Adults don’t go to work and leave their personal lives, problems and feelings at the door. Neither do kids at school.
Academic experiences do not exist in a vacuum, even if traditionally, we have treated home and school as largely separate and non-overlapping spheres.
This has long clashed with both students’ and teachers’ lived experiences. For the latter, a common feeling is that they need to “play therapist” or social worker with students who are clearly impacted by disrupted home lives and undiagnosed learning differences, despite other pressures they face against a backdrop of already insufficient support.
The need for high-quality and comprehensive psychological services in school, addressing both educational and general mental health concerns, is acute. A 10-year study among high school students compiled by the CDC found that persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness were present in more than a third, and close to 16% had either contemplated or planned suicide. This, of course, was well before the COVID-19 pandemic, at which point nearly 30% of American parents told the pollster Gallup that their children’s mental health was being actively harmed by its impact.
This is merely a broad backdrop. The stark truth is that many students struggle in school because of problems at home. Due to financial constraints or other family issues, caregivers’ work obligations often mean that they cannot devote time to help their kids with homework, or become involved in issues they are facing at school.
As well, many students have learning differences, diagnosed and recognized or otherwise. At Psyched Services, we are careful and sparing in our use of the term “disability,” because stigma, including on the part of parents and educators, is a leading reason why children are often seen as struggling but are left unassessed and unhelped. A fear that goes both wide and deep is that the impact of a diagnosis can do more harm than good – in some ways, a fear that is not totally unfounded.
How can school psychology become stronger?
There are a few things we need to do to ensure that psychological services in schools are operating at their greatest capacity.
The first, of course, is addressing the school psychology shortage in the first place, for which there are plenty of troubling statistics – and no easy answers.
One of the strongest tools we do have is advocacy – in front of school districts, local and state governments, and even the federal government. When there are enough of us, we can spot challenges as they arise. We can be kids’ indispensable voice on matters like pandemic-related disruptions, developmental questions, and the impacts of school policy changes and even the importance of school meals to cohesion and academic success.
The need for diversification
In a profession where it is estimated that women comprise nearly 80% of the workforce, school psychology training and recruiting needs to be broadened to both men – in particular, Black American men and other men of color – as well as nonbinary individuals.
These voices matter, and feeling one’s self reflected in the person they are working with and speaking with can make a world of difference in the life of a child who is struggling.
Beyond the acronyms: Rethinking approaches to behavior
For a while, psychologists noticed many parents and teachers loosely using terms like oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) to grapple with kids who seemed to have trouble taking direction, or were angry and withdrawn. While well-intentioned, an imprecise approach to these concerns causes more harm than good.
To meet every child where they are and help lift them up to full potential, the profession needs to take a broader view of “discipline” and behavioral performance. Are we potentially pathologizing students too much? And what is the evidence that systems in place at the local level are feeding negative systems like the school-to-prison pipeline?
Different approaches can bring about transformative change. For example, research evidence suggests that tactics like the implementation of school-wide, positive behavior reinforcements can tangibly improve academic performance – at least through test scores – by as high as 25%.
How our own words can combat – or feed – stigma
Third, school psychology needs to take a fresh look at its collective and individual roles in educating against stigma. Some of this involves simple steps, such as providing parent education training, delivering class-wide social skills training, or ensuring that school crisis teams have the additional support they need – indeed, just a few things that our team of trained psychologists at Psyched Services provides.
Professionals also need to consider whether words and actions empower kids, or potentially hold them back, even unwittingly so. Some students with a diagnosed learning difference, for instance, can begin to feel incapable or weakened rather than empowered, because they are focusing on things they believe their diagnosis is telling them they cannot or will not do in school or life. This can truly make a diagnosis worse than a lack of one. Kids might struggle, but at least they don’t feel suffocated by a label.
Psyched Services, for our part, thinks beyond labels in working with both students and their parents. We’re realistic. We also talk as much, if not more so, about possibilities not limitations. Diagnoses are not a destination. If used right, they are instead a source of fuel on the road to success.
Why we do what we do
One core thing is essential to keep in mind. Providing proper therapeutic support is not just about improving a child’s ability to learn and function. Instead, it touches at the very heart of why we send kids to school at all: to prepare them for whatever comes next and to empower them to live healthy, positive lives at their fullest potential.
We see the heart, soul, and long hours you put into helping others. We know it's because you truly care, and you love what you do. At Psyched Services, we care too. We're here to support the supporters and that’s why we developed Learn.Do by Psyched Services, online courses to equip school psychologists with the skills to help students learn, so they can do.