The Philadelphia school district came under fire last February when it announced a plan to eliminate half of its 110 school psychologist positions to help close a budget shortfall. After the public outcry, district administrators decided against the cuts.
But not all schools have been so lucky. The economic downturn has forced schools nationwide to tighten their belts — and many school psychologists are feeling the squeeze. Cash-strapped schools have already eliminated what they dub as "nonessential" school personnel and programs, such as art and physical education programs, says Ronald Palomares, PhD, assistant executive director of the APA's Practice Directorate. And even after making these cuts, schools lack funding.
"Now that there's less money with the same focus on academics, [schools] are looking at a broader definition of nonessential personnel," he says. "And unfortunately, that is often where school psychology has fallen."
That nonessential designation is, of course, all a matter of perspective. Federal special education law requires public school districts to employ school psychologists to evaluate students for special-education services. Fulfilling that role is the primary responsibility of the nation's estimated 32,300 school psychologists (School Psychology International, 2009). About 6.5 million public school students — about 13 percent — received special-ed services in the 2009–10 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
In their remaining time, school psychologists tend to students' mental health needs by consulting with teachers and families of children who have social, behavioral and emotional problems. Some also lead psychosocial groups, such as grief groups for students who have suffered a loss, or pregnancy prevention programs for at-risk girls. They also assist children and schools during times of crisis, such as following a student suicide.
"It's a combination specialty," says Frank C. Worrell, PhD, director of the school psychology program at the University of California, Berkeley. "The solution to a psychology problem may be an academic intervention, and the solution to an academic problem may be a psychological intervention. Recognizing the connection between these worlds is important."
Not enough hours in the day
Despite the need for school psychologists, they are in short supply. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) recommends that districts employ one school psychologist for every 500 to 700 students. But that's not happening, says Philip Lazarus, PhD, director of the school psychology program at Florida International University and 2011–12 NASP president.
"In many states, that ratio is more in the neighborhood of one to 2,000, though in some states it goes as high as one to 3,500," Lazarus says. "We certainly don't have the number of personnel we feel is necessary."
With too few personnel to go around, many school psychologists don't have the time to perform the full range of services they are trained to provide. Though most school psychologists serve two or three schools, it's not unusual for a single professional to be responsible for visiting five or even seven different schools, says Worrell.
As money becomes tighter, school psychologists may find they're stretched even thinner. Most school districts haven't cut school psychologist positions outright, but many have opted not to fill vacant positions, or have shortened annual contracts by a month or two, says Lazarus. "That's a subtle way students are losing services," he says.
Rachel Barrón Stroud, PhD, a school psychologist at Hays Consolidated Independent School District outside Austin, Texas, has seen that trend firsthand. "Our district continues to grow, but there's no talk of adding additional personnel. The needs of students are being met, but the staff continues to get busier," she says.
Meanwhile, the district has lost technology specialists and academic interventionists, hurting students and staff alike. Without those technology specialists, for instance, school psychologists may have to spend more time trouble-shooting for special-education students who use assistive technology to communicate.
"The job is getting more difficult in terms of time management," says Barrón Stroud, who still makes time to provide counseling and teacher consultations and to lead two social-skills groups each week. She says she manages to fit in the extra tasks because she regularly takes work home at night. But she adds, "I think, in general, school psychologists feel like they don't have time to do all the things they'd like to do."
Changing the conversation
Budget shortfalls are also undermining psychologists' prevention efforts at schools — even though research suggests schools are often the best places to reach kids (Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 2008).
"Children spend the majority of their day in schools," says Tammy Hughes, PhD, a professor of counseling, psychology and special education at Duquesne University. "Further, because school psychologists work with parents and teachers, they are uniquely situated to help children across multiple settings."
But too often, when budget cuts loom, prevention and early intervention are the first to go. "The trimming happens at the prevention end — at the time we have the most ability to influence positive social and emotional development and address symptoms very early," says Hughes.
School psychologists aren't the only mental health positions affected. School counselors, social workers and academic interventionists can all be considered nonessential when there's not enough money to go around. Cutting these positions puts extra stress on teachers, who have fewer resources to help them manage students with behavioral and emotional problems.
"Teachers are getting overwhelmed with responsibilities," Palomares says. "How much can they do at such a high level of expectation and still be successful?"
Inadvertently adding to the burden is the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which places an emphasis on student testing and school performance. Unfortunately, policymakers have failed to acknowledge the close link between mental health and academic achievement, says Lazarus.
"Students who can't focus, or are dealing with difficult family problems, won't succeed in schools no matter how many reforms are put in place by governors or presidents," he says.
He and others point out that education reform has focused on increasing academic test scores without considering students' emotional well-being. "And there's a direct correlation between emotional health and academic success," Lazarus says.
In spite of the grim economy, school psychologists' efforts are making significant headway. One positive sign is a new national focus on bullying, says Susan Swearer, PhD, a professor of school psychology at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, who participated in the White House Bullying Prevention Conference earlier this year. That focus has helped to bring student mental health to the forefront, she says.
"Issues like bullying really point to the importance of school psychologists being at the leading edge of mental health service delivery for youth. It's a perfect issue to address the fact that we can't shortchange mental health services in schools," she says. "But in this era of dwindling budgets, the [school] leadership has to really prioritize mental health treatment."
And indeed, some districts are already boosting their focus on students' mental health. Among them is the Baltimore City Public School System, which employs 128 full-time school psychologists to serve 84,000 students — a ratio of about 1:656. Many of those students come from families of low socioeconomic status and often experience social and emotional difficulties, and school personnel are extremely committed to helping students overcome those difficulties, says Rivka Olley, PhD, who supervises psychological services in the system.
"Unlike a lot of districts, we are known for the fact that our school psychologists are providing mental health services," she says.
Baltimore's school psychologists and social workers proactively work with teachers and establish student support teams to help students at the first signs of trouble. They also meet with families in their homes or churches, at coffee shops or local restaurants. "We want to make that connection because that's what the research shows makes a difference for these kids. It's really reaching out to the families and bringing them into the loop," Olley says.
Ultimately, it's hard to argue against making student mental health a priority. And school psychologists can take a leadership role in making that argument, Hughes says, by reaching out to both administrators and legislators to underscore the importance of investing in students' mental well-being.
"The potential for impact is enormous," she adds, "if we can get everyone working in the same direction."
Kirsten Weir is a writer in Minneapolis.