School psychologists and ethics: What do you do when you get stuck?

We want to do right as school psychologists – but when it comes to ethical considerations, it is easy to find ourselves in hard-to-navigate places. 

Our role involves close engagement with various stakeholders in a student’s education, from administrators and educators on the one hand to parents and guardians on the other, with the child or young person themselves in the middle. 

We don’t so much transcend these different stakeholders as we work within the interstitial spaces between them. And sometimes, that results in ethical dilemmas: When doing right by one can sometimes feel like dissatisfying or even doing wrong by the other. It begs the question: when it comes to ethics, what do school psychs do when they get stuck?

School psychologists think about ethics – but not always within specific frameworks

School psychs rely on evidence based practices in special education. But while most imagine they’re prepared for ethical dilemmas, they might have a harder time thinking through either hypothetical challenges presented to them or real ones they encounter. Many don’t use specific frameworks to navigate these challenges, which can make things even more confusing.

School psychologists should consider legal and ethical ramifications of decisions made in schools. Ethical principles have been established by both the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) and by the American Psychological Association (APA). There are also a few schools of thought that distill ethics into core principles that psychologists can follow.

Thinking about ethics: Jacob, Decker, and Lugg (2016)

In Ethics and Law for School Psychologists, researchers identified four broad ethical principles in school psychology work:

  • Respect for individual dignity, including a person’s self-determination and autonomy. This includes things like adhering to standards for consent and confidentiality, and considering fairness and justice in regards to identity, such as through ethnicity, disabilities, sexual orientation or gender identity and socioeconomic background
  • Responsible caring, which involves a psychologist’s competency and their responsibility to do no harm and maximize the benefit of their services
  • Honesty and integrity in professional relationships. This includes honesty in how psychologists present themselves, their services, and their competency, as well as respecting other professionals’ areas of expertise and cooperating with them in their work
  • Responsibilities to schools, families, communities, the psychology profession, and society at large, which includes adherence to local, state and federal laws, contributing to the profession, and supporting both current and future colleagues.

Making ethical decisions: Koocher & Keith-Spiegel (2016)

In Ethics in Psychology and the Mental Health Professions: Standards and Cases, two academics consider exactly how standards like the ones above would be applied in real-life scenarios. There are nine steps involved here.

  1. Determine if the matter in question truly involves ethics
  2. Consult guidelines already available that might apply as a possible mechanism for solution
  3. Pause, to consider, as best as possible, all factors that could influence the decision being made
  4. Consult a colleague
  5. Evaluate the rights, responsibilities, and vulnerabilities of all affected parties
  6. Generate alternative decisions
  7. Enumerate the consequences of making each decision
  8. Make the decision
  9. Implement the decision

Ethical decision-making in action: The use of vignettes

Practicing with vignettes, or the use of scenarios to try and map out the ethical decision points involved in a situation, can help you either practice or focus your mind. Vignettes naturally have a problem-solving framework. Many textbooks and training materials will offer them, but instead of making one up in your head, you might consider any past situation in which the following prompts apply:

  • Who was involved in the situation? The word “stakeholders” might help you here to separate main players from ones who bore minimal to no impact from the outcome
  • What was the main dilemma?
  • What were some of the conditions or influences that may have contributed to the situation?
  • What solutions, if any, were already tried – and what were their consequences?
  • What solution did you think of? What were the consequences?
  • What went well? What could have been done differently or gone better? 

When thinking about old situations you’ve encountered, these steps can work even if you didn’t handle them in a way you wished you had.

Remember, “the right thing” can be different for each side in a situation of disagreement or conflict. Technically, even science suggests that multiple perceptions of the same object can contradict each other – and yet still be true. Ethics is often a balancing act in practice – and it’s worth noting that neat, philosophical resolutions are usually impossible in the real world. 

Despite the innumerable rewards of our work, the job of a school psychologist can sometimes feel a bit like being on an island. At Psyched, we believe collaboration is the key to success, which is why each assessment has two clinicians assigned. Working together can support the process of making ethical decisions.

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