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What is a School Psychology Degree?
Children and youth can face problems related to learning, navigating social relationships, making difficult decisions, or managing depression, anxiety, or isolation. School psychologists, with a strong background in psychological foundations and skills in diagnostic testing, assessment, and intervention, help them maneuver these challenges so that they thrive in school, at home, and in life.
School psychology is not exclusively focused on the student, however, because by supporting students’ ability to learn, school psychologists also support teachers’ ability to teach. Degree programs in the field prepare individuals to take on this important role of helping schools improve academic achievement, promoting positive behavior and mental health, supporting diverse learners, creating safe, positive school climates, and strengthening family-school-community partnerships.
- School psychology is also known as educational psychology.
- Programs may focus more on research to inform clinical practice, or more on clinical applications with a lighter emphasis on research methodologies. The latter is a better fit for individuals interested primarily in working directly with students.
- It is important to select degree programs which are accredited and approved by the American Psychological Association (APA) and the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP).
Master’s Degree in School Psychology – Three Year Duration
A bachelor’s degree from an accredited university or college is the primary requirement to be admitted to a school psychology master’s program. In addition, most schools mandate that applicants have completed a specified number of hours of coursework in behavioral sciences. Field, practicum, and internship experiences are integral parts of the curriculum.
Here is snapshot of a typical master’s level curriculum:
- Professional School Psychology Foundations – participation in field and in class activities to become familiar with the roles, functions, and required competencies of school psychologists; survey of school systems, collaborative problem solving, bullying, learning disabilities, evidence based interventions, counseling , classroom management, curriculum based measurement, and professional and legal issues
- Interpersonal Intervention Skills – counseling theories, techniques, and strategies for working with children and adolescents and their families; basic counseling and crisis intervention skills; developing a counseling knowledge base, developing basic psychotherapeutic communication skills, and developing self awareness
- Academic Assessment – overview of assessment theory, types of tests and their uses, strengths and weakness of specific tools; the quantitative and qualitative aspects of measurement; administration and scoring of standardized assessment procedures
- Cognitive Assessment – the development of theory and applied skills in intellectual assessment; selecting and administering individual intelligence tests; interpreting test results and forming test-based recommendations for intervention; providing written and oral reports; assessing persons who are culturally different or disabled
- Social-Emotional Assessment – using interview, behavioral observations, rating scales, and projective measures for the assessment of child and adolescent personality and adaptive behavior; administering, interpreting, and reporting results of measures currently used in the practice of psychology in school settings
- Graduate Statistics – review of descriptive and inferential statistics; understanding diverse data analytic methods, their appropriate application, and how to interpret statistical analyses
- Applied Behavior Analysis – overview of scientifically-based principles, concepts, and methods of behavior analysis; behavioral assessment, data analysis, and approaches to behavior change; the functional behavior assessment process within schools; developing assessment-based intervention plans tailored to the needs of individual students, through a collaborative problem solving process involving families and school staff
- Graduate Developmental Psychology – examination of the physical, cognitive, and social-emotional development of infants, children, and adolescents in the context of classic and current theory; exploration of issues such as attachment, resiliency, and policy issues that pertain to positive child and adolescent development; the sequence of child development and the processes that underlie it
- Academic Intervention – examination of school learning and the fundamental psychological principles that apply to teaching and learning; teachers’ responsibility for teaching curriculum, classroom management, and the social and emotional growth of students; how to critically evaluate the instruction provided to a student in a given content area; how to assess academic functioning, identify target areas for intervention, set appropriate goals, monitor student progress towards those goals, and evaluate the effectiveness of the interventions
- Ethical and Legal Issues – review of the laws and ethical principles that affect the practice of school psychologists within a school-community context
- Applied Psychology Methods – exploration of various types of research methods in the area of applied psychology; experimentation, content analysis, surveys, and interviews; research ethics, reliability, threats to internal and external validity, demand characteristics, volunteer participant problems, and issues in sampling
- Advanced Practicum: Issues in Diversity – supervised field experiences in school / clinical settings along with a lecture / classroom component emphasizing the development and application of a multicultural and contextual perspective; working with students from a variety of contextual, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds; topics include multicultural theory, culture, cultural identity, social class, race and ethnicity, gender issues, religion and spirituality, sexual orientation, oppression, resilience, privilege and power, immigration and acculturation, and multicultural assessment
- Development Psychopathology – examination of specific psychological disorders; current literature on evidence-based assessment and intervention; service delivery systems; the school psychologist’s role in service delivery and in disseminating information to schools and families
- Graduate Psychobiology – introduction to the field of behavioral neuroscience and the study of the neurobiological basis of cognition and behavior; topics include neuroanatomy and physiology, localization of function and brain injury, research methods in behavioral neuroscience, and the biological basis of learning, language, memory, emotion, conscious states, sexual behavior, etc.
- Internship – the school psychology internship is typically a long one, lasting up to 1200 hours; the internship year is a broad-based, individualized experience that provides an opportunity to work with a variety of children, parents, teachers, support staff, and administrators; interns are exposed to a variety of educational meetings, programs, workshops, resources, and conferences
Doctoral Degree in School Psychology – Five to Six Year Duration
Applicants to a doctoral program in school psychology must possess a bachelor’s or a master’s degree from an accredited university or college with a suitable foundation in the behavioral sciences. Completed courses must commonly include general psychology, child / developmental psychology, the psychology of learning, abnormal psychology, and psychology of personality.
The doctoral curriculum spans topics from the psychology core, the professional school psychology core, and the doctoral research core:
- Cognitive / Affective Aspects of Behavior
- Social Aspects of Behavior
- Biological Aspects of Behavior
- Multicultural Issues in Psychology
- Individual Differences / Human Development
- Exceptional Developmental Differences
- Quantitative Research Methods in Psychology and Education
- Qualitative and Single Case Design Research Methods
- Psychometric Theory
- Professional Issues
- Clinical Supervision of School Psychologists
- Evaluation of Psychological Services Delivery Programs
The program at this level involves extensive faculty-guided field-based research, and typically a minimum of 800 practicum hours and 1500 hours of internship work. These real-world experiences take place in schools, community and private practice settings, and/or hospitals and medical centers. Upon completion of their studies and defense of their dissertation, graduates are prepared for leadership roles and private practice.
Here are some examples of research focus areas:
- Autism spectrum disorders
- Achievement gap / disparity in academic performance between student groups defined by socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, and gender
- Social justice / education equity
- School-based mental health
- Trauma, trauma-informed practices, and trauma-informed multi-tiered systems of support
- Students with emotional and behavioral disorders, particularly students placed in self-contained classrooms (where a special education teacher is responsible for the instruction of all academic subjects)
- Action research in schools (a form of investigation designed for use by teachers to attempt to solve problems and improve professional practices in their own classrooms; action research involves systematic observations and data collection which can then be used by the teacher-researcher in reflection, decision-making, and the development of more effective classroom strategies)
Degrees Similar to School Psychology
Behavioral science analyzes the impact of our actions and interactions on ourselves, our relationships, and our society at large. The field incorporates a mix of natural sciences and social sciences. It is based on physiology – the regular functions of human beings; psychology – how our mind’s functions influence our behaviors and decisions; sociology – the development, structure, and functioning of human society; and anthropology – the evolution of human societies and cultures.
Degree programs in behavioral science teach students to apply the fundamentals of each of these sciences to understand human habits, actions, and intentions. They prepare graduates to work as behavioral scientists in human behavior research or as hands-on practitioners trained to address individual and social problems.
Degree programs in child psychology prepare students to work in one or more of the three main concentrations in the field.
Adolescent psychology is focused on issues relevant to children and youth between the ages of 12 and 18. These issues include behavioral problems, learning disabilities, depression, and eating disorders.
Developmental child psychology is concerned with the emotional and cognitive developments that impact children as they age. Among these developments are language, formation of identity, and understanding of morality.
Abnormal Child Psychology focuses on the treatment of children and adolescents dealing with atypical issues like physical abuse, trauma, personality disorders, and sociopathy.
Clinical psychologists focus on pathological populations. In other words, they work mostly with people who have a mental illness or a psychosis – a severe disorder or disability that can incapacitate them, not merely diminish the quality of their life. Examples are schizophrenia, delusional disorder, and substance-induced psychotic disorder.
Early Childhood Education (ECE)
A degree in early childhood education provides students with ECE fundamentals and helps them develop leadership and advocacy abilities, as well as the administrative skills required to work in the field. Typical coursework in degree and certificate programs focuses on child growth and development, behavior guidance, supporting children and families, children with exceptionalities, and effective curriculum planning.
Students who major in education study the learning and teaching processes. Among the courses they take are educational psychology and teaching techniques.
Degree programs in elementary education prepare students to teach children in their first stage of formal education, after preschool and before high school. They cover instructional techniques, curriculum development, and study of the subject areas to be taught.
Degree programs in this human development explore physical, cognitive, and psychosocial development through each stage of human life – prenatal, infancy, early childhood, middle childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, middle adulthood, late adulthood, and death and dying.
The physical domain is concerned with growth and changes in the body and brain, the senses, motor skills, and health and wellness. Cognitive human development comprises learning, attention, memory, language, thinking, reasoning, and creativity. Psychosocial development involves emotions, personality, and social relationships. Students learn how these three domains of human development influence and impact every aspect of our lives – from self-respect and self-esteem to how we interact with family, peers, and society at large.
Mental Health Counseling
The mental health counseling curriculum teaches students how to help people dealing with issues that impact their mental health and overall well-being. Coursework often includes the holistic or mind and body approach to counseling.
The scientific study of the mind and behavior is the focus of psychology degree programs. In simple terms, psychology students study the way that humans and animals act, feel, think, and learn.
Social work is about helping people solve and cope with problems and challenges in their everyday lives. Students who pursue a degree in the field gain the knowledge and skills, as well as the ethics and values, to work for social justice for individuals, families, organizations, and communities. The typical curriculum examines issues such as child welfare, mental health, poverty, aging, domestic violence, and marginalized groups.
Special Education Teaching
Graduates with a degree in special education are qualified to teach students with physical or mental disabilities. They help students develop basic life skills and must be prepared to adapt their curriculum to do so.
Substance Abuse Counseling
Degree programs in substance abuse counseling prepare students to counsel people suffering with alcohol and drug addiction, eating disorders, and other behavioral problems. The curriculum covers topics such as coping mechanisms and treatment plans.
Skills You’ll Learn
- Assessment and report writing
- Collaboration and teamwork
- Cultural sensitivity
- Dedication to lifelong learning and professional development
- Openness to feedback and suggestions
- Problem solving
- Social perception
- Stress management
- Systems Analysis and Evaluation
- Time management
- Trust building
What Can You Do with a School Psychology Degree?
Most school psychologists work, to no surprise, in schools. There are other settings, however, in which graduates apply their knowledge and skills in practitioner, scientist-practitioner, supervisory, and administrative roles. Here is a summary of the school psychology career landscape:
- Elementary schools – public and private
- Secondary schools – public and private
- School district administration offices
- Childcare centers focused on early learning education
- Juvenile facilities / justice programs for juveniles
- Mental health centers
- Hospitals, medical and residential clinics, and substance abuse treatment centers
- Community-based health and educational organizations
- Colleges and universities – focusing more on social psychology and the process of coming into adulthood than the issues of child psychology and developmental psychology; research-oriented projects; faculty members, typically with a doctoral degree
- Private practice
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