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The Power of Possibility: School Psychologists Week

November 9, 2020

How School Psychologists Expand the Horizon for CMCSS Students

School psychologists play a role that most people cannot clearly define. Yet, their work is crucial to creating strategies for intervention and supportive environments for students in need. On a typical day, they provide direct support to students, consult with teachers and families, and collaborate with school mental health professionals. 

Recently a group of CMCSS school psychologists reflected on the common misconceptions regarding their profession. Whether it be parents or fellow staff, their role within the school is sometimes confused. “How many times have you been mistaken for a school counselor?” District Lead School Psychologist Dr. Ariane Narain asks her peers, to which they all smile and nod. Another shares a story to which everyone quickly relates as they’re often asked a variation of, “Where’s your couch?”

Aside from the assumptions surrounding school psychologists’ role, the true nature of their position is significant. “The day can look very different if you’re in elementary, middle, or high school,” said Dr. Jasmine Scott, who works at Montgomery Central.

“People think we just assess students all day,” said Narain. Much of their day is consulting, whether with students, parents, teachers, counselors, or administrators. These consultations are critical to the success of the students. “What we do carries such a heavy weight for special education.”

School psychologists determine eligibility for a range of students, including special education and gifted students. Each student’s journey through eligibility and intervention for special services is unique, as is the relationship developed with the family. 

The psychologists understand that just the mention of their presence creates a range of emotions for families from the beginning.  “If the parents are new to special education, we’re the first friendly face,” said Lauren Keultjes, a school psychologist at Norman Smith Elementary. Explaining the intervention process in a way that’s not scary is enormous for families who may be struggling to understand the implications.

Tanya Streeter, Barksdale Elementary’s school psychologist, explained, “Instead of paperwork just being sent home, I meet with them in person. Individual discussion beforehand helps develop a relationship.” This approach is transformative, especially when testing results aren’t as positive as the parents may have hoped.

“You get to know these families. They put their trust in us to help guide them through interventions and with strategies at home,” said Kerri Burchwell, who oversees Northeast Middle and Glenellen Elementary schools. 

Dr. Beth Winn, a school psychologist for Northeast and St. Bethlehem elementary schools, considered their role akin to a ‘resource specialist.’ “There are so many different available resources for families, and psychologists can help students of all abilities navigate through their education journey,” she explained.

Gena Albertia, a school psychologist at Cumberland Heights Elementary, added that their understanding comes not just as psychologists but also as parents. “We come into this profession with a level of empathy. [We must] help a parent realize they are not going to face this alone. We are a team.”

“Parents are sending the very best that they have to school every day,” she continued, reflecting on how a superintendent once described the responsibility they carry.

The old stigma, often associated with special education eligibility, has contributed to families’ concern when they first hear their child is being evaluated. The psychologists noted that sentiment has changed and evolved over the years.

“Our district has done a really good job of helping our typically developing students to understand that we are all different,” said Amanda Daniel. “How we learn, look, and speak, we should celebrate our differences.”

“It goes back to good communication,” said Winn. “I always try to remember I look at the criteria, the paperwork, and data every day. I try to put myself in their shoes. We are potentially opening the door for extra support for students.”

“We dispel those feelings of what parents and families believe special education looks like, to what we really can provide. [We] want them to feel comfortable,” agreed Daniel. “We remind ourselves that while this is very normal for us and typical, it is not typical for a parent to hear about their child.”

The ‘Power of Possibility’ is the crux of the school psychologist position and the 2020 National School Psychology Week theme presented by the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). 

Sometimes it’s the parents who have a limited view of what their child can do. They’re encouraged to look past the label. “I try always to encourage students, and parents, to not let a label define how they move in their life,” Scott said. “There is always a possibility to do something outside of what you thought you could do.” 

CMCSS students will continue to see growth as the school psychologists share their goals for the future. One successful district-wide program is the Comprehensive Development Classroom, which pairs typically developing students with their peers to serve as mentors.

“I would love to see more social skills groups with middle school students,” said Scott. “From anxiety groups to grief groups, this would allow the school-level professionals to learn more about their students and help them develop social and emotional support structures.”

By creating meaningful and encouraging environments, the school psychologists see their supportive role in transforming the whole child. Everyone working together, school psychologists, special education departments, parents, and students have all worked together to expand their horizons. “I often say in my meetings; my goal is to work myself out of a job. We want to close that gap for [the student] not to need us anymore. But if they still need us, we want them to experience success at school and give them the support they need so [the student] is not overwhelmed.”