An introduction to school psychology
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 1 in 6 U.S. children aged 2 to 8 have a diagnosed behavioral, mental, or developmental disorder. Anxiety, depression, ADHD, and behavior problems are the most common.
According to a 2017 report, expenditure for the treatment of childhood mental health disorders far surpasses other costly medical conditions. This isn’t surprising when an estimated 72% of children will have experienced a traumatic event before they’re 18 years old.
Mental health issues tend to emerge during adolescence, a period when treatment is most effective. Despite this, an ACLU paper reports that up to 80% of youth do not have access to adequate mental health services. It also found that students are 21 times more likely to use school-based facilities rather than community-based resources.
Thus, school psychologists play a pivotal role in addressing children’s social, emotional, and academic problems. By linking mental health to learning and behavior, they provide specialized support and assistance to parents, teachers, and adolescents.
If you’re passionate about helping students to:
- Address, manage, and overcome mental and emotional challenges
- Reach their full academic potential
- Learn positive social skills and behavior
Then a career in school psychology may be for you.
It’s also a profession worth considering if you enjoy conducting and applying research into topics like behavior management, practical instruction, and mental health interventions.
The shortage of school psychologists
According to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), the profession is experiencing a critical shortage in the United States. There’s a disparity between the current number of school psychologists (with many reaching retirement age) and the growing student population.
NASP recommends a ratio of at least one school psychologist per 500 to 700 students. However, the available data suggests that the national ratio is at a staggering 1:1,381 and up to 1:5,000 in some states.
One study reflects a shortage of just under 15,000 school psychologists between the years 2000 and 2020. This situation can potentially undermine student, family, and school access to high-quality mental health services. More school psychologists are needed to correct the current status quo.
The profession in numbers
Payscale reports the average median base salary of a school psychologist to be $62,449 per year. However, this figure depends on various factors, including the state in which such a professional finds employment.
For instance, the annual mean wage of clinical, counseling, and school psychologists is $112,010 in Oregon and $106,900 in D.C. Meanwhile, this figure is $111,750 for California and $96,060 for Louisiana, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). It also reflects an annual mean wage of $84,120 in Rhode Island and $54,780 in West Virginia.
What do school psychologists do?
School psychologists address students’ mental health, social behavior, and emotional needs from the elementary to the college level. While they serve all school-aged populations, their roles are nuanced and can vary widely. Some choose to specialize in one area or work with a particular demographic.
They can operate on a one-on-one basis or as part of an interdisciplinary team. They’re often the only mental health practitioners in a school setting with training in child psychology, development and learning, and school systems and environments. As such, they can also work with school administrators, social workers, and counselors to improve support strategies, policies and practices, and coordinate services.
Using evidence-based strategies and research, a school psychologist typically:
Identifies, diagnoses, and treats students with mental health disorders, learning disabilities, and emotional, cognitive, and behavioral challenges
Consults with parents, teachers, and other mental health providers about a student’s social, behavioral, and learning problems
Addresses the mental health needs of at-risk students and students with disabilities
Communicates the results of psychological evaluations to teachers, parents, and others to help them better understand the student’s unique circumstances
Provides mental health services to students, including counseling, skills training, crisis prevention, interventions, and support groups
Assesses and evaluates school-related student problems
Conducts research into behavior management, mental health interventions, school programs, and effective instruction
Assists teachers and schools to implement safe and healthy learning environments
The majority of school psychologists work in a public school setting, serving one or multiple schools. Other places of employment can include private education institutions, state agencies, colleges, universities, hospitals, clinics, community healthcare organizations, and vocational schools. School psychologists may also open private practices to work with school-aged children or young adults.
How to become a school psychologist
School psychologists generally need to earn an undergraduate degree before pursuing a specialist-level graduate degree to become qualified and credentialed. While a doctorate isn’t usually required to practice, there are exceptions, which you can read about below. Additionally, a Ph.D. in school psychology equips professionals with advanced skills to work in other fields such as academia and research.
Bachelor’s degree programs
The first step to becoming a certified school psychologist is earning a 4-year undergraduate degree. A Bachelor of Arts or Sciences in fields such as psychology, child development, sociology, or education lays an adequate foundation for your graduate studies.
That said, a B.A. or B.S. in another closely related field is also typically accepted, as long as the basic electives of psychology are covered. However, it’s best to verify this with the graduate program you choose.
While undergraduate coursework varies depending on the program, a bachelor’s in psychology can include the following topics:
- Introduction to psychology
- History and systems of psychology
- Biological foundations of behavior
- Cross-cultural psychology
- Abnormal psychology
- Human development
- Research methods in psychology
- Statistical methods for behavioral sciences
- Theories of personality
Admission requirements differ depending on the bachelor’s program. These generally include a high school diploma or successful GED test, and a minimum GPA of 2.0.
Specialist-level master’s degree programs
Most states’ certification requirements include completion of a specialist-level master’s degree in school psychology. This typically consists of a minimum of 60 semester credits, 90 graduate quarter hours, or the equivalent. A 1,200-hour supervised internship, 50% of which must be in a school setting, is usually mandatory, too.
Generally, students can choose one of various specialist-level master’s degree program types, as long as it meets state requirements. According to NASP, the following are acceptable:
- Specialist in Education (Ed.S.)
- Specialist in Psychology (Psy.S)
- Master of Art (M.A.)
- Master of Science (M.S.)
Earning a specialist-level master’s degree in school psychology typically takes 3 years of full-time study and renders students eligible for licensure or certification. It’s usually the entry level certification requirement and equips graduates with the ability to practice within schools or other related educational settings. Independent or private practice opportunities may also be permitted in some states.
NASP-accredited programs ensure that candidates demonstrate sufficient competency, knowledge, and skills of NASP’s 10 school psychology domains, namely:
- Data-based accountability and decision making
- Collaboration and consultation
- Instructional support and interventions
- Mental health services for adolescents
- School-wide practices
- Responsive and preventative services
- Family and school collaboration services
- Developmental and learning diversity
- Program evaluation and research
- Professional, ethical, and legal practices
Course concentrations may also include:
- Developmental psychology
- Learning theories
- Fundamentals of behavioral theory
- Psychometric testing and measurement
- Statistical analysis
- Family systems intervention
- Multicultural counseling
- Social and emotional assessment
- Consultation theory and processes
Precise admission requirements vary. However, a 4-year undergraduate degree as described above, a minimum GPA of 3.0, and GRE scores are general prerequisites. Recommendations and work experience may also be required. It’s best to find out the particulars from your graduate school.
Master’s-level degree programs
A few states still certify graduates that have completed a master’s-level degree with less than 60 semester credits or no internship. These programs are usually shorter than their specialist-level counterparts. However, they’re not approved or accredited by NASP, which is a certification requirement in many states. Career options with a 2-year Master’s of Arts (M.A.), Sciences (M.S.), or Education (M.Ed.) may, therefore, be limited.
Such M.A., M.S., or M.Ed. graduates aren’t usually eligible for the Nationally Certified School Psychologist (NCSP) Credential, except in one or 2 states. Additionally, they may not be able to practice as a school psychologist in all states, but they could possibly qualify for a related credential. Examples include psychometry or educational diagnostics.
Doctoral degree programs
While some states only grant the title of school psychologist to those with a doctoral degree, it isn’t a certification requirement in the majority of states.
A Ph.D. in school psychology is one type of doctoral degree that equips professionals with advanced education and experience. These skills and knowledge are used to identify and address obstacles related to student learning. If you want to increase the opportunities for more diverse roles in school psychology, then it may be worth considering. Other advantages include:
- Eligibility as an accredited member of the American Psychological Association (APA)
- A wider range of career opportunities and settings, such as private or independent practices, hospitals, and clinics
- Qualifications to fulfill roles in research or academia, as an instructor, or consultant
A Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology) degree is another type of doctoral degree that has a different curriculum focus than that of a Ph.D. It emphasizes the application of existing knowledge to deliver clinical services in organizational, private, or group settings. In comparison, a Ph.D. centers around teaching experience and scientific research to accumulate knowledge in the field.
A Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) is also an alternative to a Ph.D. It’s typically designed for certified school psychologists that want to pursue in-depth leadership responsibilities in the school setting. It equips students with the necessary expertise to adopt evidence-based systems as school leaders, such as superintendents or directors of education.
A Ph.D., Psy.D., or Ed.D. degree program in school psychology is generally eligible for NASP and APA certification, as well as the NCSP credential. Requirements typically consist of:
- 90 graduate semester hours
- 5 to 6 years of full-time graduate study
- An internship of 1,200 to 1,500 hours on a full- or part-time basis, with at least 600 hours completed in a school setting
Admission requirements usually include a master’s in school psychology or another closely related field and a minimum GPA of 3.0. GRE scores, recommendations, an academic writing sample, and a statement of goals may also be required.
Related fields and alternative study routes
If you want to become a school psychologist, but have training in a related field, then there are a few available options. At the master’s level, graduates usually need to complete a school psychology program with a 1,200-hour internship. In some cases, related fieldwork and classes may be waived.
A Certificate of Advanced Study (CAS) or Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study (CAGS) is also usually accepted by NASP in conjunction with a master’s degree.
Individuals with a bachelor’s degree can also earn their doctoral degree in school psychology via a joint or dual degree program. Typically, students earn their master’s after obtaining a certain number of credits while simultaneously pursuing the doctoral curriculum. Be sure to check that such a program complies with your state’s school psychology certification requirements, though.
If you have a master’s degree in a different field, you could still be eligible to pursue a Ph.D. in school psychology. However, depending on your professional experience and previous education, you may need to take prerequisite psychology or other courses before commencing your doctoral studies.
Online, offline, and hybrid study options
Students that work full- or part-time can usually find an online degree program, whereas some graduates might prefer on-campus study. Alternatively, there may be hybrid programs available, which offer a combination of online and offline learning.
However, specialist-level master’s and doctoral degree programs typically require students to complete an internship. It’s wise to consider your daily schedule and any other responsibilities before finding a suitable program.
Below you’ll find average degree program costs according to the Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid 2020 Report. These figures represent tuition fees for full-time enrollment at 4-year institutions per academic year. They exclude additional expenses, such as learning materials, boarding, and other costs.
- A bachelor’s degree program costs $8,760 at a public institution and $37,500 at a private nonprofit institution.
- A master’s degree program costs $8,950 at a public institution and $29,670 at a private nonprofit institution.
- A doctorate degree program costs $11,440 at a public institution and $44,910 at a private nonprofit institution.
Online degrees are typically cheaper than their on-campus counterparts. That said, the costs can still vary. It’s best to compare tuition fees to find a program that suits your budget.
Licensing, certification, or credentialing
The terms “license,” “certification,” and “credential” are often used interchangeably. However, a credential usually indicates that an individual has met graduate preparation, knowledge, experience, and skill criteria. Meanwhile, licensing or certification typically refers to the legal authority to provide services within a specific jurisdiction.
Each state (except Texas and Hawaii) has a State Education Agency (SEA), as well as its own:
- Requirements for licensing or certification as a school psychologist
- Terminology and usage of the terms “license,” “certification,” and “credential”
- Identification of the professional title of “school psychologist”
- Employment settings and scope of practice of a school psychologist
Some states, such as Texas, also have a state psychology board that offers school psychologist licensing. Hawaii does not have a state agency, rendering certification a local function.
The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) offers a national credential, namely the Nationally Certified School Psychologist (NCSP) Credential. While it does not, in itself, permit practice as a school psychologist, most states include the NCSP as part of their licensing, certification, or credentialing requirements.
Consult your local SEA or other relevant agency to find out about the latest requirements.
Accreditation by a highly regarded psychology accrediting body ensures that a curriculum complies with acceptable standards of quality. It also means that other educational institutions recognize such a program when transferring credits. Moreover, an increasing number of employers also look at accreditation when considering candidates. The following are some of the primary bodies that accredit degree programs in the field of psychology:
- The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) grants national approval and accreditation of specialist-level graduate and doctoral degree programs in school psychology.
- The American Psychological Association’s (APA) Commission on Accreditation (APA-CoA) accredits graduate doctoral programs in counseling, clinical, school psychology, internships, and other specialty areas.
- The Psychological Clinical Science Accreditation System (PCSAS) is recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). It’s a nonprofit body that accredits Ph.D. programs related to clinical psychology science.
School psychology students may be eligible for financial aid from state, educational, or private organizations. Here are some helpful resources:
- Federal Student Aid offers an array of grants, scholarships, loans, and work-study options to college and graduate students. You can fill out the FAFSA application form to see if you qualify. Your local state grant agency may also have financial aid available.
- The American Psychological Foundation and the American Psychological Association have many scholarship and grant opportunities available for psychology students.
- NASP offers several grants and scholarship opportunities to school psychology students. These include The NASP-ERT Minority Scholarship Program, Graduate Student Research Grants, and a Strategic Goal Research Grant.
- The National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) supports students earning research-based graduate or doctoral degrees.
- Psi Chi, the international honorary society of psychology, offers numerous grants and awards to undergraduate students.
You can also inquire at your school about financial aid and scholarships.