Hero Image How to Become a School Psychologist

How to Become a School Psychologist

What is School Psychology?

School psychologists support a healthy school environment and encourage students to optimize their learning capabilities. Working closely with teachers, school administrators, and parents, the role of school psychologists includes helping students build academic, social, emotional, and behavioral skills to achieve success in school and life.

School psychologists observe students and how they learn. By incorporating elements from developmental, child, and adolescent psychology, these psychologists study the factors that affect how students learn and how instructors teach. They also work with individual students to accentuate their strengths and improve their weaknesses, such as learning disabilities and behavioral disorders. School psychologists may additionally play a role in reshaping learning practices, especially in K-12 schools.

Below, we review how to become a school psychologist and available career paths in school psychology.

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What Does a School Psychologist Do?

While most school psychologists work in K-12 schools, some may find employment within private organizations, local mental health centers, or residential treatment facilities. Regardless of where they work, school psychologists should possess specific professional skills and capabilities.

Skills and 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

  • Mathematics

  • Interpersonal skills

  • Information technology skills

  • Professionals in this specialty often diagnose and treat learning disabilities and mental health disorders in students. They also explore special services that may be available to students and their families.

    The following four specializations common in school psychology careers outline the responsibilities of professionals in each field.

    Areas of Expertise in the School Psychology Field

    • 1. Preventative and Responsive Services

      School psychologists in this field educate students and their families about potential hazards and challenges within the school environment. They also offer 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 preventative and responsive services develop educational tools to promote positive learning and social practices. They may also develop methods to guard against student victimization and unhealthy behavior, including bullying, text message harassment, and peer pressure.

      Common Job Titles

      • School psychologist
      • Preventative psychology specialist
      • Preventative mental health services specialist

    • 2. 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 includes assessing learning disabilities, mental health issues, and special needs in individual learners in an educational setting. They also develop plans to treat them accordingly.

      Examples of Issues School Psychologists Assess and Treat

      • Learning disabilities
      • Spectrum disorders, such as autism and Asperger’s syndrome
      • Social and behavioral abnormalities

      School psychologists use 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

    • 3. 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

      • Anxiety
      • Low self-esteem

      • Depression
      • Underdeveloped social skills

      Psychological counseling is a crucial element of school psychology, therefore 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 type of therapy required.

      Common Job Titles

      • School psychologist
      • School psychotherapist
      • School counseling services specialist

    • 4. Student Intervention

      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.

      Intervention Techniques

      • 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; 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

    Frequently Asked Questions

    • Is a school psychologist a licensed psychologist?

      Yes. School psychologists must obtain a license from their state’s department of education. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) offers certification, with the same or similar requirements as state licensure: completion of a graduate program and internship in school psychology and a passing score on the Praxis II school psychology exam.

    • Can school psychologists work in private practice?

      Yes, but state laws contain specific provisions about using the title of “psychologist” in private practice. Most states require a doctoral degree, but a few allow the private practice of school psychology with a master’s degree. In addition, some states regulate the use of the title itself, while others focus on the services offered.

    • What can a school psychologist diagnose?

      School psychologists diagnose educational and developmental problems that impact academic achievement and school adjustment; adverse social problems that influence learning or behavior; and disabilities and disorders that affect learning, behavior, and healthy development. They also identify acute or chronic situations stemming from infancy, childhood, or adolescence that threaten mental health and impede learning.

    • Why are school psychologists important?

      Whether protecting the rights of children and families, or using their advanced training to improve instruction and processes, school psychologists bring advanced knowledge and skills to their jobs. Their education and experience in statistical methods and measurement theory enable them to effectively help students, families, and school staff from diverse cultures and backgrounds.

    School Psychology By the Numbers

    School psychologists earn a median annual salary of $78,200 and can expect a 14% projected job growth rate from 2018-28. Industries with the highest employment levels of school psychologists include K-12 schools, offices of other health practitioners, and individual and family services. Rhode Island, Vermont, and West Virginia rank as the states with the greatest number of school psychologists, while California, New York, and Texas log the highest levels of employment.

    In terms of salary, school psychologists fare the best in Oregon with an annual mean wage of $122,010, followed by California at $111,750 and Washington, D.C. at $106,900. Seven California metropolitan areas rank in the top 10 for highest pay, including Santa Rosa ($136,390), Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura ($117,960), San Diego-Carlsbad ($117,280), Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim ($117,140), and Madera ($116,190). Jefferson City, Missouri takes the second-place spot at $118,920.

    School Psychologist Shortage in the United States

    NASP reports a nationwide shortage of school psychologists, along with graduate-level training programs and faculty. The estimated national ratio stands at one psychologist per 1,381 students, with some states at one psychologist per 5,000 students. These ratios significantly exceed the NASP recommendation of one school psychologist per 500-700 students.

    The current shortages affect not only the number of available school psychologists, but also the number of qualified practitioners. Other impacts include fewer psychologists from diverse backgrounds, unmanageable caseloads, and reduced early intervention services.

    NASP forecasts that one out of five students will suffer from mental or behavioral disorders and may only get the help they need if it is available at school. School psychologists bridge the gap by providing families, teachers, and administrators the strategies for identifying symptoms and warning signs of mental illness and support for helping students with behavioral issues.

    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 should pursue a master’s degree, which is typically the minimum requirement to enter the field. A Ph.D. may be required to work in private practice as a consultant contracted to provide school psychology services, but this varies state-to-state. Internships are recommended to gain additional experience.

    Below are several options for those looking to pursue a career in school psychology. Choose which best describes you.

    • I'm an undergraduate or have completed my undergraduate degree

      1. 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
    • 2. 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.
    • 3. 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.
    • 4. 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.
    • 5. Choose a Graduate School

    • I'm Pursuing a Graduate Degree

      1. 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.
    • 2. 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.
    • 3. 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.
    • I Have a Master's or PhD

      1. Refine Your Resume and Keep It Current

    • Keep your resume looking professional and interesting, with your most recent school psychology experience and extracurriculars.
    • 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.
    • 2. 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.
    • 3. 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.
    • 4. 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.

    Licensure for School Psychologists

    The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) is the sole professional organization credentialing school psychologists. Applicants who meet NASP’s rigorous standards receive the Nationally Certified School Psychologist (NCSP) designation.

    NCSP candidates must complete a school psychology degree program, 1,200 hours of supervised internships, and a series of supervised practicums at a lab or field-based site. NCSP applicants must earn a score of 147 on the Praxis School Psychologist exam to pass.

    Individuals who have graduated from an NCSP-approved institution must submit an online application, Praxis exam score report, and official transcripts that show evidence of completed graduate study. Under the more stringent requirements for graduates of non-NASP-approved school psychology programs, applicants must submit verification forms showing completion of their school psychology programs, practicums, and internships, signed by the applicable university or field site official.

    The separate state board psychology licensing requirements vary by jurisdiction.

    Psychology Internship Opportunities

    While specific onsite programs vary, students participating in a practicum typically begin by watching a licensed psychologist work with clients. Their supervisors discuss the students’ observations and answer questions before assigning tasks. While internships generally involve supervised and unsupervised direct contact with clients, a supervisor is always on-hand to answer questions, provide feedback, and review an intern’s recommendations for the client.

    Psychology practicums and internships take place at a variety of locations, including clinics, hospitals, private practice offices, rehabilitation facilities, and schools. Students pursuing school psychologist careers should choose experiences where they work with children and adolescents.

    Internships usually span six months to two years, while practicums do not always follow a particular timeline. A common schedule includes 20 hours per week. Students do not earn wages during practicum experiences, but may get paid as interns, which require more hands-on work. If school psychologist education requirements include practicums and/or internships, students earn credit toward their degrees. Postdoctoral internships do not award credit, but do satisfy licensing and credentialing eligibility.

    Students can find internship and practicum positions through alumni networks, job fairs and boards, recruiting events, and school career centers. Visit this website for additional resources.

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