also diagnose mental illnesses, psychological disorders, and learning disabilities, in an effort to treat children with emotional and behavioral problems.

School psychologists typically use a variety of therapeutic techniques to treat distressed students. They apply psychological doctrines and techniques to academically-based developmental issues. They also address learning and behavioral issues, create and implement treatment plans, assess academic performances, and provide counseling to students and families. They may also consult with other school-based professionals to recommend teaching style improvements. School psychologists normally have heavy workloads, especially if the students are experiencing both mental illness and family dynamic issues.

In addition, most school psychologists work at schools, but some work at private practices, research laboratories, social service/government agencies, and mental health treatment centers. School psychologists take on more of a mental health professional role. They typically do not discuss personal issues, unless they are affecting the student’s ability to perform well in school. They also typically handle all tests and psychological assessments.

A school psychologist’s main goal is to determine, if a student has a mental illness, psychological disorder, or psychological distress that is affecting his or her ability to function properly at home and at school, so that he or she can receive the treatment he or she needs to be successful in life.

What are the Education and Licensing Requirements to Become a School Psychologist?

In becoming a school psychologist, there are various pathways to take. The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists these as being:

  1. a) Obtaining a Master’s degree in Psychology
  2. b) Obtaining a Educational Specialist (Ed. S.) degree (requiring 60 graduate semester hours or more.)
  3. c) Obtaining a doctoral degree (Ph.D.) in School Psychology.

Because school psychology is an inter-disciplinary field that bridges human behavior and pedagogy, coursework including both psychology and education is mandatory.

All states require schools psychologists to be licensed. Licensing requirements may vary depending on the state you’re in. The Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards provides detailed information for each state.

The National Association of School Psychologists offers a voluntary The Nationally Certified School Psychologist (NCSP) certification that is nationally recognized. NCSP is mandatory in many states and is accepted in place of other licensure requirements. However, earning NCSP requires great effort: 60 graduate hours, a supervised internship involving 1,200 hours, and passing the National School Psychology Examination.

What Skills Should a School Psychologist Possess?

  • Excellent Listening and Communication Skills: An effective school psychologist should have excellent listening and communication skills (oral and written). This professional must also be able to communicate with diverse populations without judgement or discrimination. He or she must also be an active listener.
  • Compassion: An excellent school psychologist must also be very compassionate towards others, especially those experiencing hardships (i.e. broken home, bullying, abuse, neglect, sexual identity issues, poverty, learning disabilities, chronic illnesses, etc.). In other words, this professional must be able to empathize with the pain of others. This person should also be patient, tolerate, trustworthy, and able to put students at ease.
  • Emotional Stability: How “crazy” would it be to have an emotionally unstable school psychologist provide services to vulnerable, easily influenced children? Terrible? Yes! Well, that is why it is so important that a school psychologist be emotionally stable, if he or she is going to work with students. It is imperative that this professional be mentally and emotionally healthy, and that he or she be able to handle stress in a healthy way.
  • Ethics: A great school psychologist must have a strong ethical base. He or she must also have healthy values, objectivity and a solid moral base. In other words, this professional must ensure that he or she keeps everything shared with him or her confidential and that he or she always puts the needs of the students first.
  • Interpersonal Skills/Social Skills: A successful school psychologist should also have good interpersonal/social skills. In other words, this professional must be able to effectively interact with a wide-range of people (i.e. students, parents, teachers, etc.)
  • Knowledge of Laws and Regulations: In order to help students suffering from psychological distress, mental illness, and emotional/behavioral issues, a psychologist must know the laws and regulations, concerning children. He or she must also adhere to these roles and work within the defined boundaries.
  • Objectivity/Open-Mindedness: One of the main skills a school psychologist should possess is open-mindedness. In other words, this individual must be objective and tolerant towards a variety of people, situations, and circumstances. This professional must also be open and available to research, study, and analyze new ways thinking and behaving, even if it challenges his or her beliefs.
  • Trustworthiness: Lastly, a stellar school psychologist should be trustworthy. If students do not feel, as if they can trust the psychologist not progress will be made. In other words, this skill/quality is of the utmost importance, because without it, the school psychologist will not be able to effectively help the student.

What is the Employment Outlook for School Psychologists?

Chances of promptly landing a job are good in most sectors, with an expected growth rate of 6%. Better still, it is a trend that shows no signs of tapering, with the demand for mental health services being on a steady rise across society. Do note that a Ed. S. or Ph.D. degree confers a greater chance to be competitive once you do get out there, than does a mere M.S.

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