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From implementing prevention programs to running school-affiliated mental health clinics, qualified psychologists have a host of opportunities to work with school systems, said speakers at the ninth annual Institute for Psychology in the Schools, held Aug. 21 in Chicago, just before APA's Annual Convention.

Sponsored by APA's Practice Directorate, the five-hour program, "Expanding opportunities for psychologists: increasing children's access to psychological services," discussed the barriers psychologists face, emphasized areas where they can expand their services and provided examples of successful school-based mental health programs.

"Schools are settings where all children are [and] have the potential to make a real difference for children," said presenter Mary Walsh, PhD, of Boston College. "It is absolutely incumbent on all of us to figure out how we can work together to collaborate to enhance the life chances of these kids."

In the institute's keynote address, education researcher Karen Callan Stoiber, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee, discussed the time crunch school psychologists face. For example, although they report spending more than half their time in assessment, a recent survey found that school psychologists would rather divide their time equally among assessment, developing and providing interventions, and consulting with school faculty and staff.

"To really be responsive is going to require a shift in our time allocation and our resource allocation, and [that needs] to occur whether we're working at a university setting or a school setting," said Stoiber.

Psychologists, she added, are also facing hurdles implementing newer methods in schools, such as functional assessment, in which staff look for the intent behind children's problem behaviors to treat them. Schools often struggle with implementing this kind of assessment, Stoiber explained, because it's a different way of thinking about problem behaviors. For example, if a child won't stay in his seat, a teacher might try to keep him seated by rewarding him with candy. With a functional assessment, the teacher would look for the root cause of the behavior--that the child doesn't find class work challenging and is bored.

Psychologists are also searching for ways to conduct collaborative consultations with teachers and staff and how to help teachers implement psychologists' recommendations in the classroom, she said. Moreover, Stoiber added that schools can use psychologists' expertise to select evidence-based interventions and evaluate whether those interventions are really solving the problems of schools.

Other speakers outlined additional challenges and opportunities for psychologists:

  • APA President-elect Robert Sternberg, PhD, called for schools to recognize that students have diverse abilities. They should be careful not to reward only those who excel in memory and analytical abilities--skills essential for standardized tests--but also students who, for example, possess socioemotional, creative or practical skills.

  • Susan Jacob, PhD, outlined some ethical and legal obligations of psychologists who work in schools, including the implications of APA's new Ethics Code, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and "duty-to-protect" laws. Recent case law, for example, has held that schools and police can detain a student thought to be planning a violent act at school because the school's interest in protecting others outweighs the student's rights. In cases of student suicides, courts have held that schools should have clear suicide prevention policies and procedures, including notifying the parents in all cases. Although "do not harm" contracts may be clinically useful, Jacob explained that they do not substitute for a careful risk assessment and intervention.

  • Peter L. Sheras, PhD, and Dewey G. Cornell, PhD, explained how psychologists can help schools implement evidence-based violence assessment and prevention, including reducing bullying, through schoolwide interventions and conducting threat assessments instead of using zero tolerance policies. The appropriate question, they said, is "How can we reduce risk?" and not "Will this student commit a violent act?"

  • Nancy Lever, PhD, and Jennifer Axelrod, PhD, talked about the University of Maryland's School Mental Health Program in which psychologists are collaborating with Baltimore schools to provide expanded mental health care to special and regular education students. One key to success, they said, is being flexible by, for example, developing a program plan that can change with a school's needs or by pitching in where the school needs volunteers. Axelrod and Lever have served on school committees not directly related to mental health and attended the high school prom last year. Being a part of the school community in other ways helps mental health services be less stigmatized, they explained.

  • Mary E. Courtney, PhD, and Lori Evans, PhD, discussed school consultation, including their efforts at New York University to establish links between hospitals, clinic-based psychologists and school staff. The need for such partnership, they said, is evidenced by the fact that 11 percent of children referred for mental health consultation in a community clinic make and attend a first appointment, while 90 percent attend if the clinic is in their school.

  • Mary Walsh and Jennie Park-Taylor explained how Boston College counseling psychologists have partnered with schools to address both the academic and nonacademic needs of students by, for example, providing students and their families with in-school health and mental health services. It's important, they said, to listen to the school staff to determine the specific needs of the school and work collaboratively with them.

Taken together, says institute coordinator Ron Palomares, PhD, assistant executive director in the Practice Directorate's Office of Policy and Advocacy in the Schools, this year's speakers emphasized that when psychologists are familiar with the unique culture, barriers and needs of schools, they make themselves more accessible to children in need of psychological services.