It’s no secret that our nation’s schools are wrought with financial stress. From rapidly changing student populations to daily advancements in research and technology, districts are scrambling to keep up –– and not just with academics. Look in any classroom and you’ll find students with medical, socioeconomic, mental health, and experiential needs, too.

As you may know, cases of anxiety and depression are alarmingly high in school-age children right now. Do a quick search and you’ll find titles like, The Decline of Play and Rise in Children’s Mental Disorders or The Rise of Teen Depression. As of 2002, nearly 80 percent  of children with mental issues were not receiving the help they needed. Between budget cuts and staff shortages, we can’t imagine that number has improved.

With so much competition for a slice of district budgets, how do schools meet ALL needs? Well, the short answer is that they probably can’t, but that doesn’t stop them from trying.  And while there may be shortages in staff, there is no shortage of dedicated professionals giving their all to help kids.

Today, in honor of school psychology awareness week, we introduce you to one such group. We admit we’re biased, but we think prioritizing school psychologists is a worthwhile investment that districts won’t regret.

School Psychology: The Profession

Not only do school psychologists have expertise in mental health, learning, and behavior, but they’re specifically trained (and motivated!) to partner with families, teachers, school administrators, and other professionals to address a wealth of student needs (we’re talking MTSS Tier 1 through Tier 3). They screen for learning and mental health issues, provide crisis intervention, connect families with outside support, provide parent and teacher trainings, support teachers with plans and progress monitoring, provide individual and group counseling, and help design and implement school-wide practices that promote SEL and academic growth (see Who are School Psychologists?).

School Psychology: The Shortage

Unfortunately, in order to address budget cuts while still meeting the requirements of IDEA, districts often relegate school psychologists solely to the task of special education assessment (related article: School psychologists feel the squeeze). This means that by the time they connect with students, the chance for early intervention has long passed. Since early intervention can literally alter the trajectory of some disorders (high-functioning autism, for example), this is not only frustrating, it contributes to a disappointing paradox: school psychologists are simultaneously underutilized and overworked.

At present, the National Association of School Psychologists estimates that there is one school psychologist for every 1,400 students (well over the recommended ratio of one to 700, or one to 500 for needier populations). Naturally, this means burnout for those left with large caseloads, legally mandated deadlines, multiple campuses, and too few hours in the day.

So, what’s at stake?

  • Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) – School psychologists provide comprehensive and integrated support to parents, teachers, and kids.  These services improve academic achievement, promote positive behavior and mental health, support diverse learners, create positive school climates, and improve school-wide assessment and accountability. School psychologists are the perfect match for districts moving toward MTSS.

  • District Resources – By the time a special education referral packet makes its way to the school psychologist, teachers, parents, counselors, and administrators have typically invested a lot of time and energy. In our experience, Student Support Teams (SSTs) are passionate about helping kids and work tirelessly to do so. Unfortunately, working hard isn’t enough if the interventions aren’t right. Up front collaboration with a school psychologist can save everyone time, money, and energy.

  • Child Find – School psychologists not only identify disabilities under IDEA, they are skilled at recognizing and screening for early signs of a disorder. Since many students struggle because of external factors, such as poverty, high-mobility, or trauma (this is a great related article), SSTs can be hesitant to refer for special education. Time and time again, we’ve seen well-intentioned schools delay Child Find because they misread delays in development. School psychologists offer training and consultation to help teams hone their skills and recognize red flags early on.

School Psychology: The Solution

There might not be a magic wand to suddenly solve budget constraints and increase the number of school psychologists in your area, but there are some things schools can do to reduce burnout and retain staff. As with all professions, the key is to minimize work-related stress, maximize collaboration and mentorship, and structure the environment to promote efficiency.  The Thriving School Psychologist is a great resource for schools looking to address this topic.

Here are some other ways your district can help:

  • Offer stipends for professional development and training

  • Host district-level psychologist meetings

  • Prioritize lower caseloads

  • Provide necessary tools (such as online scoring and the latest version of test kits)

  • Ensure private work spaces

  • Encourage and support self-care (in a previous post, we offered school-based mindfulness practices as one way to do this)

A word about Psyched Services — 

As school psychologists, we entered this field because we believe in the unique power of educators to change lives. As former public school employees, we understand and respect the challenges they face in doing so. Our school psychs, BCBAs, and LEPs are passionate about supporting schools so that they can support kids. Could your teachers use some solution-focused problem-solving? Behavior tips?  Moral support? We developed Pocket Coaching with their needs in mind. With just a few short video-conferences, we can help bridge the gap between assessment and intervention. If your district’s needs are more involved, we offer staff development, psychoeducational assessment, Educationally Related Mental Health Services (ERMHS), Functional Behavior Assessments (FBAs), and intervention follow-through. Whether you need last-minute coverage or ongoing support, let us know how we can help!