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School Psychologists Help Students Unlock Potential

by and on November 15, 2018 4:30 AM

A primary goal in education is to ensure that by the time students graduate from high school, they possess the academic, social and daily life skills that are necessary to thrive in today’s competitive global market. Recent legislative and executive acts and commissions have emphasized the importance of growth, planning and advancement in areas where educational resources have been historically scarce.

Two areas of recent focus are equity in education and social and emotional learning and support. Specifically, the Every Student Succeeds Act was signed by President Barack Obama in 2015 and includes provisions that focus on advances in equity, requiring that all students in the country be taught to high academic standards. In March, President Donald Trump formed the Federal Commission on School Safety, which among other objectives aims to explore social emotional support for students.

School psychologists possess advanced skill sets that can help local education agencies carry out the goals of equity in educational practices and social emotional learning and support. And, this year’s theme for School Psychology Awareness Week, held Monday, Nov. 12, through Friday, Nov. 16, is “Unlock Potential. Find Your Password!”

According to the National Association of School Psychologists, “school psychologists are particularly skilled at assisting students and staff in unlocking the resources, proactive and preventive skills, and positive connections necessary to unlock one’s full potential to thrive in school and life.”

School psychologists are skilled in mental health, learning and behavior to help children and youth succeed academically, socially, behaviorally and emotionally. Working closely with families, teachers, administrators and other professionals to create safe, healthy and supportive learning environments that strengthen connections between home, school and the community, school psychologists are equipped to help carry out the goals of both the ESSA and the Federal Commission on School Safety.


There are more than 1,700 school psychologists in Pennsylvania. According to the Association of School Psychologists in Pennsylvania’s president, Dr. David Lillenstein, “access to connections with meaningful adults, especially those who are trained in providing high quality mental health services, is critical to the mental well-being of Pennsylvania’s students and families.”

Lillenstein said that ASPP recognizes that there is a great need to increase mental wellness in Pennsylvania’s schools. In order to address that need, “ASPP is advocating for greater access to mental health services and increased numbers of school psychologists, through improved ratios of school psychologist per student as well as increased support for graduate training of greater numbers of school psychologists.”

Despite state trends suggesting that in many districts there is a ratio of only one school psychologists per every 1,000 or more students, many Centre County school districts are invested in adhering to the NASP and ASPP recommended ratios. This ratio of one psychologist to every 500 to 700 students can greatly benefit students, educators and parents.

State College Area School District’s director of special education, Dr. Sharon Salter, recognizes the value of school psychologists. According to Salter, psychologists within her district are highly skilled at improving and sustaining system’s level practices, problem-solving, consulting with parents and teachers and in the assessment of students’ educational needs.

Leah Kraytz is a school psychologist at Mount Nittany Elementary School. She said her position allows her to work as an agent for school-wide social emotional learning and behavioral prevention efforts at the school, and serve as an interventionist when working with students in need of increasingly intensive emotional and behavioral interventions. Kraytz said that a lot of what she has learned about implementing multi-tiered systems of supports for behavior — also known as “Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports” or PBIS — came from her work experience at her previous employer, Penns Valley School District.

“One of my favorite aspects of PBIS is that it creates a climate of collaboration between school staff, the students and our families,” said Kraytz. “PBIS teams work together to develop universal prevention strategies and unique interventions tailored to the needs of the individual student. Students are an integral part of this team, as they create their own goals and track their own growth.

“Another favorite aspect of PBIS is that it promotes social and emotional learning as an important part of student success and provides necessary supports to remove potential barriers to that success. Of course, watching our students develop a more positive view of themselves and their capabilities is the best part of all.”

This model is consistent with the national impetus to provide students with necessary social emotional and behavioral instruction, as well having a framework of interventions to target students’ needs.

Schools across the country are yielding a number of positive outcomes when they both implement and sustain this organizational framework, including improved school climate, reduction of disproportionate discipline practices, a reduction of problematic behaviors which lead to less discipline referrals and more time for instruction and improved academic outcomes.


In addition to direct services such as evaluation and counseling, school psychologists in both Pennsylvania and across the nation are leaders in providing indirect services, including consultation, and promoting sound, research-based organizational practices such as schoolwide PBIS. School psychologists also support students and teachers, providing systems-level, small-group and individual interventions and programs.

School psychologists’ roles are becoming increasingly vital as emphasis is placed on equitable education and prevention services.

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Jessica Dirsmith is a certified school psychologist. She practices in the State College Area School District and teaches at Penn State. 

This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.

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