School psychologists work with school-aged children and engage with children, youth, families, and school systems. With that in mind, school psychology could be considered a subset of child psychology. However, unlike child psychologists, school psychologists are not just concerned with individuals, but the systems and environments they are placed in. A school psychologist is, characteristically, interested in working with kids and interacting with them in school settings.
If you’re interested in pursuing a career in child psychology or want to pivot your focus to working with children in a school-based setting, it can be a rewarding career path. Understanding the nuances of the work of a school psychologist and the skills required can help set you up for success.
What Does a School Psychologist Do?
A school psychologist is trained to observe and identify learning and behavioral challenges in children, ranging from students in elementary school to college. They assist in the pursuit of academic success by addressing social, emotional, and behavioral needs.
The vast majority of these professionals work inside or in consultation with school systems. As such, they are witness to behavioral problems and mental disorders that are typical among young people, developmental hurdles that accompany adolescence, and a wide range of disabilities and acute or chronic conditions that could affect any age group.
School psychologists may also see young individuals grapple with bullying — even in virtual settings, such as online bullying by classmates. It’s also not uncommon for school psychologists to work alongside a family who requests help with a problem at home that affects their child’s performance in the classroom, for example, a divorce or death in the family.
What is essential is that a psychologist be able to take observations and organize them into coherent thoughts and recommendations for supervising adults to intervene with. Unlike adult patients, children cannot always be expected to understand, on their own, what steps need to be taken to resolve their behavior. Psychologists, in that sense, serve as translators for adults in a child’s life — teachers, parents, and administrators, among others — who can then adapt their approach with the child as it pertains to instruction, social settings, and management of adverse social conditions like substance abuse.
Above all, a school psychologist is flexible, intuitive, and resilient. No day looks the same and no school has the same student population with cookie-cutter problems. School psychologists may interact on a daily basis with a student who has anxiety over their academic schedule and another who faces social stigma over teenage pregnancy. It is also possible for some psychologists to opt to take a position in a juvenile justice program or in a residential clinic, which also diversifies the population a school psychologist may work with.
A school psychologist will often work in collaboration with a school counselor or school social worker, who addresses larger swaths of the student body but does not work with individuals on their mental health. This particularly applies to students who are working through major developmental health obstacles and need to be diagnosed to qualify for special education services or any other special service.
Skills Required to Become a School Psychologist
School psychologists will need to be licensed in order to work with a school. That means you will need a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field, followed by a master’s degree and any number of licensing protocols that vary by state.
Aspiring psychologists are encouraged to consider where they would like to practice upon graduation and work toward the requirements for that area. Nationally, school psychologists may also need to be certified by the National School Psychology Certification Board, which has a specific set of standards — both ethical and in professional practice — for credentialing.
Fundamentally, school psychologist skills involve core knowledge of psychoeducational assessment and diagnosis, as well as a developed understanding of what steps to follow-up with or recommend to families, teachers, or administrators. A school psychologist should be able to recognize developmental stages and synthesize information related to laws, regulations, and historical contexts and precedents that are relevant to a student or school’s experience. The organizational history and dynamics of a school will vary widely and impact how you interact with students.
More recently, skills of a school psychologist have been adapted for telehealth practices, many of which are evolving as comfort levels and regulations change. Generally, however, school psychologists should keep in mind the basics of their training while also concerning themselves with the degree of privacy during a call, HIPAA regulations, informed consent, student access to necessary technology, and the appropriate licensure or certification needed to practice virtually.
At large, the following are some qualities of a good school psychologist:
- Communication – Unlike a psychologist who practices with adults, school psychologists are tasked with keeping parents, teachers, administrators, and sometimes health service providers informed on a case. It is also important to communicate in a way that is professional and consistent with the practices and ethics of not just the practice of psychology, but the school.
- Programming and/or Curriculum Creation – Some psychologists may be involved with professional development programs with other psychologists or counselors, while others will spend a significant amount of time implementing prevention and intervention programs in a school. For example, educating the school about suicide or substance abuse.
- Observation – Prime among educational psychologist skills and qualities of any focus is that of observation. School psychologists should be watchful for any behavioral indication that a crisis intervention is needed. Others will observe and assess a student’s need for special education services and create individualized education plans.
- Analysis – School psychologists should have a standard practice for evaluating individuals in the institution and know exactly what tools of intervention are available to help, and crucially, do no harm in the process. They may also have access to data that they should be able to analyze and apply to the treatment of the student population.
School psychologists, quite simply, are motivated people who promote healthy conduct and academic success in school. They assess students, yes, but also encourage them. To be a school psychologist is to be a guard rail to keep students on a path that will allow for thriving relationships with peers, teachers, and parents, while making them feel empowered and averse to inappropriate conflicts.
Bachelor of Arts in Psychology Degree at National University
Psychology’s presence in society is only increasing as people, and society as a whole, recognize the need to treat those who struggle with their mental health and acknowledge it as part of a holistic plan for well-being. The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts growth of 14 percent through 2026 in the United States.
Those who want to pursue a career in psychology can chart their course at National University through the Bachelor of Arts in Psychology Degree and build on the qualities of a school psychologist. National University boasts 175,000 alumni worldwide who work in settings that range from private practice to primary schools. Get in touch with our admissions team today to learn more.