School psychology program information
The American psychologist Lightner Witmer coined the term “clinical psychology” at the turn of the 20th century. Witmer was particularly interested in child psychology and learning difficulties. In 1896, he opened the first American psychological clinic at the University of Pennsylvania. The clinic specialized in helping children with speech difficulties, behavioral problems, and sleep disturbances. Witmer was also known for promoting the idea that criminal behavior is not inherited but is a product of a person’s environment.
The study of child psychology has flourished, and psychologist today can specialize in school psychology, a branch devoted to helping children with difficulties at school.
Many of Witmer’s ideas were thought of as newfangled nonsense in his time. Today, it’s widely accepted that the environment we grow up in and the socioeconomic status of our caregivers affects our future outcomes. The study of child psychology has flourished, and psychologist today can specialize in school psychology, a branch devoted to helping children with difficulties at school.
What is school psychology?
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 children and adolescents, as well as their parents and educators.
A school psychologist may help children and adolescents with any of the following:
- managing learning differences, including ADHD and dyslexia
- addressing, managing, and overcoming mental and emotional challenges
- reaching their full academic potential
- learning positive social skills and behaviors
School psychologists draw on knowledge and research from developmental theory, cognitive psychology, and related disciplines. The profession overlaps but is distinct from educational psychology and school counseling, which will be discussed below.
What do school psychologists do?
School psychologists address students’ mental health, behavioral, and emotional needs, usually at the K-12 level. Their roles are nuanced and can vary widely. Some choose to specialize in a particular area or work with a specific 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 and school systems and environments. As such, they can also work with school administrators, social workers, and counselors to improve support strategies, policies, 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 a student’s unique circumstances
- provides mental health services to students, including assessment, skills training, crisis prevention, interventions, counseling, and support groups
The majority of school psychologists work in a public-school setting, serving a single or multiple schools. Other places of employment include private education institutions, state agencies, colleges, universities, hospitals, clinics, community healthcare organizations, and vocational schools. School psychologists may also open private practices.
Programs you might be interested in:
The idea that students are either visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learners is not supported by science. However, research has shown that the very act of thinking about your learning style can have a positive effect on studying.
The difference between a school psychologist and a school counselor
School psychologists are sometimes confused with school counselors, previously referred to as guidance counselors. The 2 fields share a common focus on child and adolescent development and provide collaborative care in cooperation with school staff, teachers, and parents, but there are also many differences.
School counselors tend to be employed by a single school, serving the entire school population.
School psychologists tend to focus on individual students with special needs or challenges and may offer their services to several schools within a district. School counselors tend to be employed by a single school, serving the entire school population. School psychologists focus on evaluation and intervention for specific issues and diagnoses, while school counselors take a more general approach to students’ wellbeing. Additionally, school counselors assist students with more practical and general matters such as university applications and career guidance.
In terms of education, school psychologists usually hold a specialist master’s-level degree in psychology and relevant state licensing. School counselors usually complete a master’s degree in counseling.
The difference between a school psychologist and an educational psychologist
School psychologists are sometimes referred to as educational psychologists, but the field of educational psychology exists in its own right. Educational psychology studies how both children and adults learn. The field is research-focused and connected to developmental and cognitive psychology. There are also interstitial roles for education psychologists that bridge research and practice in an effort to make education a more evidence-based field. Educational psychologists in such roles may apply research towards developing better instructional processes and learning assessments at schools, workplaces, and elsewhere.
An Australian meta-study found that open-ended, play-based learning increases attention spans in young children.
A critical shortage of school psychologists
Approximately 1 in 6 U.S. children aged 2 to 8 have a diagnosed behavioral, mental, or developmental disorder. This isn’t surprising given that two thirds of children experience a traumatic event before the age of 16. Anxiety, depression, ADHD, and behavioral problems are the most common.
Mental health issues tend to emerge during adolescence, a period when treatment is also most effective. Despite this, up to 80% of youth do not have access to adequate mental health services. Students are 21 times more likely to use school-based facilities over community-based resources, emphasizing the crucial role of school psychologists.
There’s a disparity between the current number of school psychologists and the growing student population.
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 and the growing student population.
NASP recommends a ratio of at least 1 school psychologist per 500–700 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.
This situation can potentially undermine student, family, and school access to high-quality mental health services. More school psychologists are needed to address this significant shortage.
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. A Ph.D. in school psychology equips professionals with advanced skills to work in other fields such as academia and research.
The first step to becoming a certified school psychologist is earning a 4-year undergraduate degree. A bachelor of arts or science in a field such as psychology, sociology, or education lays a good foundation for your graduate studies. That said, a B.A. or B.S. in another field is also typically accepted, as long as the basic psychology electives are covered. 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
Careers with a bachelor’s in psychology
If you decide not to pursue a career as a psychologist, your B.A. or B.S. in psychology is excellent preparation for a career in childcare. If you would like to work in the mental health field, you can become a partial care worker, assisting children or adolescents in a mental health or social service setting.
District of Columbia
Projected growth (2018-2028)
Associate or bachelor’s
Youth counselorMedian salary: 37K US$
Youth counselors support teens and young adults across a variety of settings, including schools, community centers and organizations, faith-based and identity-based groups. They offer nonjudgmental, empathetic support to at-risk youth dealing with issues such as poverty, mental health struggles, teen pregnancy, and gang violence.
Specialist-level master’s degree programs
Certification requirements for most states include completion of a specialist-level master’s degree in school psychology. In the U.S., specialist-level master’s degrees pertain specifically to fields connected to K-12 education. The specialist-level master’s in school psychology 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.
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 for 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 within 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
- statistical analysis
- family systems intervention
- multicultural counseling
- social and emotional assessment
- consultation theory and processes
- psychometric testing and measurement
Precise admission requirements vary. However, a 4-year undergraduate degree as described above, a minimum GPA of 3.0, and GRE scores are common prerequisites. Recommendations and work experience may also be required. It’s best to find out the particulars from your graduate school.
Careers with a specialist-level master’s degree
School psychologistMedian salary: 36K US$
School psychologists diagnose and treat mental illness, learning disabilities, and other challenges in school-aged children. They consult with parents, teachers, and other mental health providers about a student’s social, behavioral, and learning problems, and addresses the mental health needs of at-risk students and students with disabilities. They also offer skills training, crisis prevention, interventions, counseling, and support groups.See more
Non-specialist 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 M.A., M.S., or M.Ed. may therefore be limited.
Graduates with these degrees aren’t usually eligible for the NCSP credential, except in 1 or 2 states. Additionally, they may not be able to practice as a school psychologist in all states, but could possibly qualify for a related credential. Examples include psychometry or educational diagnostics.
Careers with a non-specialist master’s degree
Educational diagnosticianMedian salary: 61K US$
Educational diagnosticians assess and diagnose student learning challenges in K-12 settings. They may work alongside school psychologists and educators to develop learning plans for students with special educational needs.
PsychometristMedian salary: 48K US$
Psychometrists assist psychologists by administering and scoring psychological, neuropsychological, academic, and personality tests to clients or patients with learning disabilities, brain injuries, neurological diseases, mental health challenges, or for research purposes.
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 for becoming accredited member of the American Psychological Association (APA)
- wider range of career opportunities and settings, such as private or independent practices, hospitals, and clinics
- qualifications for roles in research or academia as an instructor or consultant
A Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology) degree is another type of doctoral degree, with a different curriculum focus than 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 another alternative to a Ph.D. It’s typically designed for certified school psychologists who want to pursue in-depth leadership responsibilities in the school setting. It equips graduates with the necessary expertise to adopt evidence-based systems as school leaders.
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.
Careers with a Ph.D. in school psychology
Research psychologistMedian salary: 82K US$
With a Ph.D. in school psychology, you could pursue a career as a researcher in the field of school psychology or educational psychology, more broadly. Scientific researchers are usually employed by a university or private research lab.
Alternative study routes
If you want to become a school psychologist, but have training in a related field, 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.
- 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.
Licensing, certification, and 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 refer to the legal authority to provide services within a specific jurisdiction, usually a state.
Each state (except Texas and Hawaii) has a state education agency that determines all of the following:
- 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; certification is a local function there.
The NASP offers a national credential, namely the Nationally Certified School Psychologist (NCSP) credential. While this credential 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 psychological 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. 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.
National Association of School Psychologists (NASP)
NASP is a professional association representing over 25,000 school psychologists, graduate students, and related professionals across the country. NASP provides evidence-based resources for school psychologists and related professionals.
American Psychological Association (APA)
With 121,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants, and students as its members, the APA is the largest and most significant organization for psychologists in the United States.