Inclusion Zone

School Psychologists: How Your Child Benefits

Interview with Mary Dolan

Transcription by Sarah Blahovec

ANNOUNCER: Blog Talk Radio.

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MARY DOLAN: Hello everyone, and welcome to the Inclusion Zone Podcast. This is Mary Dolan, your host. Have you heard of the job of a school psychologist? Like the name says, this is a kind of psychologist that works in schools, that means he or she works directly or indirectly with kids. Those would be our kids, any kids, all kids, and psychologists play a number of different roles in schools and their work impacts all students, whether they are students with and without disabilities. These days, one common job for all school psychologists is to make sure that schools are ready to handle crisis and trauma, and today we’re gonna talk about what the job of a school psychologist is and how they impact the lives of our kids. Joining on the show today are some super talented individuals, Dr. John Kelly, who is a school psychologist with the Commack School District in Long Island, New York, way to go Long Island. And he’s also an adjunct professor at St. John’s University and the President of the Board of Directors for the National Association of School Psychologists. Also joining us is Shawna Rader Kelly, who is a school psychologist for the Bozeman Public Schools in Montana, way out there, and she’s also on the Board of Directors for the National Association of School Psychologists as a strategic liaison for professional advocacy. Welcome, Dr. Kelly and Ms. Rader Kelly. I am so glad to have you both on the show.

SHAWNA RADER KELLY: Thank you Mary.

MARY: And we’re gonna kick off the first question to, we tossed the coin, just like they do in the Super Bowl and Ms. Rader Kelly, she got heads or tails, I can’t remember which, so she’s gonna get the first question which is simply, what is the job of a school psychologist?

RADER KELLY: Well Mary, you gave a great introduction to what we do. School psychologists are psychologists and we have specialized training that equips us to work in school environments. Our graduate training and preparation is unique in that it’s relevant both to the fields of psychology and education. We have expertise in child development, learning, academic skill, and mental and behavioral health. And we also have the skills necessary for the assessment, identification, and the treatment of disabilities, and we often work with teams to determine eligibility for educational services and to develop plans to meet individual student needs. We provide both direct and indirect services to children and families, as you mentioned, in order to support student learning and to improve educational outcomes, but we also provide services within the school system itself, and that includes consultations to teachers and other staff members and administrators, and we work collaboratively with school teams to improve educational experiences for all students. As you mentioned, a primary focus of our work is in providing preventative services to ensure that all children and youth derive and experience positive educational outcomes in their schools.

MARY: Oh my god, that is one crazy job description. That sounds like a lot for one person to do.

RADER KELLY: We stay busy.

DR. JOHN KELLY: It certainly is, Mary, I think there’s a lot and I appreciate how comprehensive Shawna was. I always like to say that the work of school psychologists, we are educational enhancers. All of our work, whether it be the direct work we do with students, the consultation we do with teachers, or working with parents, truly meant to enhance the educational opportunities for the kids.

MARY: Well that’s, you know, that’s nice to think that a school in advance would have somebody in the building who is there to just enhance the educational opportunities. I guess everybody in the building is supposed to be doing that but there’s something special about having a school psychologist around to have an eye towards some of those other skills that are needed in order to be able to access the curriculum, as they call it. So I’m wondering about some schools have school psychologists, some don’t. What’s up with that?

DR. KELLY: Well I think that quite honestly, most school districts are going to have a school psychologist. Not every school may have a full-time school psychologist there. It really, it depends upon the focus that the administrators have at the school, it depends upon the needs of the students at the school, and quite honestly, it depends upon the availability. There is unfortunately a shortage of school psychologists nationwide and sometimes that does limit the availability of school psychologists for certain schools.

MARY: Wait a minute, I just heard all these great things about school psychologists and there’s a shortage? Uh oh, we’ve gotta make sure that this podcast is really amazing so that we attract more people to the field, right?

RADER KELLY: We’d love that.

DR. KELLY: You know, I think it would be great, the good news is that school psychology as a profession actually is rated as one of the top professions in the entire nation for about three, four years in a row now, school psychology’s been rated a top profession. And so it’s not a matter of attracting folks to the field itself, unfortunately there are a variety of factors that impact. It really depends upon what area of the country that you live in. Some states simply don’t have enough training programs to fill the needs, some are more related to rural settings of states, things of that nature, so it’s a host of issues that contribute to the shortages but absolutely I think we would love to be able to fill those shortages and meet those needs of those kids.

MARY: So that’s awesome and one of the things that I know people are looking for in jobs these days is to have some real feel, real connection with people, to feel like they’re making a difference and I would imagine that’s one of the things that rates a school psychologist as a high desirable profession. So let me ask Ms. Rader Kelly, can you talk about how does a school psychologist touch the lives of students?

RADER KELLY: Well John and I are both lucky to be employed in our schools full time, so I feel like that provides me with the ability to really be a part of this school school community and to be a part of the faculty and that really helps me to be able to be here for all of the kids who are in this building. Not all school psychologists have that ability to be in their school full time, but just about every school will have a school psychologist who is there for at least a portion of time, whether it’s a couple of days a week or on a part time basis. We do a lot of work universally and preventatively where we work with school teams, teachers, administrators to develop school programs that are beneficial for all students, and when students need additional supports, school psychologists can be part of the teams that help to determine what those supports are going to look like and hopefully we’re able to be part of the service delivery for those supports and those interventions and that’s where the direct service comes when we’re able to work directly with students and with families to provide them with some of those more intensive supports and services that they might need, whether it’s for a short term period of time or whether we need to work with a student for a longer time period.

MARY: Alright, so I’m a parent and something is going on in the world, or something has gone on more locally actually that may or may not have impacted my child or has impacted the city where we live. What can I expect out of a school psychologist?

DR. KELLY: Well, I think there’s a couple things you could certainly expect. One is that school psychologists I think as Shawna has outlined, are well trained to deal with whether it be a crisis event or some other type of trauma has occurred, as you said in your local area. And so that is going to be one of the mental health professionals in the building that certainly can assist in helping your child or really any child who may be impacted by that particular situation. In general, there are teams of mental health professionals and educators that work together in the schools and so depending upon the need of your child, it will really determine what level of service they’ll receive.

MARY: So if I, so I’m a parent, if I think that there’s something going on with my child, if I’m worried about their mental health, whether an ongoing issue or just something that’s come up, what do I do? I don’t know who the school psychologist is, so how do I access that professional?

RADER KELLY: Well I think the school psychologist is a great person in a building to assist with a concern such as you mentioned, Mary. I think different schools will have different procedures for how supports are accessed and it might be very different at different grade levels, but I think contacting a classroom teacher, contacting administrator or contacting the school-employed mental health professional directly, including the school psychologist, is one way to begin that process of getting some of the assistance that might be needed to help that student educationally. School psychologists can be a great entry point for starting those conversations and as John mentioned, our goal is to work collaboratively with the school team and that includes other school-employed mental health professionals and includes classroom teachers, it includes administrators. How each school does that might look a little bit differently but I think what is universally true about our profession is that school psychologists are a great asset to that team and we’re a great entry point to beginning some of those conversations about how we can support students’ mental health.

DR. KELLY: And what I would say, just in addition to that, is that I think everything that Shawna just outlined there is absolutely correct. If you lived in my area and lived in my district, you might have direct access to me. Parents have direct access to me as the school psychologist. But again, because of the variability of services that are offered across the country, in general I think that parents are wise to look for the building-level team as you keep hearing Shawna and I talk about. There’s usually some level of a team that exists, whether it’s called the child study team, or student study team, there are varying names that are out there. And parents can generally access services directly through that building-level team if in fact they can’t get to the school psychologist directly.

MARY: Okay. So I know school psychologists, maybe there’s just one or two and there’s quite a number of kids and there’s lots of issues going on. So the main point of contact that a parent has is usually the classroom teacher. So what kind of relationship can a parent expect that the school psychologist would have with the classroom teacher? What kind of information flow do you suggest go on between a school psychologist and a teacher, so that that teacher who wears so many hats already but I guess becomes like a gatekeeper for mental health issues in the classroom, is that fair to say?

DR. KELLY: Well hopefully it’s a really good relationship and what I mean by that is you’re right, the classroom teacher’s often the person on the front lines, the person who obviously spends the most time with the child, whether it be at the elementary or the secondary level. And so they do play a critical role and oftentimes parents do reach out directly to teachers for that. And when that does occur, oftentimes the teachers will come directly to the school psychologist to raise concerns or raise concern that a parent may have brought to them. Through what we call a collaborative or consultative process, we will work directly with those teachers and so I was being a little facetious before but I meant it that I really hope that there’s a good relationship between the teacher and the school psychologist because through that consultation, the school psychologist may not provide a direct service to the child, but they could certainly assist in giving information to the teacher, things that the teacher can do in the classroom, or serve in a consultative role to the parent and things that the parent can do at home to assist the child. If in fact there is a need for more individualized or direct services, then of course the school psychologist can be one of the individuals that may provide that, but I think you’re absolutely correct. There has to be a very good relationship, there has to be a flow of information between the teacher and the school psychologist.

MARY: Yeah, I just, I’m thinking about the lives of teachers and all the different roles that they have to play in today’s classroom and they would be, they’d be remiss to not be sort of on the fly school psychologists themselves, I guess, dealing with any number of issues and using the school psychologist as a resource for how to handle issues like bullying, for instance, is one of the big, hot-button issues these days. I’d imagine that that would be a topic that school psychologists across the nation are touching base with classroom teachers about.

RADER KELLY: Yeah, yeah. I would agree, I think bullying is certainly an important topic and certainly one that I think many, if not most school psychologists are involved in. I think about this as occurring at a number of levels. We want to first ensure that we have good positive school climate and so working with administrative teams to ensure that the school climate as a whole is one that’s positive to students is important, and then I also think that providing those direct supports to students and to families when bullying has occurred is helpful as well, and that’s oftentimes a role that we’ll play, as well as consulting with classroom teachers and with other support staff to ensure that we are creating environments that are going to foster positive, healthy relationships for all kids.

MARY: Alright.

DR. KELLY: And Mary, what I would add there Mary is simply the, you had said before that you would certainly hope that the teachers would view the school psychologists as a resource. I think that that’s a critical point to make. I would never ask a teacher to either engage in some activity that they weren’t trained to engage in or maybe they didn’t feel comfortable engaging in, and so that relationship becomes a critical component of looking at the resources that they do have, and not asking them to play a role, that maybe they’re just not comfortable or not trained to actually engage in. Now we all have a role in bullying prevention and intervention and certainly the school psychologist plays a critical role in helping to establish those environments as Shawna talked about, the classroom teacher has an important role in establishing order within the classroom and control within the classroom.

MARY: So what goes on though, so if I have a worry as a parent and my school maybe doesn’t have a school psychologist, or the teacher just isn’t quite informed on where to go. What would be your recommendation for that parent, where should they turn to be able to access that kind of resource?

DR. KELLY: Well I think the good news is that in general, schools are taking the mental health needs of children much more seriously, and so I’m gonna say to you that most schools are going to have some level of support, whether it be a school psychologist, a school social worker, a school counselor, some type of sometimes they’re called student assistance counselors, so the school will in all likelihood have some level of support. There are some areas of the country that actually will connect with community supports, community agencies to provide those types of supports, and so if I’m a parent and I have concerns about my son or my daughter, I wanna reach out to the school and again, the teacher may be that first line of contact. At the upper levels, the middle school, high school type of level, the school counselor may be the first person to contact. I would always say that the administrator, the principal is an important person to contact and then they can go from there.

MARY: Got it, okay. So we can rely on that being, parents out there, you can rely on there’s going to be a mental health professional somewhere who’s going to be able to give you some advice or feedback and point you in the right direction, so that’s really good news. So one of the things I did wanna ask you all about is the role of school psychologists since 9/11, since Columbine, with so many of the things that are going on in our world that students have to contend with. What has been the change, how has there, what has the relationship of the school psychologist to the student, to ensuring the mental health, safety of school, how has that changed in recent years?

RADER KELLY: I think one of the things that we’ve seen in our profession and also our practice is an emphasis on those preventative services that address things like school climate and address things like bullying, but we also see ourselves as experts in crisis intervention and crisis response, and I’ve been very proud to see our National Association and our profession take a lead in developing crisis response resources to assist schools in both preventing school violence and crisis within schools but also helping schools to develop comprehensive school safety plans and plans for school crisis response, and I think we’ve definitely seen a shift in the emphasis of that piece of our role and I think it’s one that we have a lot of expertise to support and one that a lot of our fellow colleagues, a role that they really see themselves in in their schools.

DR. KELLY: I love that piece, what Shawna just added there, because I think that what we know and what we certainly learned was that you need to have plans in place long before a crisis actually occurs, and so that crisis preparedness is very, very important. However, what we’ve also learned is really the focus on the impact of trauma or what we call adverse childhood experiences on children, and not only academically but socially, emotionally, physically their development, and so schools are much more what we call trauma-informed and what that simply means is that we recognize the impact of trauma, we’re learning how to support children who have experienced some type of adverse experience, and teachers are actually able to engage students differently in the classroom when they understand what a child is bringing into that classroom from the outside.

MARY: So how do I know if my school is a trauma-informed school? What are some of the buzzwords, or what does it look like?

DR. KELLY: Well I think Shawna outlined a couple of them, I think if you, your school has some type of crisis preparedness, some type of crisis plan in place, that to me would be one good indicator that they’re thinking about these issues. I think that the other piece that I would look for is how is the school supporting kids who may come from violent environments or live in communities that are in chaos or have family issues that interfere with the child’s ability to actually function in the classroom. Those are to me signs that schools are trauma-informed because they’re thinking about what the child is bringing into the school from outside the school itself.

RADER KELLY: I think another buzzword to be aware of and I don’t think it’s a buzzword, I think it’s a really important term, is social-emotional learning or SEL, and so schools that are engaged in good social-emotional learning practices will have social and emotional curriculum and activities built into how they do business in their school, that will be part of the instruction and that will be part of the engagement with students is on that social and emotional level, and I think what that tells us is that it’s a comprehensive school that’s not just looking at academics but we’re looking at developing the whole child and helping to not just respond to what they might be coming to school with but also to build and foster resiliency so that they see success in school.

MARY: I see this like as a big umbrella. I see the school psychologist as just floating a really big umbrella that has to capture all of the things that a student must bring to the school in order to be successful, all the social emotional competencies, all the academic readiness, it just appears that the school psychologist sort of maybe like a glue or one of the important pieces of the glue that keeps the school running, that keeps a student in the seats in the classroom, and that hopefully leads to success of that student in the school setting.

DR. KELLY: Well I love that image, Mary, it’s a beautiful image. What I will say to you is that it all depends upon does the school have the proper ratio of school psychologists to the number of students. If that ratio is just so large, it’s very difficult for the school psychologists to in fact be that, as you said, umbrella. And unfortunately a lot of times there’s less coverage when that ratio is very large. We advocate for ratio of about one school psychologist to every 500 to 700 students, and so when you have that type of ratio, yes in fact the school psychologist can be more that umbrella umbrella and provide that comprehensive service.

RADER KELLY: I think a lot depends on the culture of the school or the district in which the school psychologist works as well. We know that we have a number of practitioners who are operating under less than ideal conditions in terms of those ratios, but if the school culture really supports that comprehensive role and broad-based school psychological practices, there are ways to accomplish that with ratios that aren’t perfect and so I agree with John that it’s the ratio and I also think it has something to do with the culture and where the priorities are in that building in terms of how they use the time of everyone on their team, including the school psychologist.

MARY: Well I guess that that also is a point of potential advocacy for a parent, wanting to make sure that the work of a school psychologist is included on the team of the school, that the school is trauma informed, because if a number of parents speak up and ask for that kind of level of attention in the school setting, I would imagine that that would need to be listened to and that would help the school psychologist perhaps in their role and what they want to do anyway. So I’m always advocating for ways for the parents to speak up for the services that are needed.

DR. KELLY: We certainly appreciate that advocacy, Mary, and quite honestly, parents genuinely are partners in education and we need to really view each other in that fashion and recognize that for me, the parent is an important member of that school team that we’ve been talking about throughout today’s podcast and so I want parents to see the vital role that they play, and certainly yes, their role as advocates in making sure that the school has the proper service and if they don’t, being able to advocate for those services.

MARY: Excellent. Well, this is a very, very important conversation, and the role that school psychologists play is something that I believe that they are probably, am I right, probably don’t get the recognition that they deserve, they’re probably in the corners, in the quiet, little bit behind the scenes, making sure that things are running well and you only hear about things when, hear about them when things are not going well, but when things are going well, then you know that a school psychologist might’ve had their hand involved in that. So kudos to the both of you for doing that in your respective districts and for all the school psychologists out there who day in and day out go in and do the work to make sure that our kids are healthy and happy and contributing to society, so I wanna thank you very much Dr. Kelly and Ms. Rader Kelly for your work and for coming on the show and sharing your expertise.

DR. KELLY: Thank you so much, Mary.

RADER KELLY: Thank you, thank you Mary.

MARY: Alright, everyone. So this was a good chat. I enjoyed very much chatting with Dr. John Kelly and Ms. Rader Kelly, and they are two individuals who spend every day going into their place of work, making sure that kids are getting the most out of their school day. I mean, what greater people can there be than that? They’re there dedicated to make sure that your student is going to be mentally sound and be able to access the curriculum and I’m certainly proud of that as a profession and really hopeful that even more people will turn to school psychology as something that they’d like to do. So thanks for listening, and you’ve been at the Inclusion Zone. Thanks so much.