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How to Become a School Psychologist

Written by Maura Deering

What is School Psychology?

School psychologists support a healthy school environment that encourages students to optimize their learning capabilities. Working closely with teachers, school administrators, and parents, these professionals use their expertise to help 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 affecting how students learn and how instructors teach. They strive 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 in K-12 schools.

Below, we review how to become a school psychologist and explore careers in school psychology.

What Does a School Psychologist Do?

While most school psychologists work in K-12 schools, some may be employed with 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 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

1. 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

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 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

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

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

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; 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

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job growth rate for school psychologists is projected to reach 15% through 2028. School psychologists draw a median annual salary of $76,990. The most clinical, counseling, and school psychologists work in elementary and secondary schools, healthcare practitioners' offices, individual and family services, and educational support services.

California, New York, and Texas are the states with the highest employment levels of clinical, counseling, and school psychologists, while Rhode Island, Vermont, and Montana offer the highest concentration of jobs. California, Oregon, and New Jersey are the nation's top-paying states for the profession. In California, school psychologists make an average of $108,350 a year, followed by $103,870 in Oregon and $98,470 in New Jersey.

Within the three highest-paying states, salaries in specific metropolitan areas outpace even the state averages. The Bend-Redmond, Oregon area averages $118,980, and the California cities of Vallejo-Fairfield, Santa Rosa, Los Angeles-Long-Beach-Anaheim, and Salinas round out the top five.

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, for example; this varies state-to-state. Internships are recommended for gaining experience.

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

I'm an Undergraduate or Have Completed my Undergraduate

  • 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.

I'm Pursuing a Graduate Degree

  • 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.

I Have a Master's or PhD

  • 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.

Licensure for School Psychologists

The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) is the sole professional organization offering credentials for 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 evidencing completion of 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 consists of 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.

Find a School Psychology Degree Program Near Me

Explore our program database to find a school psychologist degree program that meets your educational and professionals goals. You can filter school and program results by degree level, location, and course delivery method. Follow the links to learn more about each program.

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