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***Post written by Scott McGuire, Elections Chair for WSPA***
I have been asked from time to time, “What does a School Psychologist do?” The perception is that we work with kids who have emotional or behavior problems. I start by explaining that the word “School” deals with education and learning and “Psychology” is the study of the brain and behavior, but in practice School Psychology is a strange combination of statistics and educational law. What puts School Psychologists in the schools is the law that states everybody is entitled to a free and appropriate education even if they have a disability. The pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, equal protection, all people are created equal etc.… What a disability really means is the person is different and to a degree large enough to require supports to function the same as other people without a disability.
My job skills are not limited to identifying people who have a disability and learn differently; however, I most likely would not have my job if it weren’t for that basic right and legal protection.
What does the brain or behavior have to do with school or learning? We use test instruments to measure the brain’s potential and academic skills, along with other instruments to measure differences in student’s actions and reactions to their surroundings. To measure the thinking skills, we record the student’s ability to explain things, figure things out, remember things, or do things quickly and accurately. To measure academic skills we record various reading, writing, and math tasks. And behavior such as alertness, anxiety, activity level, and social skills are measured by rating scales, observations, and interviews. These measurement are meaningless without an understanding of statistics. We need to figure out by using statistics whether the measurements are “normal” or not. If the measurements are not “normal” then we need to determine if the difference is real and negatively affect the ability to learn. If the measurements are found to be significantly different from other people with the same age and level of experience then we label them “disabled”.
With that label come protections under the federal and state laws that mandate certain procedures, processes, and actions that shape our job duties. The laws guide our assessments to determine if the student qualifies under 1 of the 14 legal disability classifications. There are laws that mandate how long an evaluation will take, and if they qualify, and how often the evaluation results should be reviewed. The laws address issues ranging from providing too many services (Least restrictive Environment- LRE) to not enough (Free Appropriate Public Education – FAPE) along with various compliance issues dealing with time lines, forms, and progress reporting. A recent study from Syracuse University reported more than 4 of every 10 (41.6%) civil rights suits filed in federal court against schools and universities over the past four years involve students with disabilities.
So the question “What does a school psychologist do?” is probably more accurately answered by saying they help keep a school district out of court than by saying they help provide mental health services to students, even though we often can and do help students cope with life and school.