Pediatric Therapeutic Services

School Psychological Services During the Pandemic

As schools around the country have reopened (and, in some places, have closed again) protecting the physical health of students, teachers, and staff has been a top priority.
 Female school psychological service provider wearing mask kneels to encourage kindergarten girl wearing mask and backpack.
But wearing a mask, washing hands, and maintaining six feet of distance doesn’t protect mental health. These safety precautions are vital but can make the situation feel extra stressful, particularly for children.

As a result, school psychological services have become more critical than ever.

Granted, addressing mental health in schools has never not been important.

Millions of U.S. children experience mental, emotional, or behavioral disorders. One in five do during their school years. But, as many as 60% won’t get the help they need. Of those who will, 70-80% of them will get it in school

Even so, the coronavirus pandemic shines a spotlight on the role of child psychology in schools, as well as how psychologists can help adults involved in educational settings.

The school-based psychologists on the Pediatric Therapeutic Services (PTS) team quickly adapted to working remotely in the spring and summer. Now, as many schools move from an autumn of often rocky reopenings into an uncertain winter, they’re still successfully managing school-based mental health programs. They’re supporting children and adults in vital ways.

Assessing Students’ Educational Need for Related Service Counseling

Assessing eligibility is one of the most important school psychological services. Practitioners must document a student’s educational need for these services.

In a 2017 presentation about related service evaluation best practices for the Texas Association of School Psychologists, the late Dr. Carol Booth outlined a matrix for determining the educational need for related service counseling or psychological services, as follows:

  • Should be Provided
    The student requires the services to benefit from his/her Individualized Education Program (IEP) and the IEP team determines such services are necessary.

  • Might be provided
    The student is behaving in ways that impede learning and is not achieving his/her goals and less restrictive interventions have proven unsuccessful.

  • Should not be provided
    The student’s identified problems are common to students of the same age and developmental stage.

Determining an educational need depends on current, quality data. Unfortunately, COVID-related school closures can make good data harder to find.

“The struggle is, you need to see kids,” says Kristin Connell, a PTS school psychologist. Now that her district has shifted to a hybrid model, “it could be a little more normal, getting the real data we need to do our job.”

Still, schools may face a backlog of assessments—not only overdue reevaluations for students already on caseload, but also new tests for students who should be. School psychologists can consult with IEP teams, 504 teams, and special education administrators to plan solutions for catching up.

Addressing Mental Health in Schools in COVID-19’s Wake

Eligibility assessments are only part of how school psychologists “support students’ ability to learn and teachers’ ability to teach,” especially during the pandemic.

The Association of School Psychologists of Pennsylvania (ASPP) released a comprehensive list of ways psychologists can and should be involved in school reopenings. Among other contributions, school psychologists can:

  • Assess Academic and Other Needs After Disruptions to the School Routine
    School psychologists can help develop ways to assess students’ educational, emotional, and social needs following the disruption caused by closures. They can also attend to the mental and emotional toll these disruptions take on teachers and staff.

  • Provide Professional Development on Relevant Psychological Topics
    By leading inservice programs on such issues as stress, depression, anxiety, and reactions to isolation, school psychologists can equip teachers, administrators, and staff to address mental health in school before students’ presenting problems grow more serious.

  • Help Teachers Develop and Provide Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) Lessons.
    Students may need extra help sorting through feelings and relating to peers after school closures. Social-emotional learning (SEL) in the classroom equips students for this “soul work,” as Alexis Achiah calls it. Psychologists can show teachers how to incorporate such SEL strategies as coping with change and managing anxiety into their lessons.

  • Integrate Trauma-Informed Care (TIC) Into Current Systems of Support
    School closures and reopenings can cause students to feel concerned about their health and safety. Some students may feel these concerns more keenly because of adverse conditions at home, whether newly caused or exacerbated by the pandemic. School psychologists can make sure schools with Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) deliver services in trauma-informed ways, so all students feel “safe, supported, and ready to learn.”

  • Consult with Families and Connect them to Resources as Needed
    Ensuring students have needed supports during shutdowns is paramount for school psychologists. Likewise, they can help families prepare students to return to school. In all cases, they can (sometimes in collaboration with school social workers) help families take advantage of appropriate community resources.

Strengthen Your Program’s Response to Psychological Needs with PTS

Like so many who provide psychological services in schools, Kristin Connell is staying alert for ways to help students cope with the pandemic’s effects. 

“To see these little second graders come in with their masks and not think anything about it—it’s different,” she says. “There’s so many different levels of anxiety. Some kids might not feel much. Some kids might feel a lot.”

As an example, she points to more introverted students: “They might have loved going to virtual school. They don’t have to deal with their peers. They can be behind a screen. Now they’re going to have to come back and there’s going to be some anxiety.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented stress, uncertainty, and vulnerability for so many in your schools. How can your program be more attentive and responsive to their needs?

Request your free copy of our eBook, Trauma-Informed Care: Key Principles and Best Practices for School Administrators. You’ll discover steps you can take to address mental health in your schools effectively and efficiently.

And, if you’re looking for quality and qualified psychological service providers, contact PTS online or call us at 610-941-7020. We’ll send you therapists who’ll help strengthen your program in these extraordinary times.

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