What is school psychology?
School psychologists support a healthy school environment in which students can optimize their learning capabilities. Working closely with teachers, school administration and parents, these professionals use their expertise to help students strengthen academic, social, emotional and behavioral skills to achieve success in school and life.
Interactive observation of students and how they learn is crucial to this profession. By incorporating elements of developmental, child and adolescent psychology, school psychologists study a wide range of factors affecting how students learn and how instructors teach. They aim to accentuate strengths and improve weaknesses, such as learning disabilities and behavioral disorders, in individual students. School psychologists may play a part in reshaping learning practices, especially for K-12 schools.
Below we review how to become a school psychologist and explore careers in school psychology.
What does a school psychologist do?
Most school psychologists work in K-12 schools, though some may be employed by private organizations, local mental health centers or residential treatment facilities. Regardless of where they work, school psychologists should possess the following professional skills and capabilities:
Skills & Competencies
- Complex Decision Making and Sound Judgement
- Sensitivity to Privacy Concerns
- Critical Thinking
- Understanding of Child Psychology
- Understanding of Adolescent Psychology
- Knowledge of Broad and Acute Spectrum Behavioral Disorders
- Knowledge of Common Learning Disabilities
- Data Analysis and Evaluation
- Interpersonal Skills
- Information Technology Skills
Professionals in this specialty are often responsible for diagnosing and treating learning disabilities and mental health disorders in students and exploring special services that may be available to students and their families.
The following four specializations common in school psychology careers include detailed responsibilities of professionals in the field.
Areas of Expertise in the School Psychology Field
Preventative and Responsive Services
School psychologists in this field are charged with educating students and their families about potential hazards and challenges within the school environment, as well as offering psychological services to at-risk students.
Examples of Preventative Programs
- Bullying and cyberbullying
- Eating disorders
- Lack of a sense of belonging at school or among peers
Professionals in this field may help develop educational tools to promote positive learning and social practices; and guard against student victimization and unhealthy behavior, including bullying, text message harassment and peer pressure, among others.
Common Job Titles:
- School Psychologist
- Preventative Psychology Specialist
- Preventative Mental Health Services Specialist
Special Education Assessment
Many school psychologists spend the majority of their time performing tests and assessments and analyzing results. One of the primary duties of school psychologists is to assess learning disabilities, mental health issues and special needs in individual learners in an educational setting, and treat to them accordingly.
Examples of Issues School Psychologists Assess and Treat
- Learning disabilities
- Spectrum disorders, such as Autism and Asperger Syndrome
- Social and behavioral abnormalities
School psychologists use a range of psychoeducational tests to assess special education needs for students, considering both medical and institutional factors. Professionals in this area may further focus their specialty in a particular disorder, with extensive experience in diagnosing students on the Autism spectrum, for example.
Common Job Titles
- Special Education Assessment Specialist
- Special Education Programs Analyst
- School Psychologist
Consultation and Counseling Services
Consultation and counseling are among the most distinctive services provided by school psychologists. Often working alongside teachers, staff and the students' families, these professionals offer confidential psychotherapy to students as treatment for a wide range of personal, social and behavioral issues.
Counseling Topics for School Psychologists
- Low self-esteem
- Underdeveloped social skills
As psychological counseling is a crucial element of school psychology, school psychologists should be well-versed in this aspect of the field. Professionals may offer group and individual counseling services to students at their schools, depending on the number of students in-need and the degree of therapy required.
Common Job Titles
- School Psychologist
- School Psychotherapist
- School Counseling Services Specialist
Interventionary tactics used by school psychologists are designed to treat even the most advanced psychological needs of at-risk and special education students. In providing intervention services, school psychologists must be knowledgeable and experienced; this is an area of expertise that is especially unique to professionals in this field.
- Behavior contracts
- Response to Intervention (RTI) Model
- Discrepancy Model
Behavior contracts may be used as a preliminary step in correcting repetitive bad behavior; the RTI model involves a more integrated approach to mental health care of individual students within the classroom; while the discrepancy model encourages isolated treatment for individual students. School psychologists typically work with teachers and families to decide which technique is appropriate for special needs students at their facility.
Common Job Titles
- School Psychologist
- Student Intervention Specialist
- Pre-Intervention/Intervention Therapy Specialist
School Psychology by the Numbers
In its latest report, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that the market for school psychologists will continue to expand rapidly, growing by 11% from 2012 to 2022. In the United States, clinical, counseling and school psychologists comprise the second-most populated area of psychology; professionals in this field should expect to see approximately 16,000 new jobs by 2022.
Annual Mean Wage of School Psychologists By State, May 2014
|State||Employment||Employment per Thousand Jobs||Location Quotient||Hourly Mean Wage||Annual Mean Wage|
Occupational Employment Statistics, Bureau of Labor and Statistics, July 2015
How do I become a school psychologist?
Those looking to enter school psychology should first complete a bachelor's degree in this specialty. Next, school psych undergrads will want to pursue a master's degree, which is typically the minimum requirement to enter the field. A PhD may be required to work in private practice a consultant contracted to provide school psychology services, for example; this varies state-to-state. Internships are recommended for gaining experience while completing your education.
Below are several options for those looking to pursue a career in school psychology. Choose which one best describes you:
Declare as a psychology major.
You'll likely take a mixture of the following courses:
- Academic Assessment and Intervention
- Cognitive Assessment and Intervention
- Behavioral Analysis and Consultation for School Psychologists
- Social Psychology in Education
- Developmental Psychopathology of Childhood and Adolescence
- Ethical, Legal, and Professional Issues in School Psychology
- Applied Cognition and Learning Strategies
Consider a specialty
- Narrow your focus. If pursuing school psychology is a sure thing for you, start looking for a niche in the field and begin to hone your skills in one particular area, such as counseling or assessment and analysis.
- Check to see if there are any professors at your school with experience in school psychology. It will look impressive on your grad school applications if you already have an idea for your thesis topic, which you could potentially brainstorm with professors in this field.
Take the GRE
- Check to see if your desired school has minimum scores for admission into the school psychology program.
- Take a practice test several times.
- Enroll in a GRE course if your scores are not up to par.
- Register for a test date with enough time to take the test a second time, in case you want to aim for a higher score.
Get Reference Letters
- Grow an academic relationship with your professors; attend their office hours and ask them questions about becoming a school psychologist in your chosen concentration. This will come in handy when you're filling out applications to graduate-level psych programs and can heavily influence the admissions process.
- If you've been away from school or have lost touch with your school psychology professors, don't hesitate to approach them. They may ask about your goals or areas of interest in the field to offer tips regarding assessment techniques or preferred intervention methods, for example.
Choose a Graduate School
- Use our exclusive psychology database to search the top graduate school psychology programs.
Come Up with a Thesis
- This marks the point at which you begin to form your early career. Hopefully you have already decided on an area of school psychology rooted in counseling or analysis, for example, that piques your interest. If not, try to identify your thesis quickly.
- Speak with professors to help hone your broad interest in general school psychology into a more specific practice or concentration that you are passionate about.
Find an Internship
- Start applying for internships while you are still enrolled in a school psychology program. This might lead to a job immediately after graduation, and it will also provide the practical experience necessary to pursue a terminal degree and licensure.
Network with Professors and Professionals in the Field
- This advice should be taken to heart. Networking with school psychology professionals is essential to learning the ins and outs of the field as well as the job market climate for psychologists working in schools and in private practices. Expanding your network may even introduce you to new forms of school psychologist careers you hadn't realized were possible.
- Ask your school's career center for advice on how to improve your interview skills. These skills will help you sound knowledgeable in school psychology when networking with field professionals and when applying for your post-grad degree.
Refine Your Resume and Keep It Current
- Keep your resume looking professional and interesting, with your most recent school psychology experience and extra curriculars.
- Have friends or peers you trust proofread your resume for copy edits and suggestions.
- Think of your resume as a living document; customize your words and formatting to specific positions in the field of school psychology. For example, be sure to emphasize counseling experience if you are applying to a position in which this aspect of school psychology would be your primary work.
Start Sending Out Job Applications
- This is usually a long and arduous process. You will likely be rewarded with a job in your acute area of interest the more consistent and and tenacious you are in applying to jobs regularly.
- Tailor your cover letters to the specific school psychology positions to which you apply.
- Use LinkedIn to search for contacts within each school or educational institution that is hiring. Reach out to these contacts; you may be granted an interview if you can make an impression.
Prepare for Interviews
- Practice a mock interview for a school psychologist position.
- Research the school or educational facility for which you are interviewing. You should be able to describe what they do and their mission as an institution.
- Always conduct yourself professionally by dressing appropriately for the job; be aware that you may be around children, teachers and parents. Bring copies of your resume and cover letter.
You're now a School Psychologist
- Congratulations! Ideally, following these steps should help you land the job you want, whether at the school or organization of your choice or in a private practice.
- Remain diligent about advancing your career. Stay current on the latest developments and opportunities in the field of school psychology. Continue to research new opportunities for ongoing professional education and higher salary positions.
Our database of the top school psychology programs can help you navigate the school selection process. Use the individual filters to tailor your search of the best U.S. schools to fit your needs.
Meet a School Psychologist
Dr. Tiffany Sanders
I work with families and children who are at-risk for failing to thrive, and conduct thorough evaluations of a child's cognitive, executive functioning and academic strengths to inform treatment.
To give an inside perspective of educational psychology, we sat down with school psychologist Dr. Tiffany Sanders to get her view on the ins-and-outs of the field.
Skip to Question
- What's your educational background/How did you get interested in that subject?
I studied psychology and minored in family and child studies at Northern Illinois University. My initial interest into psychology didn't occur until my sophomore year in college after my sister majored in psychology. She would discuss the things she learned at family dinners and on the phone. It piqued my interest, so I decided to major in psychology. I minored in family and child studies because I believe the family unit is vital to a child's success and wanted to learn about ways to improve family relationships.
- How/why did you choose that school/program?
I chose the University of Florida for my graduate work because the year prior to applying to graduate school, Chicago had a nasty winter with record snowfall that closed my university for a couple of days. I knew then that I was primarily going to apply to schools in the south, and Florida was my top choice due to family vacations there and reading about the faculty's area of interests, which matched mine.
- Who do you think makes the best school psychology candidates? Do you recommend doing anything in undergrad/grad school to better set yourself up for success?
The best candidates understand that success in this field requires understanding the educational/school system. They must have a willingness to work with parents as an advocate for their child, to understand behavioral strategies and interventions to work with children who are at-risk or challenging, and to not just test and diagnose and or label.
Always participate in research studies to become a better researcher. Complete a thesis in undergrad if the opportunity presents itself. Join a professor's research team, always seek out extra training whether it's clinical, counseling or school psych in nature.
- What's your area of specialty within school psychology?
Working with families and children who are at-risk for failing to thrive, conducting thorough evaluations of a child's cognitive, executive functioning and academic strengths to inform treatment.
- Where do you currently work? How did you find that position?
I work in private practice and have done so since 2009. I contract my services out to school districts for private evaluations, training and developments and consultation on challenging behavioral and emotional cases.
- Were there any unexpected hurdles in getting where you are today?
The biggest hurdle was the recession. Schools were slashing budgets and cutting costs wherever they could. So my degree and training weren't enough to protect my job. Consequently, going into business for myself ensures financial security and stability.
- What does your typical day involve?
Each day of work is different. One thing is for certain, every day I'll be doing some variation of checking emails, returning phone calls, scheduling appointments, writing reports, supervising non-licensed therapists, networking, making media appearances, blogging and counseling clients.
- What's your favorite part of the job?
Growing the business, networking, media appearances and spreading the word that psychology, interventions and counseling help.
- What do you think makes a great school psychologist?
Someone who is willing to listen, counsel, intervene even on the toughest of cases, think out of the box and learn new skills.
- Is there anything you don't like about your work?
The paperwork! Writing reports and case notes takes time and most psychologists I know procrastinate in that area because we'd rather do the intervention than the work that follows.
- What's the most interesting or challenging case/experience you've come across?
It's extremely challenging to work in inner city schools and come across kids who are in high school who essentially can't read, write or do arithmetic. It's unfortunate to see the child passed along and parents are unaware of what it takes to improve their child's ability to learn.
- Are you involved with any professional organizations? If so, why?
I'm involved in local organizations that align with my social action and consciousness beliefs and those that are parent-and-child focused to increase the awareness of psychology and mental health.
- What do you think is the most exciting thing happening in this field right now? Who is doing the most interesting research?
I think the most exciting thing is that we as a body of psychologists are getting from behind the office doors and reaching out to members in the community to spread the word that psychological interventions help; don't be afraid if your child's school is identifying your child as in need of additional support!
- What's the best "must-read/watch" book, video or publication for this field?
There are many books to read, but one is Parent Articles about ADHD. This book has reproducible handouts that are great for parents and educators who want to learn more about ADHD. Interventions for Academic and Behavior Problems is another great one, and it's produced by the National Association of School Psychologists. Finally, The Comprehensive Handbook of Multicultural School Psychology is also great. We live in an increasingly diverse society so it's important to understand school psychology from a multicultural framework.
- Any other advice for those looking to go into the field?
Learn as much as you can, and never stop learning.
- What are the biggest considerations someone should think about before pursuing your field?
Whether you want to earn a PhD or Master's degree. If you're fairly certain that you want to only work in schools, then a Master's degree will suffice. If you want more options than just working in a school setting, pursue a PhD.
- Is there anything else you would like to add?
Good luck to all pursuing a career in psychology!
School Psychology Resources
These resources, personally selected by our editorial staff, capture the organizations, journals and conferences spearheading school psychology today. If you feel a crucial resources is absent from our collection, please don't hesitate to direct us to it by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Mental Health of Students - National Association of School Nurses
- National Association of School Psychologists
- Public - School Social Work Association of America
- School Psychology - American Board of Professional Psychologists
- School Psychology (Division 16)
- Student Affiliates in School Psychology
- Alabama Association of School Psychologists
- Alaska School Psychologists Association
- Arizona Association of School Psychologists
- Arkansas School Psychology Association
- Association of School Psychologists of Pennsylvania
- California Association of School Psychologists
- Colorado Society of School Psychologists
- Connecticut Association of School Psychologists
- Delaware Association of School Psychologists
- Florida Association of School Psychologists
- Georgia Association of School Psychologists
- Hawaii Association of School Psychologists
- Idaho School Psychologist Association
- Illinois School Psychologists Association
- Indiana Association of School Psychologists
- Iowa School Psychologists Association
- Kansas Association of School Psychologists
- Louisiana School Psychological Association
- Maine Association of School Psychology
- Maryland School Psychologists' Association
- Michigan Association of School Psychologists
- Minnesota School Psychologists Association
- Mississippi Association for Psychology in the Schools
- Missouri Association of School Psychologists
- Montana Association of School Psychologists
- Nebraska School Psychology Association
- New Hampshire Association of School Psychologists (NHASP)
- New Jersey Association of School Psychologists
- New Mexico Association of School Psychologists
- New York Association of School Psychologists
- North Carolina School Psychology Association
- North Dakota Association of School Psychologists
- Ohio School Psychologists Association
- Oklahoma School Psychological Association (OSPA)
- Oregon School Psychology Association
- Rhode Island School Psychologists Association
- South Carolina Association of School Psychologists
- South Dakota Association of School Psychologists
- Tennessee Association of School Psychologists
- Texas Association of School Psychologists
- Utah Association of School Psychologists
- Vermont Association of School Psychologists
- Virginia Academy of School Psychologists
- Washington State Association of School Psychologists
- West Virginia School Psychologists Association
- Wisconsin School Psychologists Association
- Wyoming School Psychology Association
- 22nd World Congress of the International Association for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Allied Professions
- Annual Conference - Trainers of School Psychologists
- NASP Annual Convention
- National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology (NITOP)
- School Psychology Research Collaboration Conference
- Contemporary School Psychology
- International Journal of School & Educational Psychology
- Journal of School Psychology
- Psychology in the Schools - Wiley Online Library
- Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology
- School Psychology International
- School Psychology Quarterly
- School Psychology Review (SPR)