If parents are going to successfully navigate public school, they need to know who works in schools and what they do. This is true in most institutional, bureaucratic settings – you have to know who to call, who can get something done, and who has the information you need.
We’ve previously discussed the administrative team at the building level: principal and assistant principals. Now we’re going to look at student support staff – those who support academic learning.
We’ll start with the school psychologist. The National Association of School Psychologists has this to say:
School psychologists help children and youth succeed academically, socially, behaviorally, and emotionally. They collaborate with educators, parents, and other professionals to create safe, healthy, and supportive learning environments that strengthen connections between home, school, and the community for all students.
School psychologists are often part of the special education staff. They work with intervention and evaluation teams to evaluate learning, behavioral and emotional problems; interpret evaluation results to parents and teachers; provide information necessary to determine eligibility for services; participate in planning an appropriate educational program; and consult with other school staff. Most school psychologists serve two or three different schools.
When it comes to mental health issues, problem-solving, behavioral concerns, and learning issues, school psychologists are the most knowledgeable members of the school team. In many ways, school psychologists are like family doctors – they are generalists who know at least a little about most psychological issues, and know when to refer to someone who is a specialist.
School psychologists at the elementary level are likely to spend a lot of time serving on intervention and evaluation teams. Elementary school is where most children with special needs are identified, and it’s a lengthy process. Those at the middle and high school levels are more likely to work directly with students in individual and group counseling, mentoring, intervention groups, and crisis teams.
Many people think that school psychologists spend their time doing therapy with children in school. This is not the case. There is a difference between counseling and therapy. Counseling involves working with people to solve a problem in their lives. Therapy is a lengthier process that focuses on helping a person gain insight into deep-seated emotional issues. School psychologists are not clinical psychologists, and therapy with children (as opposed to counseling) is almost always done in partnership with the family.
School psychologists have a sixty hour master’s degree (specialist level) or a PhD in school psychology. The programs also require a one year supervised internship.
An effective school psychologist is a respected member of the student support team at all the schools she serves. Administrators, teachers, parents, and students know her name and are comfortable asking for help and expressing concerns. School psychologists who just run from school to school giving IQ tests are not effectively supporting academic learning in students. An effective school psychologist has a strong knowledge base in both psychology and education, and she is an expert in special education law and procedures. She has strong communication skills, both oral and written, and provides objective leadership in IEP meetings. She is a team player, but advocates for children and supports parents.
The school counselor is another important member of the student support team at the building level. Counselors are typically based at one school and are supervised by the principal at that school. They work to support academic achievement, personal/social development, and career planning.
At the elementary level, the school counselor often provides regular classroom guidance lessons in social skills and character development. In addition, she has individual and group counseling sessions through out the year, usually on a short-term basis. At the middle and high school levels, the counselor is often more focused on course selection, scheduling, college applications, and career planning and development.
Counselors often serve on crisis teams in the school system, serve as the liaison between the school and the Department of Social Services, and chair the Student Assistance Team. Counselors take a leadership role in addressing mental health issues such as bullying, substance abuse, and self-injury. And when students need clothes, food, holiday gifts, school supplies, field trip money, or personal hygiene items, it is usually the school counselor who helps out.
School counselors typically have a master’s degree and a one-semester supervised internship. Many teachers choose to go back to school to become school counselors.
The two characteristics most often mentioned in connection with effective school counseling are listening and empathy. An excellent school counselor listens with understanding, is easily available to all members of the school community, has earned the trust of students and teachers, and keeps information confidential. For many students, the school counselor is the strongest on-going relationship they have at school and the person they count on for help and support.
School psychologists and counselors are available to parents as well as students. Call your child’s school to make an appointment.
Next time we’ll look at the skills and insights school nurses and school social workers offer in public schools.