Investigating and Evaluating Students’ Special Needs
What does a school psychologist do on a daily basis?
Working with students is high on the list: watching, talking and testing them to identify their special needs.
They also meet with teachers, parents, or other caregivers, as well as school administrators to discuss the student’s challenges and make plans to address them.
And, they spend much of their day writing reports.
In fact, when she began her career as a school psychologist, Kristin Connell was surprised just how much report writing she really had to do. “It gets easier and easier, the longer you do this,” she says, “but it does take a lot of time!”
With that said, Kristin adds that as a school psychologist, she rarely gets bored. Every day brings something different.
Six years ago, she left her job in marketing to go back to studying psychology, the field in which she’d earned her undergraduate degree. “I’m so happy I did,” she says. “I really just wanted to work in the schools and work with kids.”
After four years as a Philadelphia charter school full-time employee, Kristin joined the Pediatric Therapeutic Services (PTS) team as a part-time independent contractor two years ago.
Kristin compares herself to an investigator when asked to describe her daily work. She says she’s “a kind of detective,” drawing on a wide repertoire of investigative skills to answer two big questions:
- What problem has led someone to refer a student to her?
- How can she use the school’s resources to solve that problem?
Ideally, teachers, parents, and others who refer students to school psychologists for evaluation will explain why. They’ll clarify what questions they’d like answered, what environmental or medical factors may be influencing the student’s learning and behavior, and what they’ve already done to try and help the student.
“You may get that background data or you may not,” says Kristin.
And if not, it’s time to start sleuthing.
Kristin’s investigation begins with in-person or phone interviews with parents, teachers, and school staff about the student. If the referral is behavior-related, she’ll observe the student in the classroom and in other school settings to see if she can identify the problematic behaviors.
Once Kristen feels she’s collected enough clues about the student’s situation, she’ll administer a formal evaluation.
“Every step of the way,” she says, “you have to tweak the evaluation to make it individualized for every student.”
Simply knowing the student needs a cognitive test, for instance, isn’t enough. “There are many different cognitive tests to give,” Kristin explains. “Some are very language-based, which makes them difficult for kids who might have language difficulties or are English language learners. You might give a non-verbal cognitive test to those kids.”
Kristin notes the school psychologist isn’t always the only person involved in evaluating students. Often, she works with other school-based therapists, such as Occupational Therapists or Speech Language Pathologists, to gather relevant information.
Evaluations culminate in reports. “Every test you give, every form you hand out, every interview you do, you have to summarize, and you’re going to include it in the evaluation or the re-evaluation report,” Kristin says. “It takes many, many hours to put a report together, because you want to describe everything you’ve observed, including their behavior during the testing—everything. Every child’s results are so different.”
How School Psychologists Collaborate with IEP Team Members
Based on what their investigations yield, school psychologists make plans to help students. When those evaluations find a student is eligible for special education services, the psychologist will frequently serve on the student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) team.
“With a team,” says Kristin, “there’s not supposed to be any kind of hierarchy. You really want to hear everybody’s thoughts and ideas, because everyone has different perspectives, which can be super helpful in finding the right methods, interventions, and programs for the child.”
The psychologist interprets the educational implications of the evaluation for the rest of the team and helps the team determine appropriate goals for the student.
Kristin says being able to consult and work with team members outside the IEP meeting is important and she cultivates personal relationships to ensure cohesive collaborations.
One team member with whom school psychologists work is the school counselor. Kristin finds even her friends don’t always understand the role of a school psychologist versus that of a school counselor. “Every school is different,” she explains, “but students see their counselor more for everyday counseling needs.”
Students will also see their counselor for such issues as academic scheduling and post-secondary planning.
They see the psychologist for evaluation.
“In a perfect world,” Kristin says, “a school psychologist would check in on all the students they evaluated all the time, but in the real world, it’s really hard to do. You might consult with the special education teacher down the road to see what’s needed and go in to see the student in the classroom if you have time. There’s just so much to do, you typically pass that torch on and evaluate your next kid, because there are so many kids to get to.”
Finding Job Satisfaction as a School Psychologist
Passing the follow-up torch to others is only one possible frustration.
Resource inequities can be another. “I have awesome resources for testing where I am,” says Kristin. “Other schools I’ve worked at, I just had to use what they had.”
Kristin is clear-eyed about the challenges, however. “Going to school and getting your degree, preps you for the perfect scenario,” she says. “You go into a school, all the resources are there, everything is perfectly set up for you. And when you get to the real world, it’s not that way. It’s not going to be perfect and it’s not going to be easy, and you just make it work the best you can.”
And, she still finds an enormous amount of satisfaction in her school psychologist job.
“When I sit down and start working with a student,” Kristin says, “and I realize why they’re really struggling, I think, ‘Oh my gosh, how long have you been struggling like this, without the supports you need?’ When you really, truly identify those kids who needed to go through the evaluation process to get the support they needed, and they do, and then you check in on them and they’re doing wonderfully with their IEP goals—that is a win for me.”
Get the Support and Freedom You Need to Help Students with PTS
Working with PTS has also brought Kristin a lot of satisfaction.
“It’s been really great for me as a mom trying to work,” she says. “I’ve got two little ones and especially during the pandemic, when there’s no preschool open, having the flexibility PTS offers is wonderful. I also like being able to work with the school to make my own hours.”
She continues, “Having the support of the company, too, is wonderful. My supervisor is always there for me. If I need anything from her, she communicates. I’ve had a great experience so far.”
Whether you’re interested in doing the daily detective work a school psychologist as Kristin does, or in starting to practice any therapy discipline in school environments, claim your free copy of PTS’ eBook, A New School-Based Therapist’s Guide to Landing the Right Job. It’s full of practical information for finding and getting a school-based position where you can do more good for more students, while striking the balance of life and work that’s best for you.