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
Understanding of child psychology
Understanding of adolescent psychology
Knowledge of broad and acute spectrum
Knowledge of common learning disabilities
Data analysis and evaluation
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
- 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.
- 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.
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.