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School Psychologist

Roles and Functions, Employment Settings, Relationship to Special Education, Relationship to Other Pupil Personnel Workers, Training

School psychology is the application of psychological principles and techniques to the education of children. Drawing upon its own knowledge base and that of related fields, including clinical and educational psychology, school psychology focuses on the individual study of children's learning and adjustment primarily in educational settings.

School psychology originated in the late nineteenth century. Its origins are closely connected to those of special education, clinical and educational psychology, the rise of psychological science, the development of psychoeducational tests, and the implementation of special education programs in response to the needs of atypical children required to attend school under state compulsory attendance laws.

Roles and Functions

The major roles and functions of practicing school psychologists include psychoeducational assessment, consultation, interventions, research and evaluation, in-service education, and administration.

Psychoeducational assessment. School psychologists spend at least 50 percent of their time administering psychological and educational tests, conducting observations and interviews, and gathering relevant information in the assessment of students experiencing learning and adjustment problems. The assessment often includes tests of cognitive ability, school achievement, psychomotor skills, adaptive behavior, social skills, and personal-social adjustment. Such assessments also involve interviews with parents and teachers, observations in school, and inspection of school records. Each case study is summarized in a written report.

Consultation. School psychologists spend about 20 percent of their time in consultation. This is an indirect method of providing services in which the psychologist works to alter the attitudes and behaviors of others (usually parents and teachers) to affect changes in student behavior, school curriculum, or school system policies.

Interventions. Practitioners spend about 20 percent of their time in direct interventions, including remediation and therapy, that involve referred children. Conducted individually or in groups, these services are intended to alleviate academic and behavior problems.

Research and evaluation. About 3 percent of practitioner time is devoted to research and evaluation. Although this is an important role for school psychologists, other priorities preclude much involvement in the design of research and evaluation projects that might better assess the efficacy of referral methods, assessment techniques, therapeutic outcomes, and the evaluation of district programs.

In-service education. Less than 3 percent of practitioner time is devoted to in-service education of district personnel or parents. This activity may be directed at many topics, including reducing systemic problems in child study and improving teaching or parenting skills.

Administration. Modern-day services require an unusual amount of record keeping, accounting, and administrative tasks. This role may account for 5 percent of practitioner time.

Employment Settings

Most school psychologists are employed in schools, colleges and universities, or private practice.

Schools. Surveys have consistently shown that at least 80 percent of school psychologists are employed in public school settings. Perhaps an additional 5 percent are employed in related settings such as private schools, correctional schools, residential treatment centers, and boarding schools.

Colleges and universities. About 4 percent of school psychologists have their primary employment in academic settings, usually as faculty members assigned to the training programs for school psychologists. Some hold positions in the institution's psychological services center or agency for assisting students with disabilities.

Private practice. About 4 to 5 percent of school psychologists work in private practice, many on a part-time basis. Some are independent practitioners, whereas others work within a group practice with pediatricians, psychiatrists, social workers, and other psychologists.

Relationship to Special Education

School psychology practice is closely linked to special education programs. The need for psychologists to help determine student eligibility for placement and to recommend subsequent educational programs and interventions is formalized in federal and state regulations (e.g., the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997). Practitioners spend about two-thirds of their time in activities related to special education; these activities may include any of the roles mentioned above.

Relationship to Other Pupil Personnel Workers

In most school districts, the school psychologist works with a pupil personnel services team. Other team members may be school counselors, social workers, nurses, and speech and language therapists. The team works with teachers, parents, and administrators to try to alleviate specific problems, and it consults with school personnel on district-wide prevention programs.


School psychologists are prepared in programs leading to master's (M.A., M.S., M.Ed.), specialist (Ed.S.), or doctoral (Ph.D., Ed.D., Psy.D) degrees. Approximately 220 institutions provide school psychology training in about 90 doctoral and 200 non-doctoral programs.

The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) considers the specialist degree or its equivalent (a graduate program of at least sixty semester hours including internship) as the appropriate entry-level training for school psychology practice. The American Psychological Association (APA) considers the doctoral degree as the appropriate entry-level training for school psychology practice. The department of education in the program's home state typically approves programs. The NASP approves programs according to its standards at the specialist and doctoral levels and participates in the accreditation process of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education. The APA has an accreditation office that accredits professional psychology programs at the doctoral level only.


Practice credentials are available in every state, usually from two separate agencies. Credentials offered through the state's department of education are almost always required for employment in the settings under its jurisdiction, typically all public educational facilities in the state and often private schools as well. Each state's board of examiners in psychology offers a credential for practice in the settings under its jurisdiction, typically all nonschool settings. In some states these two agencies have overlapping authority to issue credentials. These agencies issue either a certificate or a license to practice.

Growth and Current Status

The rapid development of the field is observed in the growth in the number of practitioners, organizational developments and memberships, expansion of professional literature, and the importance of professional regulation through accreditation and credentialing.

Number of school psychologists. School psychology has seen enormous growth since the 1950s. Whereas there were only 1,000 people in the field in 1950, the number of practitioners grew to 5,000 by 1970, 22,000 by 1990, and to at least 25,000 by the early twenty-first century. Female representation among school psychologists rose from about 50 percent in the 1960s to 70 percent in the early twenty-first century. Minorities comprise less than 10 percent of the work force.

Organizational representation. The field of school psychology is represented at the national level by the NASP and by the Division of School Psychology within the APA. The NASP's membership is approximately 22,000, whereas that of APA's Division of School Psychology is about 2,500. Each group holds an annual convention, provides products and literature for its members, and advocates for school psychology according to its policies. Each state has a NASP-affiliated association that provides similar services. These associations are generally independent of the state's APA-affiliated psychology association, although in some states the school psychology association is a part of the state psychology group. There may also be local and regional groups of school psychologists that affiliate with the state groups.

Literature. Two journals specifically for school psychologists were founded in the 1960s: Journal of School Psychology and Psychology in the Schools. Additional journals for school psychologists in North America include School Psychology Review, School Psychology Quarterly, Canadian Journal of School Psychology, and School Psychology International. School psychologists also subscribe to related journals (e.g., Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment, Journal of Clinical and Consulting Psychology, Exceptional Children). State and national associations provide newsletters and other publications. Books specific to school psychology date to 1930, but most have been published since 1960.

Employment and salaries. There is a shortage of practitioners in almost every state. Opportunities for employment are greatest in urban and rural school districts, as well as in academic settings. Suburban school districts also have many job opportunities.

Salaries have followed inflation for several decades. According to Daniel J. Reschly, the median salary of NASP members was in the $35,000 to $40,000 range in 1990 and in the $48,000 to $50,000 range by the late 1990s.

Future perspectives. Demand for school psychologists is expected to outweigh supply indefinitely. School settings will continue to be the primary practice locale, though job opportunities will be plentiful in other settings. Employment opportunities in training programs for persons holding doctoral degrees will be very attractive. Salaries will continue to increase at a gradual but steady rate.

Traditional practice roles will persist although the technical adequacy of test and intervention techniques will improve. The specialist level of training will continue to be the entry level for practice in school settings, but doctoral training will increasingly be expected in other settings. The number of training programs is not likely to rise by any significant extent, but more doctoral programs are expected to be established, especially in freestanding schools of professional psychology.

Credentialing for school-based practice will continue to be regulated by the state departments of education, most of which will continue to require nondoctoral training. Credentialing for nonschool practice will continue to be regulated by state boards of psychology, granting credentials mainly at the doctoral level, with increasing expectations for postdoctoral training.

The importance of diversity in school psychology training and practice will be a priority. Female representation among school psychologists may grow to 80 percent. The recruitment of males and minorities of either gender will become increasingly important.


CURTIS, MICHAEL J.; HUNLEY, SAWYER A.; and PRUS, JOSEPH R., eds. 1998. Credentialing Requirements for School Psychologists. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.

CUTTS, NORMA E., ed. 1955. School Psychologists at Mid-Century. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

FAGAN, THOMAS K., and WARDEN, PAUL G., eds. 1996. Historical Encyclopedia of School Psychology. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

FAGAN, THOMAS K., and WISE, PAULA S. 2000. School Psychology: Past, Present, and Future. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.

HILDRETH, GERTRUDE H. 1930. Psychological Service for School Problems. Yonkers-on-Hudson, NY: World Book.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997. U.S. Public Law 105-17. U.S. Code. Vol. 20, secs. 1400 et seq.

MAGARY, JAMES F., ed. 1967. School Psychological Services in Theory and Practice: A Handbook. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

RESCHLY, DANIEL J. 2000. "The Present and Future Status of School Psychology in the United States." School Psychology Review 29:507–522.

REYNOLDS, CECIL R., and GUTKIN, TERRY B., eds. 1999. Handbook of School Psychology, 3rd edition. New York: Wiley.

THOMAS, ALEX, ed. 1998. Directory of School Psychology Training Programs. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.

YSSELDYKE, JAMES; DAWSON, PEG; LEHR, CAMILLA; RESCHLY, DANIEL; REYNOLDS, MAYNARD; and TELZROW, CATHY. 1997. School Psychology: A Blueprint for Training and Practice II. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.


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