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A Day in the Life of a School Psychologist

December 19, 2015


Angie McIntyre

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If you think school psychologists spend most of their time counseling students, think again. Guest blogger Angie McIntyre shadowed three school psychologists at work and shares the details of their days.


Caroline

Caroline works in a wealthy suburban school district, at an elementary school that houses grades 3 through 5. For the current school year, she has been assigned to work as an intervention specialist, with an intended focus on supporting students in the general education setting.

 

She arrives at work on time, but every last parking space in the lot is taken. A quick glance at the dashboard clock reveals two choices: She can be late to her meeting, or she can park around back in an area deemed off limits. She yanks the wheel hard to the right and takes the off-limits space, deciding it’s worth suffering the custodian’s wrath.

She hustles inside the school, hair wet, eyes tired, and throws her bag down as she greets her first customer of the day, a special education teacher. After a brief moment of niceties, they launch right into it: Two of the teacher’s new students are struggling. Not struggling in the sense that they are a little behind in reading or math, but struggling in the sense that they have severe cognitive impairments and their highly specialized programming isn’t meeting their needs. The skilled, caring teacher is out of ideas, and she needs Caroline’s help. Statements of frustration like “I shouldn’t have to deal with this,” and, “This kid should know better,” escape the typically sunny teacher’s mouth.

 

Meeting

 

For the next ten minutes, Caroline’s morning continues as planned. She and the teacher discuss creative ways for keeping the students engaged, encouraging socialization and improving motor skills. It is a productive conversation, in which Caroline carefully walks the fine line of trusted adviser, sympathetic colleague, and pep-talk deliverer. The meeting will create hours of additional work for Caroline—she will have to conduct observations in the students’ classroom, make the necessary changes to their daily schedules, and follow up with multiple service providers—but she feels good about the small amount of progress the students have made thus far.

Time to make some phone calls. Caroline has been asked to start some new social skills groups, but difficulty in getting parent permission has delayed everything by a few weeks. Most parents won’t be available for phone calls at this time of the morning, but she has to give it a shot—she loves teaching the groups, and she wants to make sure they actually happen. Caroline is not naïve—she knows that teaching social skills is a daunting task, that behaviors practiced in small groups often fail to translate to the classroom. But she’s excited about a new curriculum she’s piloting, and she hopes she can teach the students how to make a friend or two.

Before Caroline even cracks the family directory, however, a second special education teacher stops by; she wants to follow up regarding a very intense meeting that took place earlier in the week, one about a student on the autism spectrum whose actions have been endangering himself and others. Although Caroline has never met the student, she was tasked with leading the meeting. Because the special education teacher has a caseload of students to manage, they agree that Caroline will take care of the administrative fallout from the meeting. After the teacher leaves for her own classroom, Caroline sighs and pulls out her laptop. It is now up to her to fix the student’s schedule, to direct the adjustments to his behavior plan, and to ensure the myriad staff members understand the changes and follow through on them.

So much for the social skills group.

Caroline’s office mate—a counselor who spends much of her time playing the role of social worker—reflects that things are particularly crazy at the school right now, due to the sharp increase of new students with highly intensive needs. In a twist of irony, another teacher arrives in Caroline’s office just then to discuss an acceleration case. The student’s family is convinced she is too bright for her classroom, and they are demanding she be moved ahead a grade. Caroline will need to call the family and remind them of the team’s decision not to accelerate the student the previous year, a decision based on extensive data.

 

She she has lost a significant part of her day, but she has also accomplished a great deal, working her magic in the background so teachers can help students on the front lines.

 

Over the next hour, Caroline hammers away at her laptop, attempting to cobble together an email explaining the plan for the ASD student she’s never met. The email should only take ten minutes to write, but Caroline is constantly interrupted. A third grader wanders in and begins rummaging through Caroline’s office, mumbling something about a broken water bottle. Teachers continue to stop by to discuss students, to search for sensory fidgets and paperwork, to ask quick questions. A student comes in to give Caroline a hug, which she readily accepts.

By the time Caroline finishes the email, she has lost a significant part of her day, as well as her opportunity for calling parents about the social skills group. But she has also accomplished a great deal—she has calmed an anxious student and set her up for a positive day. She has developed and communicated a streamlined plan that will help another student be safer and more productive at school. She has supported her friends and colleagues in their efforts, working her magic in the background so they can help the students on the front lines.

And—at the behest of the custodian—she has moved her car to an acceptable parking space.

Allison

Allison is a school psychologist in a large, urban school district whose students come from a wide variety of socioeconomic, cultural, and racial backgrounds. She splits her time between an elementary school with close proximity to a major university, and a high school located in a low-income neighborhood with a historically high rate of violent crime.

 

She takes a deep breath as she sifts through a thick folder of notes and assessment protocols, silently scolding herself that she hasn’t finished the report in time for the meeting. She had hoped to arrive earlier, but daycare drop-off was a bit bumpy; the baby had a blowout in her carefully selected first-day-of-daycare-ever clothes, just as her two-year-old brother melted down at the prospect of getting dressed. But like so many educators, she will have to shut out the needs of her own children and focus on other people’s kids for at least the next eight hours.

 

Files

 

Thank goodness the elementary school is still relatively quiet. She can prepare without interruption, review the results of her testing and search for research-based interventions for anxiety. She will be meeting with a team of educators and a student’s mother to discuss the results of a complex special education evaluation. The team would like to dismiss the child from special ed and support her in other ways, a process that can be terrifying for parents. Allison has rearranged her entire schedule to be at the meeting, knowing it will require the perfect balance of data-sharing, empathy, and encouragement. She practices what she will say, checks her notes one more time, and arrives at the conference room only to discover the mother has cancelled the meeting at the last minute. Argh.

So back to her regularly scheduled day.

Allison grabs her bag and forces herself not to glance at her baby’s empty car seat as she sets off for her other building. She spends the next thirty minutes driving to the inner-city high school where she works, the one that recently made headlines when a loaded gun was discovered there. The building has no metal detectors, but Allison hopes her office’s basement location will protect her from the violence and gang activity that have been a serious problem in the school this year.

The basement locale doesn’t keep her safe from mice, however, and she shrieks as one crawls out from behind her computer. She seeks out a colleague for support, a speech/language clinician who reassures her by doing an “anti-mouse dance” and extolling the virtues of rat poison. Allison is now two-and-a-half hours into her workday. She hasn’t accomplished as much as she would have liked, but at least her adrenaline is flowing.

Next, she ventures upstairs to help monitor the hallways between classes. At 5’3” in heels, Allison is shorter than most of the students, but she does her best to seem tall and authoritative. After an incident-free passing time, she stops by the office and quietly rejoices when she finds completed checklists awaiting her. (School psychologists have to walk a fine line between gentle encouragement and outright harassment for completed questionnaires from teachers and parents; reminder phone calls, cheerful notes, verbal threats, and leftover Halloween candy are all employed regularly with varying degrees of success.) Jealously guarding the prized forms, she heads back to the bowels of the school to catch up on some email.

For the next half hour, Allison engages in an incredibly boring phone discussion about how to score an adaptive behavior assessment. It’s the kind of phone call psychologists put off because they know it will take forever and the short-term payoff will be minimal. But in the long run, the conversation will inform decisions about whether or not students qualify for extra support. And as the “gatekeepers of special education,” psychologists like Allison are expected to have this kind of arcane information at their fingertips.

Allison spends the next few minutes multi-tasking—she checks her email, keeps an ear out for emergencies on the school walkie, and gets out the old breast pump to take care of new mother business. (Allison is lucky in this regard—her basement office affords her privacy for pumping that many classroom teachers would die for.)

So far, Allison’s day has gone uncommonly smoothly. She hasn’t been called to any crisis situations, no one has popped by her office with urgent questions, and she has generally stayed on schedule. She attributes her good luck to the fact that she only recently returned from maternity leave, and her colleagues haven’t gotten used to relying on her again. She admits to herself that she wouldn’t actually mind a little urgent interruption; urgent interruptions tend to keep the job exciting and fresh.

 

She admits to herself that she wouldn’t actually mind a little urgent interruption; urgent interruptions tend to keep the job exciting and fresh.

 

Now Allison clicks open an email she’s been avoiding, one from a special ed teacher who works with students with significant cognitive delays. The teacher is concerned about the plan Allison helped develop for a student whose problem behaviors include swearing, threatening, and hitting staff and students. The teacher doesn’t think the expectations for the student are high enough, and says the plan isn’t fair to the rest of her students. Reading between the lines, Allison infers that the teacher is sick and tired of dealing with the kid, and she wants him out of her classroom for good. Situations like this are one of the toughest parts of the job because they force psychologists to play the bad guy. While she knows the teacher is stretched and stressed, Allison has to advocate for the student.

After consulting with one of the school’s social workers, Allison writes a carefully worded response to the teacher, validating her concerns, thanking her for her help and patience, and explaining that it will take time for the student’s behavior to improve. Taking the utmost care not to upset the hardworking, overtired teacher, she asks another psychologist to review the email before ultimately sending it off.

Because Allison’s day has been a calm one, she allows herself fifteen minutes to eat lunch away from her desk. As she scarfs down a turkey sandwich, she chats with the school social worker—her closest ally and sometimes therapist—about life outside of work. Then it’s back to her dark, educational overlord, the personal computer. In some sense, the opportunity to respond to email and work on reports during the school day is a luxury; still, Allison would rather spend her time working with kids and teachers, and she wishes she didn’t have so much pressing communication withering away in her inbox. Most of the duty day has come and gone, and she has yet to make contact with an actual student.

Next, Allison opens Google Docs to view a professional development plan she recently drafted for the team she leads. The group has adopted the lofty and potentially frustrating goal of improving interventions for failing students. Staff members at the school—like those at most schools—are frustrated with the intervention process, and continue to see it as a waste of time, a hurdle between struggling kids and special education services. If Allison’s team can solve this problem, they deserve a medal.

 

Paperwork

 

Allison has a few spare minutes, which she uses to write up a last-minute evaluation report. The report is a sixteen-page document chock full of data detailing a student’s strengths and difficulties, data which she and the special education team have collected over the previous six weeks. While her job includes a heavy load of special education evaluations and reports, Allison often puts such tasks off in favor of more urgent ones. As she types, she briefly wonders whether this particular report will make any difference in the life of the student. Then she shakes her head and reminds herself that all the data collected, all the progress monitored, and all the time invested are a psychologist’s way of ensuring students get the service and support they so desperately need.

Allison’s heavily administrative day ends on a positive note, at a staff meeting where the principal addresses the difficult climate at the school. While she expects this meeting to be depressing and frustrating, Allison is struck by the new principal’s willingness to listen and respond to staff concerns; she also appreciates his admission that he has made mistakes in his handling of the situation.

The meeting ends, and Allison takes a moment to reflect that she has just finished a pretty good day’s work. She has laid the groundwork for the next few weeks: Now reports can be written, interventions implemented, and the school may even be a little safer. Still, she wishes she had gotten in some face-to-face time with students and teachers.

Before packing up and heading out, Allison takes a quick peek at her schedule for the next day, and she smiles to herself. Tomorrow, she sees, will be a people day. Tomorrow, she will chat with a favorite student about his post-high school plans. She will help another student address some problems she’s been having with anxiety. She will consult with her favorite team of teachers about building bridges between school and home for struggling students.

Tomorrow is the reason she became a school psychologist. Tomorrow will be a good day.

Justine

Justine practices school psychology in a medium-sized school district in a first-ring suburb. She splits her time between early childhood education and an alternative high school (AHS), both of which are housed in the same community building. Justine’s students are representative of the school district, which includes a wide range of socioeconomic, racial, and cultural backgrounds. The AHS also houses a large population of recent refugees with limited English proficiency.

 

Justine throws open her office door at 7:30 am, barely registering the creepy, life-sized doll perched on a chair and half-covered by a stack of files awaiting review. The doll sports a hooded sweatshirt, jeans, and a castoff pair of tennis shoes, and Justine’s office mate—a special education teacher who uses humor to stay positive in a tough work environment—has taped a picture of his own face over the doll’s. Justine would like to return the favor with a prank of her own, but today’s schedule won’t allow for it.

Justine supports two very different populations from this office: young toddlers and preschoolers just starting on their educational paths, and near-adult students hoping to eke out a diploma. Today is technically an AHS day, but Justine will likely engage with both settings, as she usually does. The only thing separating Justine’s babies from her big kids is a flight of stairs, which doesn’t provide much of a buffer between the two worlds she serves.

She begins by answering a few emails, items that have piled up overnight. As she scans her inbox, Justine reflects on a recent NPR article about the healthy work/life balance in Denmark, and briefly contemplates moving her husband and two young children to Copenhagen. Maybe next year.

Leaving a few unanswered emails for later, Justine heads to a meeting for one of education’s hottest initiatives—Positive Behavior Interventions & Supports (PBIS). For most school employees, PBIS is both a blessing and a curse—it requires a great deal of work up front, but it can do wonders for school climate and morale when implemented correctly. As the psychologist for the alternative high school, Justine leads the PBIS team. At today’s meeting, she presents her colleagues with the data for office discipline referrals. The purpose of the data is to celebrate successes and target areas for improvement, but the teachers—battle-hardened and stretched thin—are struggling to stay positive today. Instead, they use the meeting as a venting session about student behavior. Justine gives them some time and space to share their frustration; then she tries valiantly to get the meeting back on track. During her ten years of practice, she has learned that admiring a problem rarely solves it.

 

She would like to engage in more proactive work with the early childhood students, families, and staff, but crisis management always trumps prevention.

 

After the meeting, Justine finds a student waiting for her in her office. The student says she is pregnant, and claims she is bleeding because her mother kicked her that morning. Concerned for the student’s health and safety, Justine calls the police and explains the situation. When the police and ambulance arrive, the student makes excuses for her mother and declines to press charges. However, Justine informs police that the student has been in similar situations before; this will ensure that a domestic violence counselor meets with the student when she arrives at the hospital. After the emergency workers leave with the student, Justine updates her colleagues and completes the paperwork required by the district in such situations. By the time she finishes the work, she has invested two hours of her day into the unexpected crisis. While student emergencies happen with lightning-fast speed, responding to them is often slow and grueling work.

She attempts to get her day back on track, but is quickly thwarted by an early childhood special education (ECSE) teacher who needs help. Justine listens as the teacher describes a student who has been hitting, kicking, and biting her peers, and suggests a team meeting with the child’s service providers and family. Justine spends most of her early childhood-related time engaging in these types of conversations, or in evaluating children for special education eligibility. She would like to engage in more proactive work with the early childhood students, families, and staff, but crisis management always trumps prevention.

 

School-Psych-01

 

There is never enough time in Justine’s workday. To deal with the time constraints, she plays a little game called “Move the stuff around on my calendar.” Staring hard at her computer screen and clenching the mouse, she gives a caustic giggle and murmurs, “Drag, drop! Drag, drop!”

Justine begins her designated period of processing, during which she talks with AHS students sent to the office for low-level offenses such as work refusal and technology use. The period ends abruptly when a teacher calls for help with a student who is screaming curse words at her in the classroom.
Justine coaxes the student into her office and talks through the situation with her. Because the student is a recent refugee with limited English,
Justine calls a cultural liaison for additional support. With the help of the liaison, Justine manages to calm the student enough for her to finish her day at school, avoiding suspension. Justine reasons that the AHS classrooms would be virtually empty if the students were suspended every time they swore.

At 1:45, Justine finally manages some time at her desk, reviewing one of the files perched on the creepy doll’s lap, responding to email, and cramming in a little lunch. The rest of her day is a mix of dealing with office referrals, supervising the hallways, responding to emails, and filling out forms.

Justine admits to herself that her workday never goes as well as she wants it to, that her work rarely rises to the level she expects from herself. In addition to time constraints and the bureaucracy of special education, Justine and her colleagues face near-insurmountable obstacles like racism, poverty, disability, and chemical use.

But during the course of her jam-packed, unpredictable day, Justine knows she has actually accomplished a great deal. While the payoff may not be obvious today, her hard work and dedication will make a difference. Because of today’s efforts, a vulnerable young woman now knows that someone cares about her safety. An angry, marginalized student has managed to finish her school day instead of being kicked out once again. A team of specialists has made plans to come together in support of a young child crying out for help.

Though she forgets it sometimes, Justine is passionate about school psychology, and she’s pretty darn good at it.

Copenhagen will just have to wait. ♦

 

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18 Comments

  1. Christine Bainbridge says:

    This was great! I’m our district’s SLP and our school psychologist is such an important part of our team. This article sounds a lot like our psych’s day. This article is a great response to people who think that all school psychologist’s do is test kids. Well done!

  2. Monica Knuppe says:

    Does it occur to anyone else, that we spend more time documenting than doing?

  3. Yep. This definitely illustrates that, doesn’t it? I wonder if anyone out there is working on streamlining the documentation process so more ‘doing’ can happen!

  4. Tamara Schrick says:

    As a School Psychologist for over 15 years this blog made me laugh as I seen the reflection of my own days and often nights at home working but it also made me cry!! Cry as I know there are so many of us out there doubting our career choice… I often wonder if I do make a difference?!?

  5. Great article. As a special education teacher in Australia, this is a similar process for those in positions such as Head of Special Education Services in schools. Special education teachers will also take on some of these roles within schools, such as writing behavioural intervention plans, leasing with mainstream teachers to support students with special needs in their mainstream classes. It is an extremely important role within a school and without all the hard work that school psychologists put in each day, most of the students wouldn’t have anywhere to turn.

  6. I was a School Psychologist for over 20 years, in three different states. I had responsibility for many of the functions described, but the majority of my time involved teacher consultation, student observation, student evaluation and conferences with parents and teachers. It didn’t leave much time for writing comprehensive reports. This had to be done in the evenings. It was pretty demanding, but I loved every minute of it, and have never regretted making that choice as a career. Since retirement, I have missed it greatly!

    • Courtney Murphy says:

      Hello, my name is Courtney Murphy. I am interested in becoming a school psychologist. Since you have a lot of experience several states, I was wondering if I could get your email to ask you a few questions?

  7. Dianne Olson says:

    I am a retired SLP (30+ years working in public schools). Over my career, I have counted the school psychologist as one of my best friends. He/she has been a confidant, a highly appreciated colleague, and often a shoulder to lean on. This article demonstrates the extremely valuable but often under-appreciated role that the psychologist plays in our schools. Thank you for a great article that should remind us to thank our co-workers for the important work they do each and every day!

    • Kari says:

      Thank you for your positive comments, as a school psychologist I sincerely appreciate the acknowledgement of being there for colleagues as well.
      I feel the same way about my SLP’s…we must be cut from the same piece of wood 🙂

  8. Anonymous Preferred says:

    This should be required reading for every graduate student in school psychology AND every classroom teacher! The author so respectfully nailed both the “what we do” and the “how we feel about it”, including tough daily choices about how we spend our limited and stretched time–and the bigger thoughts about whether we should continue in this field at all. Thank you both so much for sharing!

  9. Penny Dengler says:

    Not to be a downer, but if “Caroline” arrive at work and all the spots are taken, is she really “on time” and why is her hair wet? I am a person who struggles with time management, but I have found as a teacher, if you are at school “on time” you are late. I actually did get my Master’s in School Psychology, but I ended up using it as a starting off to get a Special Education certification because I think the most rewarding part of education is actually seeing students every day. In my opinion a lot of school psychologists are spread too thin to make a real difference and i\end up doing just what the articles said, crisis intervention, and waiting around for meetings that never happen. I found that to be quite frustrating.

  10. this is awesome! i’m a second year student in a school psychology program and seeing this post has made me more excited to go into this field! thanks for sharing!

  11. Ross says:

    The articles are fairly accurate. I’ve been “psyching” for 25 years. In the beginning I was basically a psychometrician, then came ADHD and now Autism. Evaluations are more and more comprehensive and of course time-consuming – if you perform a thorough evaluation. Trouble is admin may listen to your additional work demands but unfortunately not much gets done in terms of hiring additional resources. So as demands increase something has to give… and that means some of the quality of the evaluation is going to be negatively affected. The number of evaluations are increasing and the time to perform each is increasing more and more as additional investigation, assessment, parent interviews, report writing and educational planning. This was the first year I was “blamed for not doing enough” and I wasn’t the only one. Test and consult all day, write reports at night and on weekends as the demands continue to grow and grow and the numbers… they increase. Don’t get me wrong, I like my job it’s just that the expectations are becoming unrealistic and the level of job satisfaction is decreasing for me and many others I talk to. A few years ago I started a “blue collar” business of my own and within 3 years I was making more money in a month than an entire school year as a psychologist. Honestly, the job demands of psyching far exceed those of my side business and it pays considerably less. Why do I stay? Because I feel like I make a difference and believe I am good at my job. How long will I continue to stay? That depends on how thin admin stretches me, blames me for not peddling faster in lieu of actually with the situation as a resource allocation issue. I’m quite certain admin doesn’t realize the money we are paid for our skill set isn’t commensurate with our level of education and job responsibilities. IMHO, the profession needs more school psychologists in order to serve students and families better and not be constantly rushed through evaluations, reports, consultations, etc. Would I recommend to myself 25 years ago to choose this route again?

  12. Ross says:

    The articles are fairly accurate. I’ve been “psyching” for 25 years. In the beginning I was basically a psychometrician, then came ADHD and now Autism. Evaluations are more and more comprehensive and of course time-consuming – if you perform a thorough evaluation. Trouble is admin may listen to your additional work demands but unfortunately not much gets done in terms of hiring additional resources. So as demands increase something has to give… and that means some of the quality of the evaluation is going to be negatively affected. The number of evaluations are increasing and the time to perform each is increasing more… and more as additional investigation, assessment, parent interviews, report writing and educational planning are required. This was the first year I was “blamed for not doing enough” and I wasn’t the only one. Test and consult all day, write reports at night and on weekends as the demands continue to grow and grow and the numbers… they increase. Don’t get me wrong, I like my job it’s just that the expectations are becoming unrealistic and the level of job satisfaction is decreasing for me and many others I talk to. A few years ago I started a “blue collar” business of my own and within 3 years I was making more money in a month than an entire school year as a psychologist. Honestly, the job demands of psyching far exceed those of my side business and it pays considerably less. Why do I stay? Because I feel like I make a difference and believe I am good at my job. How long will I continue to stay? That depends on how thin admin stretches me, blames me for not peddling faster in lieu of actually dealing honestly with the situation as a resource allocation issue. I’m quite certain admin doesn’t realize the money we are paid for our skill set isn’t commensurate with our level of education and job responsibilities. IMHO, the profession needs more school psychologists in order to serve students and families better and not be constantly rushed through evaluations, reports, consultations, etc. Would I recommend to myself 25 years ago to choose this route again? I’ll let you answer that question.

    • Jay says:

      What location did you do most of your work (city, state)? I ask because I’m about to enter a Master’s program for school psych in SoCal and I’m having a lot of second thoughts on it because of like the things you mentioned, etc. Thanks.

  13. Thanks for sharing this. Seeing how school psychologists move from school to school and have to adapt their work for different students and situations is interesting. It really shows how hectic and strenuous day-to-day work in school psychology can be.

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