What School Psychologists do for the Mental Health of Children and Youth
by Steven R. Shaw, PhD, NCSP
School psychology is a specialized professional practice of psychology. School psychology is the intersection of cognitive, clinical, behavioural, neurological, and developmental psychology with strong understanding of teaching, schooling, and educational systems—all for the benefit of children and youth. Because of its diversity, school psychology is the most underestimated and misunderstood branch of the practice of psychology.
In the field of school psychology, the knowledge and skills of the science of psychology are applied in schools – where students, teachers, and parents are connected. The goal of the profession is to support the healthy development of children and youth in school and other settings. School psychologists use observational skills, interviewing, testing and assessment, counselling, consultation, mental health expertise, academic interventions, and systems change skills to meet this goal (Canadian Psychological Association, 2007). Because support and services are provided in schools, this allows for the prompt intervention to prevent or circumvent severe mental health and academic problems. In addition, when schools are faced with crisis situations, school psychologists are there to support and intervene through violence de-escalation strategies, suicide risk assessment and intervention, and trauma and critical incidence intervention.
School psychologists are among the most highly educated mental health professionals: they obtain education at the master’s or at the doctoral level, which is followed by fulfilling rigorous licensing requirements set by the provincial/territorial regulating bodies. Because of their expertise in the much-needed domain of assessment, many school psychologists are known for assessment and diagnosis of academic and mental health problems. Yet, their training goes well beyond assessment.
All school psychologists receive training and supervised experience in mental health counselling and mental health interventions, program evaluation, research and data analysis, ethics and law, consultation and systems change, neurodevelopmental disabilities, suicide risk assessment, crisis intervention, and multicultural interventions. Additionally, many school psychologists have sub- specialty areas of expertise. The best way to think of school psychologists is as data-based decision makers and experts in the making specialized mental health and academic interventions for children and youth in the real world setting of schools (NASP, 2020).
Psychologists working in other fields rarely have the opportunity or privilege of preventing problems and promoting mental health. Instead, they are there to react to when presenting problems become severe. This is the magic of school psychology: there is the opportunity and the ability to have a positive impact on the life of every single child and youth on a large scale, stable, consistent, and long-term basis.
School psychology follows the public health model, which suggests that prevention is more effective and beneficial to society than being reactive and responding to problems already in place. In school psychology, this goal is achieved using a tiered model of service delivery: primary or universal mental health promotion and prevention, secondary or targeted and swift intervention for emerging problems; and tertiary intervention, including comprehensive assessments and planning for more serious problems.
Mental health care of Canadian children, whether preventative, in response to stressors, or severe in nature requires a professional response. Most children receive their first experience with a mental health service provider in a school setting. Providing for children’s mental health needs where children and youth spend the most time is a logical and efficient form of service delivery. However, due to the extreme shortage of school psychologists, the most well-qualified professionals in a school board are often not involved in planning, implementing, and evaluating effective mental health interventions. In the current challenging and stressful times, Canadian children and youth benefit from access to these highly qualified professionals as central figures in coordinating and providing mental health care.
The COVID-19 pandemic has placed the role of school psychologists front and centre (APA, 2021). Because of stressors, medical issues, and the educational and social disruptions; the mental health and educational development of children and youth are at risk. The need to address risk factors for mental health problems, remediating academic development disruption, supporting children and youth with family disruption, managing anxiety, considering the role of inequity and social justice for interventions, monitoring for signs of risk of future mental health concern, and helping to create a supportive school climate have become more urgent in pandemic times (Vaillancourt et al, 2021).
Because school psychologists are integral members of the educational community, they are very familiar with the school culture in which they work. Being the right person in the right place at the right time with the right tools to meet the need is the real advantage of the school psychologist’s job!
Steven Shaw is an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology at McGill University in Montreal, QC, Canada.
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American Psychological Association. (2021). Written Testimony of Arthur C. Evans, Jr., PhD, Chief Executive Officer, American Psychological Association: Putting Kids First: Addressing COVID-19’s Impacts on Children. Before the U.S. House of Representatives, House Committee on Energy and Committee, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
Canadian Psychological Association. (2007). Professional practice guidelines for school psychologists in Canada. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. https://cpa.ca/cpasite/UserFiles/Documents/publications/CPA%20Practice%20Guide.pdf
National Association of School Psychologists (2020). Model for Comprehensive and Integrated School Psychological Services. https://www.nasponline.org/standards-and-certification/nasp-practice-model. https://www.nasponline.org/standards-and-certification/nasp-practice-model
Vaillancourt, T., Beauchamp, M., Brown, C., Buffone, P., Comeau, J., Davies, S., Figueiredo, M., Finn, C., Hargreaves, A., McDougall, P., McNamara, L., Szatmari, P., Waddell, C., Westheimer, J., & Whitley, J. (2021) Children and Schools During COVID-19 and Beyond: Engagement and Connection Through Opportunity. Royal Society of Canada.