A School Psychologist’s Role in Helping Your Child
It’s that time of year again. That time when camps end, pools are closed, and our kids squeeze their sun-kissed skin into new shirts and jeans, pack up their fresh school supplies into crisp, unstained (as of yet) book bags, and we as parents lament (or rejoice) the beginning of a new school year.
For some kids, the beginning of school is exciting – a time to rejoin with old friends and make new ones, and continue their progress in their own coming-of-age stories. For some kids, however, (and parents too) the start of school is an anxiety-producing event. This can be especially true when your child struggles.
Schools are set up with a system of supports designed to help those children who struggle. Among those supports is a School Psychologist. However, even with supports in place, many parents are still very much in the dark as to what they can do to access available resources. Here’s a quick run-down on one resource parents can tap into today: your friendly neighborhood School Psychologist.
Who is the School Psychologist?
You may not even realize that your school has a school psychologist, and that she can help you and your child navigate academic difficulties. They often work behind the scenes, tucked away in random school utility closets or storage spaces we affectionately refer to as “cloffices”.
For those who are aware that their district has a school psychologist, they may think that their days are filled with therapy sessions for children going through emotionally trying times, or for those who need anger management or social skills training – very much like what a school counselor may do. Actually, school psychologists and school counselors are often mistaken for each other, but, in fact, play very different roles within the school system.
Nevertheless, like a school counselor or a school social worker, a school psychologist works within the educational setting, helping students, teachers, and parents. Their role can vary widely from state to state. While counseling can be one function of a school psychologist, it is usually not the primary one.
The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) defines school psychologists as “uniquely qualified members of school teams that support students’ ability to learn and teachers’ ability to teach. They apply expertise in mental health, learning, and behavior, to help children and youth succeed academically, socially, behaviorally, and emotionally.”
What does a School Psychologist do?
In any given school, you can find a school psychologist evaluating students for disabilities, consulting with teachers on ways to help students who are struggling in their classrooms, tracking student growth, serving on school problem-solving teams, developing strategies to help children who are having trouble sitting still or otherwise acting out in class, providing group and individual counseling, working alongside other school staff on crisis response teams, and acting as a liaison between a student’s family, doctor(s), community mental health support agencies, and the school.
Usually, you will not meet your school’s psychologist unless your child is having trouble at school. At that point, your child would be referred to a school-based support team whose goal is to come up with ways to help your child get back on track. This team might be called Response to Intervention (RtI), Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS), or Student Assistance Team (SAT), among other titles. The acronym differs depending on the state or city in which you live, but whatever the letters your school district adopts for this special task force, the school psychologist is often a member.
What is your role, as a parent?
As a parent, you play an important role on this team. For one, you bring to the table valuable knowledge about your child. You know about things going on in his life that may be troubling him and getting in the way of his learning (like a divorce, death of a loved one, or other big family change, for example). It can be intimidating to go into a room full of school staff and specialists, but remember, you are the expert on your child, and your voice counts!
A school psychologist is also there to be an advocate for your child and for you. He or she will work with you and this team in coming up with ways to meet your child’s academic, social, and/or emotional needs at that moment.
Once a plan of action is decided upon, the school psychologist keeps track of your child over the following few weeks to see if she is making any progress. If she does, great! That means they found out how she learns best and will continue to use those strategies to help her. If no progress is seen, the school psychologist will meet back with you and the school team to come up with another plan.
Sometimes, however, even after trying multiple strategies, your child may still be struggling. At that point, the school support team may choose to refer your child to the special education department of your school. The reason behind this would be to figure out if your child has a disability that is getting in the way of her learning. A school psychologist will move with you onto this next step, and play one of the crucial roles in determining whether or not a disability is present.
What about Special Education?
Special education functions beneath the umbrella of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law with the purpose of protecting the rights of children with disabilities and giving parents a voice in their child’s education.
There are 14 disability categories covered under IDEA that a school psychologist can help identify. They are:
- Developmental delay
- Emotional disturbance
- Hearing impairment
- Intellectual disability
- Multiple disabilities
- Orthopedic impairment
- Other health impairment (including ADHD)
- Specific learning disability (including dyslexia, dyscalculia and dysgraphia, among others)
- Speech or language impairment
- Traumatic brain injury
- Visual impairment, including blindness
As a parent, you must give your permission before any evaluations can be completed with your child to see if one of these disabilities is present. Only after you do, will a school psychologist or any other specialist be able to meet with your child to complete evaluations.
A school psychologist may administer tests that measure your child’s learning style and problem-solving skills, or intellectual potential (IQ). They also can assess your child’s current academic abilities in reading, math, writing, and oral language. Other areas a school psychologist may assess are social skills, emotional problems, behavioral concerns, organizational skills, or your child’s independence in daily living tasks.
The school psychologist’s evaluation may be done in addition to communication, sensory, and/or motor evaluations by other specialists, including speech/language pathologists, occupational therapists, and physical therapists. The evaluations completed will depend on your child’s particular needs.
Once the testing is completed, school psychologists will put together all the information that has been gathered and write up a report (of which you will get a copy). They will interpret all the data and come up with a practical picture of your child’s strengths and needs.
The school psychologist then attends a meeting with you in order to interpret and explain the results to you and to your child’s teachers. At that point, the team (of which you are a part) will decide if your child has a disability that requires special education services.
It is important to note that, even if your child has a disability, it does not automatically mean he needs special education services. There are three questions that must be answered before that decision is made:
- Does your child have a disability?
- Is that disability making it hard for him to learn?
- Does his disability need special instruction that goes above and beyond what his regular classroom teacher can do?
If it is agreed that your child does not meet all the necessary criteria, he will be referred back to the school support team to continue receiving assistance through general education.
A school psychologist’s role does not stop there. Either way the special education team decides, the school psychologist will remain to follow-up on your child’s progress, either through the school support team or through the special education team.
School psychologists are uniquely qualified to meet you and your child where you are, whatever your school-related needs may be. They can cross lines within the school’s given framework like a flexible chameleon, making them a valuable resource for parents who may be looking for help for their child but feeling lost.
Although a large part of a school psychologist’s role can often be under the umbrella of special education, that role is steadily increasing to encompass more and more of general education as well (RtI, MTSS, PBIS, etc.).
The beginning of a new school year doesn’t have to bring with it the sinking feeling of dread and anxiety for those children (and their parents) for whom school does not come easily. You are not alone.
If you have concerns regarding your child’s school progress, contact your school’s student-based support team. If you’re not sure how to do that, call and ask to talk to the school psychologist and he or she will be able to point you in the right direction. School psychologists are here to help, so get to know yours today!
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