A national shortage of school psychologists proves that people can suffer from the absence of something that they don’t even know should be there.
Consider one experience of Tami Gear, ’??, fiscal and data coordinator for the Utah State Board of Education, when she was a brand-new school psychologist sitting in the break room at an elementary school.
“I heard the teachers talking about this one student, and his teacher said, ‘He doesn’t belong in my room,’” Gear recalls. “He was a student with autism, struggling with classroom behaviors. I went into that classroom to observe him.”
Gear watched students using beans to find solutions to subtraction problems. The troubled student, she noticed, wasn’t using his beans as directed—but that wasn’t the whole story.
“I watched this student do every single problem without touching a bean, and he got all the problems on the first page right,” she says. “He took a break, played with the beans, and then flipped over his paper and did the rest of the problems. He finished second-fastest in the class.”
Gear shared her insights with the boy’s teacher, saying, “He gets bored, and when he gets bored, he acts out, because a lot of what you’re doing he already knows.” Gear continues the story, saying, “That teacher went home for the weekend, and on Monday she said, ‘I thought about what you said, and I did some research, and I want to try some things with him.’ We set up some behavior supports, and it was a successful year for both of them. Before that observation, she was ready to get that student out of there. After that observation, she was empowered. Helping teachers figure out how to make kids successful makes such a difference.”
Classroom interventions are just one facet of a school psychologist’s job. These mental-health and data specialists also assess special education students, support teacher mental health, counsel with struggling students, and intervene in crises. While school counselors mostly help students build good schedules and prepare them for college and career opportunities, school psychologists are more focused on—and more highly trained in—assessment and data analysis, mental-health interventions, and behavior management.
Sounds like vital work, considering the crisis in adolescent mental health. According to the Centers for Disease Control’s annual Youth Risk Behavior Survey, close to 20 percent of students nationwide reported having seriously considered suicide in 2019. Unfortunately, while experts recommend a ratio of one school psychologist for every 500 to 700 students, no U.S. state meets that standard. Most don’t even come close.
Utah’s ratio, Gear says, is more than 1,900 students for each of the 353 school psychologists working in the state today. Some states have it even worse. The National Association of School Psychologists reports that Arkansas has more than 4,300 students for each of its school psychologists, and a few other states’ numbers are even higher.
“It’s already a hard job, but when you’re spread really thin, it’s even harder,” says Margot Gardiner, ’??, school psychologist for an elementary and middle school in Utah’s Nebo School District. “Two or three times a year I think, ‘I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing this.’ It’s not the work itself—I love the work—it’s the quantity of work that makes it kind of miserable sometimes. It’s really discouraging when you can’t give kids what they need and what you’re trained to give them.”
One reason the problem may have gotten this severe is its unseen nature, says Terisa Gabrielsen, ’82, McKay School associate professor of counseling psychology and special education and a nationally certified school psychologist.
“School psychology needs a public relations campaign, because they’re just not seen,” Gabrielsen says. “They’re not assigned to any group, like school counselors. They work with any kids who need help. Their office is tucked away so students coming in for services have privacy. I call it a stealth profession because it’s so confidential,” she says.
A typical week for Gardiner will always include evaluating special-education students. Because one-on-one assessments are federally mandated every three years, Utah’s school psychologists must perform about 80 per year. In addition, she serves dozens of students whose individualized education plans (IEPs) mandate psychological services. And that’s before she ever sets foot in a classroom for observation and support, meets with administrators and school counselors, or helps families find solutions to their children’s challenges.
“School psychologists have the training to solve a lot of really important problems, such as suicidal thoughts and behaviors and looking at individual needs and creating a plan based on those needs,” says Gabrielsen. “But they can’t do that if they’re not there.”
Gear is blunt about the results of that absence: kids who need help aren’t getting it. Problems balloon into crises. Teachers’ needs go unmet. “You hope you’ll be there when you need to be there, but you won’t always be,” she says. Contracting work out to private providers is also problematic, Gabrielsen says, because those professionals don’t have the local relationships or education-related training of school psychologists.
So what can be done? Gear, Gardiner, and Gabrielsen have some ideas that could help:
• Expand school psychology programs. “BYU admits about 12 school psychology students per year in a three-year program,” Gabrielsen says. “That means there are 36 future school psychologists being prepared here at any given time.” Many other graduate programs are similar-sized or smaller. Expanding programs means investing, of course, in faculty, recruitment, and facilities. But it would also begin to close the gap between what is needed and what is available.
• Innovate within existing programs. One such innovation is the McKay School’s rural school psychology initiative, which aims to recruit two graduate students a year who live and work in rural Utah towns. These students attend classes virtually, traveling to campus once a semester, and are already invested in the schools they will serve when they earn their degrees. This kind of targeted recruiting makes it likelier that students will work long-term in schools. Both Gear and Gabrielsen mention targeted recruiting of undergraduate students in psychology, sociology, and education majors, and Gardiner suggests targeting mid-life alumni somewhat like herself: graduating in 2004 in history teaching, she became instead a wife and mother until her husband contracted cancer and later died. “He worked for BYU, so I could go back to school for free,” she says. “When he got sick, I started working as a secretary in the counseling center at Pleasant Grove Junior High. The school psychologist at Pleasant Grove was a friend and really encouraged me.” That mentoring, Gardiner says, combined with providing information to alumni about options they might have, could increase interest in school psychology. Gabrielsen seconds that: she too was a “nontraditional” student who returned to graduate school when her youngest child started college.
• Lighten the load of school psychologists. Gardiner had a great experience with a data technician her district hired one year to help her out. “I love assessment, gathering data, and analysis, and I wouldn’t want anyone to take it away from me, but last year my caseload was just out of control,” she says. “They hired a graduate-school student who could work full-time, and it was fantastic. I met the needs of a much bigger population because I could delegate responsibilities to him, according to his training, and focus on kids with the biggest problems, according to mine.” Districts without a psychologist in every school could start by hiring registered behavior technicians or other credentialed personnel, Gardiner suggests. “If I had a tner I could delegate to, I could keep two schools,” she says. “My district has talked about piloting a program like that. My thought was that what I had been doing was the pilot! Let’s just go!”
•Dream big. In an ideal world, Gabrielsen says, every school would have a psychologist of their own—maybe two for large high schools. “Being a member of the school community puts you in a position to do a lot of preventive work,” she says. “You build and maintain relationships with faculty, administration, parents, and students, and you get to see them every day. When something comes up, you’re there to offer support in a targeted, effective manner. You manage things before they get to a crisis, and you guide teachers and staff better and help them to less punitive practices. You identify a problem, get out in front of it, and teach the whole community.” Gabrielsen adds, “Everybody’s well intentioned. Everybody is doing the best they can in a really tough situation. But what we’re often left with are Band-Aids over big or growing problems, and that is just not as good. The point is, it could be so much better.”
Written by: Stacy Kratz