Once upon a time, the main job of schools was to teach children the three R's. Today, school personnel face more daunting challenges: keeping kids safe from violence, helping youngsters with serious physical and mental disabilities, and playing surrogate parent to increasing numbers of students.
School psychologists are at the forefront of trying to fulfill these complex new demands. They're doing so, however, in an era when there's a tremendous scarcity not only of teachers, but of school psychologists and other mental health professionals as well.
"We have a shortage of school psychology personnel that's occurring at the same time American society has decided it needs more psychologists within school walls because of all the violence that's occurring," says Randy Kamphaus, PhD, professor of educational psychology and director of training for the school psychology program at the University of Georgia. "I routinely get calls from school districts complaining they have either none or only one or two applicants for an opening."
At the same time, however, people are waking up to the need for school psychologists' services, says Ron Palomares, PhD, APA's new assistant executive director for policy and advocacy in the schools. The realization of school psychologists' importance has come about, in part, as a result of the April 1999 murders at Columbine High School.
"A lot of things about Columbine brought the need for mental health services to the national forefront," Palomares says. "There's increased public awareness that the mental health and well-being of children are important."
Because of these changes, school psychologists are redefining their roles, Palomares says. The new demands are morphing these professionals from the isolated special education assessors of the past into team players who work collaboratively with everyone in the school to provide broad-based mental health services for children, he says.
Other trends related to professional opportunities for school psychologists are affecting the field, Palomares adds. As student enrollments increase, for example, school districts that seek to maintain the ratio of school psychologists to students need to hire more psychologists. Meanwhile, greater recognition of the important roles that school psychologists can play is prompting some districts to create additional slots for these professionals. And though a large cadre of school psychologists has begun to practice over the past decade, Palomares points out that a substantial number also are nearing retirement. The net effect is vastly more current openings in school psychology positions than in years past.
Creating new roles
To paraphrase Charles Dickens, however, it appears to be the best of times for the profession as well. School psychologists are beginning to enjoy an uplifted status, in part because they're taking on and successfully meeting the tough new problems posed in the schools.
"We are being faced with much more crisis-intervention work, and we have become more valued by our districts for the range of services we offer," says Karen Young, PhD, a school psychologist who directs the internship program in the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District near Houston. "A lot is being asked of us, but we're ready to respond."
While the original role for school psychologists has been that of special education expert, over the last decade, psychologists' roles have expanded dramatically, especially in areas of rapid change and development, such as California and Texas. The psychology programs in these school districts tend to be more holistic, placing psychologists more centrally in the school system and allowing them to field the problems of students in general rather than just of special education children.
In Long Beach, Calif., John Hoffman, lead psychologist in the Long Beach Unified School District, is part of a team that has put a new twist on child assessments. His team conducts what the district calls "ecological assessments" of youngsters. He uses a problem-solving model that empowers children to make good decisions academically and socially, rather than one that views them as deficient, mentally ill or isolated from the rest of the school. In contrast to simply administering tests to youngsters to determine where to place them, the Long Beach team talks to students, interviews them and uses "bits and pieces of different kinds of assessment instruments to determine their range of functioning of cognitive ability, and emotional and social adjustment and development," Hoffman says.
That more informal approach works well in a district characterized by racial, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity, he says. The team also does mental health counseling with children, consults with teachers and staff, and collaborates with outside mental health agencies and programs.
"It's a whole lot more exciting than the old days of refer, test and place," Hoffman says.
The newer programs also tend to be preventive and crisis oriented--that is, prepared to respond to life-threatening situations when they arise, says Pauline Clansy, PhD, manager of psychological services for the Houston Independent School System, the country's fourth-largest school district.
In addition to working with families and young people following major crises, the psychology staff provides consultation to parents, teachers, school staff and members of the community.
Her district has programs designed to reach out to students who might be in trouble. One school houses a youth-based psychological clinic and several counseling and medical clinics operating through collaborative partnerships with community agencies. The district has a staff of social workers who work with pregnant teens, day-treatment programs modeled on partial-hospitalization for those with serious problems, and a variety of alternative school and charter school programs.
Psychologists say these kinds of programs are truer to the spirit of the profession they were trained in: diverse, child centered and holistic.
"Schools are where the action is with children these days," says Richard Kestenbaum, PhD, chair of the psychologist advisory board for the Jefferson County school district in Colorado. "There's an increasingly full plate of things to study that would be of interest to any psychologist."
Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.