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Psychological stress on schools

How to work around tight budgets so the school counselor’s job is done right
Psychologists from Boston Public Schools participate in PD events as part of the district’s Comprehensive Behavioral Health Model.
Psychologists from Boston Public Schools participate in PD events as part of the district’s Comprehensive Behavioral Health Model.

In many schools, psychologists have time for little more than assessing students. That prevents them from using their range of skills in counseling, data analysis and preventing bullying, suicide and violence.

As the number of psychologists shrinks in many districts, the priority becomes compliance with federal special education laws, leaning away from providing services that are not legally mandated but that help the general population of students.

“The role gets way more narrow, and the skill set is not utilized as effectively,” says Eric Rossen, director of professional development and standards at the National Association of School Psychologists. “What’s concerning is that it is not a cost-effective model. Being able to apply prevention services will reduce the need for more intensive services later on.”

The National Association of School Psychologists recommends a maximum student-to-school psychologist ratio of 1,000-to-1 for the general population. For psychologists providing comprehensive and preventative services such as counseling, behavioral interventions and crisis response, the ratio should not exceed 500 to 700 students per psychologist.

But the national average is 1,653 students per psychologist, with some areas exceeding the recommended ratio by up to 10 times, Rossen says. The reason for the shortage is two-pronged: In some states, there are not enough certified psychologists available. In others, districts facing budget cuts are not hiring them, he says.

The full role of the school psychologist should comprise assessments and interventions to identify special needs students; mental health services such as counseling; and individual, classroom and schoolwide consulting with teachers and administrators to improve climate and reduce risky behaviors.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Act requires that students receive an initial special needs evaluation within 60 business days of parents giving consent, unless a state establishes another timeline. The evaluations take about two to three hours with the student, and an additional two to three hours to analyze the data and complete a report. That’s a significant amount of time when one psychologist rotates between several schools.

In the face of a shortage, districts are finding creative ways to meet student mental health needs—through rearranging staff, creative budgeting, and drawing in help from universities and contract workers. Some urban districts have partnered with local mental health agencies to better provide professional development to school psychologists and to enhance services to students.

“When mental and behavioral health services are not available, learning can be negatively impacted, as could the overall school environment,” Rossen says. “Addressing the mental health of students first is a prerequisite to learning, not an afterthought.”

Creative budgeting

Last year, Cabarrus County Schools in North Carolina faced an all-time low number of five psychologists for its 30,000 students. Some had changed careers, others went on maternity leave, and still others resigned because they were frustrated that assessments had been emphasized at the expense of comprehensive services, says Amy Lowder, the district’s psychological services coordinator. The district’s ratio of one psychologist for 6,000 students was the worst in the Charlotte area, according to local reports.

Addressing staff needs after a tragedy

Superintendent Nancy Hacker of Springfield Township School District in suburban Philadelphia is no stranger to school tragedy. Three student suicides rocked the community in Springfield and nearby Interboro School District, where Hacker had previously served as superintendent.

In Interboro School District in 2010, two sophomore girls jumped in front of a high-speed train as another watched. In 2012, a Springfield Township student committed suicide at home. Six years earlier, a junior brought a rifle to school and shot himself to death in a hallway between classes. No one else was injured.

School psychologists in both districts played a key role helping students and staff cope with the events, Hacker says.

“Despite personal grief, anger or feelings of helplessness, staff members are often expected to set aside their emotions during tragic events and serve as caretaker for their students,” Hacker says. “You’re dealing with a continuum of reactions and coping skills that staff have—some are able to distance themselves and go on as usual, while others who may have been close to the student think they should have known about it or interpreted things the student said differently.”

Springfield Township’s three psychologists, who are part of a district crisis management and response team, visit schools when educators need counseling after traumatic events.

Professional development should be provided about six to eight weeks after an incident—after the shock has worn off—to help staff learn how to help their classrooms cope, such as by reading books that deal with death.

“There are a variety of issues that need to be addressed for the staff, but the bottom line is spending the time trying to meet their needs, providing support and giving them the opportunity to work through their own emotions as they grapple with the events,” Hacker says.

To get more psychologists on staff, the district turned to creative budgeting. Through attrition, some teaching and assistant positions were consolidated this school year. The average caseload for a special education teacher at the elementary level in Cabarrus County was previously 18 students; now, it is 21. However, the district remains below the state average of 25 and classes are very manageable, says Barbara Slingerland, director of academic intervention and exceptional children.

Now, 13 psychologists are on staff in the district, for a ratio of one to 2,307 students. “We’re still far away from the [ideal] ratio, but are making gains,” Lowder says.

Though much of the psychologists’ time is still spent evaluating students, the district is working to continue expanding their role with individual and group counseling, and consulting with teachers, administrators and parents. They also sometimes refer students to outside community agencies.

The psychologists have also joined forces with the curriculum and instruction department. They attend weekly problem-solving meetings at their assigned schools to help the team analyze and interpret data about new core curriculum assessments and benchmarks. The psychologists are then involved with the interventions and with progress monitoring of students to close achievement gaps.

Developing a comprehensive model

Hundreds of miles north of Cabarrus, Boston Public Schools has leveraged its urban location to develop a Comprehensive Behavioral Health Model—a three-tiered system often known as Response to Intervention that focuses on prevention, at-risk services and intensive treatment.

The 54 psychologists in the district of 57,000 students designed the model to reach beyond students with special needs, says Andria Amador, assistant director of behavioral health services at Boston Public Schools and president of the Massachusetts School Psychology Association.

The model’s first tier includes behavior screenings that teachers administer to all students twice a year. The screenings identify students who may need counseling by assessing behaviors such as creating friendships and solving problems.

“Schools are infamous for perpetually testing kids, but 98 percent of districts do not use a formal behavioral health screening,” Amador says. “Most districts use office discipline referrals as their gate- keeping method of who needs support.”

And such a method doesn’t work because it tends to over-identify boys of color and students who externalize behaviors, rather than those who internalize, she adds. Tier I also includes social skills lessons and reward programs that encourage positive behavior.

Students who do not respond to the first level of services receive Tier II’s group interventions, including sessions on anger management, social skills and organization. Tier III consists of individual counseling and interventions for students who need the most help.

The program launched in 10 of the district’s 127 schools in 2012-13, and has been expanding to 10 more buildings each year. Boston is one of the largest urban districts taking on this model. “Some folks initially said, ‘If you don’t have enough psychologists, why are you expanding the role?’” Amador says. “If we can catch kids earlier, and see the psychologists’ time used more efficiently, we’re preventing problems later on.”

The district partnered with Boston Children’s Hospital and two dozen other community mental health organizations that provide funding and volunteers for preventative work. Boston Public Schools also consults with faculty from six local school psychology training programs to stay current on the latest best practices and research, and for professional development. The district hires 25 graduate student interns each year from these programs.

“Making university connections are pivotal,” Amador says. “It allows you to get that consultation and student support at your district for no cost—and well-prepared [potential] future staff.”

Contracting workers

In Hayes Consolidated ISD in Kyle, Texas, contract workers help the district meet federal timelines for special needs evaluations. The district, which has an enrollment of 18,000, has been adding about 1,000 students per year, with special education needs also growing.

The district hired an additional psychologist to meet demands this year. With 14 psychologists on staff the ratio is now 1,285 students per psychologist—still above the NASP’s recommended ratio.

The contract workers are often local retired psychologists who are familiar with the evaluation process, says John Fuerst, executive director of special programs at Hayes. The district also hires one or two interns each year from nearby Texas State University to help.

“We share information with other nearby [special education] directors and ask if they know anyone retiring who wants to do some [evaluation] work,” Fuerst says. “We especially have trouble finding bilingual psychologists—they get snapped up quickly, and a lot of districts nearby pay a little more than we do.” About 25 percent of students in the district are English- language learners, he adds.

Another challenge the district faces is meeting administrator expectations, Fuerst says. “Some principals have difficulty understanding that not every child who has problems learning meets special needs eligibility,” he says. There need to be ongoing conversations with psychologists and other staff about these students, and proper documentation of action and interventions taken by teachers and other staff members, he adds.

Administrator support

During a typical school year, Floyd County Public Schools in Virginia has one school psychologist—aided by the director of special education—providing services for the district’s 2,000 students. But when the psychologist went on a leave of absence this year, Director of Special Education and Student Services Josie Loomis took on the full caseload for the district.

In Floyd County, the psychologist completes between 70 and 100 student evaluations each year to determine special education eligibility. “Once you get over 70 per year, all you have time to do is test—it starts getting hard to do other positive behavior supports, interventions, prevention measures or classroom consulting,” says Loomis, who is also a certified school psychologist.

In Virginia, the federal timeline to complete evaluations is within 65 business days of receiving parental consent. Loomis says she and others in the field often complete the reports at home, spending a few hours every evening doing work.

Administrators can help busy psychologists by providing a quiet place in schools to test students. They can also encourage teachers to complete questionnaires needed for evaluations in a timely manner, and to be flexible with times the student is taken out of class for testing.

School-level administrators also need to keep psychologists up to date on students who need counseling, and how those who have worked with the psychologist are progressing.

“Administrators should understand the wide range of training and knowledge that school psychologists have,” Loomis says. “We are trained to complete psychological assessments, and it’s a very important part of our job. But we’re also trained in school law, mental health, crisis interventions and research-based strategies to help improve instruction.”

Alison DeNisco is news editor.