Exhibits, Forms, and Figures


About the Author



Chapter 1: Wearing Many Hats



Prevention and Intervention


Pulling It All Together

Key Points

Discussion Questions

Chapter 2: Finding Where You Belong

Getting Situated at a New School Site

Building Relationships with Key Staff Members

Beginning-of-School Logistics

Once You Are Settled In: Introducing Yourself

Pulling It All Together

Key Points

Discussion Questions

Chapter 3: Help! I’m Drowning in Paperwork! How to Tame The Bureaucracy Monster

Managing Your Assessment Caseload

Completing Your Assessments Within Timelines

Documenting and Tracking Interventions, Counseling, and Crisis Counseling

What’s Next? Time Management Tips for Balancing Assessment Caseloads with Other Roles

Pulling It All Together

Key Points

Discussion Questions

Chapter 4: Intervention and Prevention

How to Be Preventive When You Have No Time

Developing and Supporting Academic Interventions

Developing and Supporting Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Interventions

Developing Your Own Prevention Activities and Programs

Common Pitfalls and What to Do About Them

Pulling It All Together

Key Points

Discussion Questions

Chapter 5: Response to Intervention (RTI)

School Psychologists’ Roles in RtI

Academic RtI: Data-Based Decision Making

Behavioral RtI: Data-Based Decision Making

How to Track Individual Student Progress with Your RtI Team

Navigating Your Role Change

Pulling It All Together

Key Points

Discussion Questions

Chapter 6: Special Education Assessment

The Assessment Process: From Parental Consent to Report Writing

A Note About Other Types of Evaluations

Pulling It All Together

Key Points

Discussion Questions

Chapter 7: The Individualized Education Plan (IEP)

Before the IEP Meeting

During the IEP Meeting

After the IEP Meeting

Pulling It All Together

Key Points

Discussion Questions

Chapter 8: Do You Have A Minute? How to Be An Effective Consultant

Where Theory Meets Real Life

Pulling It All Together

Key Points

Discussion Questions

Chapter 9: Individual Counseling

Counseling Roles

Types of School-Based Individual Counseling

Beginning Counseling

During Counseling: Documentation and Sticky Situations

Pulling It All Together

Key Points

Discussion Questions

Chapter 10: Group Counseling

Starting a Group: Factors to Consider

What to Do When Things Get Messy

Pulling It All Together

Key Points

Discussion Questions

Chapter 11: The Dreaded Late-Night Phone Call

Preparation for a Crisis

Types of Crises

Pulling It All Together

Key Points

Discussion Questions

Chapter 12: Put on Your Oxygen Mask Before Helping Others

Practicing Self-Care

Maintaining Healthy Work-Life Boundaries

Pulling It All Together

Key Points

Discussion Questions

Bibliography and Resources


More praise for The School Psychologist’s Survival Guide

“Taking up where grad school leaves off, smart and savvy Rebecca Branstetter has written a practical, thorough, and truly helpful guide that will ease the nervousness of newbies and provide a revitalizing refresher for experienced school psychologists. An invaluable book for getting started, keeping up and ultimately finding satisfaction in this whirlwind of a career.”

Katherine A. Briccetti, Ph.D., school psychologist, Piedmont (California) Unified School District, author of Blood Strangers: A Memoir

“In the first book of its kind, Dr. Branstetter provides an invaluable resource for school psychologists both new and veteran. Her easy humor, reproducible charts and letters, and on-the-job personal experiences help translate classroom and textbook learning into real-life application.”

Aimee Koehler, author of Musings of an Urban School Psychologist blog

“In The School Psychologist’s Survival Guide, Dr. Branstetter provides a wealth of helpful hints in dealing with the breadth of activities that school psychologists engage in. From the practical to the pragmatic, these ideas and the summary tables will be useful for both new and experienced practitioners as well as for school psychology trainers and interns.”

Frank C. Worrell, Ph.D., director, School Psychology Program, University of California at Berkeley

Jossey-Bass Teacher

Jossey-Bass Teacher provides educators with practical knowledge and tools to create a positive and lifelong impact on student learning. We offer classroom-tested and research-based teaching resources for a variety of grade levels and subject areas. Whether you are an aspiring, new, or veteran teacher, we want to help you make every teaching day your best.

From ready-to-use classroom activities to the latest teaching framework, our value-packed books provide insightful, practical, and comprehensive materials on the topics that matter most to K–12 teachers. We hope to become your trusted source for the best ideas from the most experienced and respected experts in the field.

Other titles in the Jossey-Bass Teacher Survival Guide Series

First-Year Teacher’s Survival Guide: Ready-to-Use Strategies, Tools & Activities for Meeting the Challenges of Each School Day, Second Edition

Julia G. Thompson ISBN 978-0-7879-9455-6

The Art Teacher’s Survival Guide for Elementary and Middle Schools, Second Edition

Helen D. Hume ISBN 978-0-470-18302-1

The Classroom Teacher’s Survival Guide: Practical Strategies, Management Techniques and Reproducibles for New and Experienced Teachers, Third Edition

Ronald L. Partin ISBN 978-0-470-45364-3

Writing Workshop Survival Kit, Second Edition

Gary Robert Muschla ISBN 978-0-7879-7619-4

Special Educator’s Survival Guide, Second Edition

Roger Pierangelo Ph.D. ISBN 978-0-7879-7096-3

The English Teacher’s Survival Guide: Ready-to-Use Techniques & Materials for Grades 7–12, Second Edition

Mary Lou Brandvik and Katherine S. McKnight ISBN 978-0-470-52513-5

School Newspaper Adviser’s Survival Guide

Patricia Osborn ISBN 978-0-7879-6624-9

Play Director’s Survival Kit: A Complete Step-by-Step Guide to Producing Theater in Any School or Communtity Setting

James W. Rodgers and Wanda C. Rodgers ISBN 978-0-87628-565-7

Math Teacher’s Survival Guide: Practical Strategies, Management Techniques, and Reproducibles for New and Experienced Teachers, Grades 5–12

Judith A. Muschla, Gary Robert Muschla and Erin Muschla. ISBN 978-0-470-40764-6

A Survival Kit for the Elementary School Principal: With Reproducible Forms, Checklists & Letters

Abby Barry Bergman ISBN 978-0-7879-6639-3

The Reading Teacher’s Survival Kit: Ready-to-Use Checklists, Activities and Materials to Help All Students Become Successful Readers

Wilma H. Miller Ed.D. ISBN 978-0-13-042593-5

Biology Teacher’s Survival Guide: Tips, Techniques & Materials for Success in the Classroom

Michael F. Fleming ISBN 978-0-13-045051-7

The Elementary/Middle School Counselor’s Survival Guide, Third Edition

John J. Schmidt Ed.D. 978-0-470-56085-3

Discipline Survival Guide for the Secondary Teacher, Second Edition

Julia G. Thompson ISBN 978-0-470-54743-4

The Substitute Teaching Survival Guide, Grades K–5: Emergency Lesson Plans and Essential Advice

John Dellinger ISBN 978-0-7879-7410-7

The Substitute Teaching Survival Guide, Grades 6–12: Emergency Lesson Plans and Essential Advice

John Dellinger ISBN 978-0-7879-7411-4

The Classroom Teacher’s Technology Survival Guide

Doug Johnson ISBN 978-1-1180-2455-3


To my husband and greatest supporter, Steven Branstetter

Exhibits, Forms, and Figures


Exhibit 2.1 Sample Multiple-Site Work Schedule
Exhibit 2.2 Sample Letter to Staff
Exhibit 3.1 Sample Master Assessment Log
Exhibit 3.2 Sample Master Triennial Calendar
Exhibit 3.3 Sample Weekly To-Do Calendar
Exhibit 5.1 Sample Individual Intervention Plan and Tracking Form
Exhibit 9.1 Resources for Counseling
Exhibit 9.2 Sample SOAP Notes
Exhibit 10.1 Sample Group Referral Form
Exhibit 10.2 Sample Group Counseling Permission Slip (English)
Exhibit 10.3 Sample Group Counseling Permission Form (Spanish)
Exhibit 10.4 Sample Group Reminder
Exhibit 10.5 Sample Ten-Week Agenda for Talent Group
Exhibit 10.6 Sample Daily Agenda for Talent Group
Exhibit 11.1 Sample Crisis Intervention Handout
Exhibit 11.2 Sample Crisis Letter to Parents


Form 2.1 Confidential IEP Summary
Form 2.2 School Psychologist Schedule
Form 3.1 Master Triennial Calendar
Form 5.1 Individual Intervention Plan and Tracking Form
Form 6.1 Psychological Services Memo: CONFIDENTIAL
Form 6.2 Cumulative and Special Education Review Checklist
Form 6.3 Classroom Observation Form
Form 6.4 Developmental History
Form 6.5 Survey/Rating Scale Memo to Teacher(s)
Form 6.6 Teacher Feedback Survey
Form 6.7 Survey/Rating Scale Memo to Parent(s)
Form 9.1 Consent for Individual Counseling
Form 9.2 Consentimiento para Consejería Individual
Form 11.1 Suicide Assessment
Form 11.2 Threat Assessment
Form 11.3 Crisis Counseling Referral Form
Form 11.4 Crisis Referral Tracking Sheet


Figure 4.1 Response to Intervention Pyramid
Figure 6.1 Assessment Flowchart: Initial Referral
Figure 7.1 Normal Curve (English)
Figure 7.2 Normal Curve (Spanish)


Writing this book has been a journey. I have had many people come along with me, encouraging me to keep going, and giving me great advice and guidance. First and foremost, I want to thank my husband, Steven, for all the encouragement and support. Your advice to “just write thirty minutes a day” paid off, especially in the final stretch of getting the book completed while I was nine months pregnant with our baby girl! I couldn’t have finished it without you by my side.

Thanks to my family—my parents, Ann and John, and my sister, Sammi, for your support and encouragement as well. Having educators in the family to consult with has certainly been to my advantage as I write about ways to support teachers and students.

I also want to thank my editor, Margie McAneny, for finding me among a sea of bloggers and supporting this book idea. I have enjoyed the process and appreciate your giving me creative license to write a book with a personal narrative. I hope that readers find the book more accessible as a result. I also want to acknowledge my fabulous peer reviewers—Danielle Nahas, Kelley Pursell, Lainie Sgouros, and Kate Perry. Your input was invaluable in making sure the book captured a range of experiences for school psychologists. Thanks so much!

I wouldn’t even be writing this acknowledgment section if it weren’t for my good friend and PR guru, Jennifer Parson. You encouraged me to start my blog and Facebook page in the first place and coached me every step of the way, and for that, I thank you.

About the Author

Rebecca Branstetter is both a school psychologist and a clinical psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area. She graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, school psychology program with her doctorate in 2004. After graduating, she conducted her postdoctoral work at the University of California, San Francisco Autism Clinic. She has worked as a school psychologist in both the San Francisco and Oakland school districts for the past ten years. She is the founder of Grow Assessment and Counseling Services, a private practice agency that works with children and families in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Rebecca also writes the blog Notes from the School Psychologist and is the editor of The Teachable Moment: Seizing the Instants When Children Learn (Kaplan, 2010), an anthology about reaching the difficult-to-reach child.


When I started my career as a school psychologist ten years ago, I was ridiculously unprepared for the challenges that lay ahead of me. Armed only with optimism, pluck, and a few years of practicum and coursework, I thought I was ready to work in a large urban school district. I fancied myself the school psychologist version of Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds, changing the world, one student at a time. Little did I know, there were on-the-job skills I didn’t have, and I learned something new every ten minutes. I was fortunate to have a fantastic supervisor, Minoo Shah, who guided me through my traumatic first few years, when I made mistake after mistake. I felt for school psychologists who did not have the great mentoring I did. I couldn’t believe all the things I was never taught in graduate school. This is not my alma mater’s fault: there are some things you just have to learn when you are on the job for the first time.

One thing no one ever told me going into this profession was that it could be isolating. Even though I am surrounded by educators, children, and parents every day, I only get to see my school psychologist colleagues once a month at staff meetings. The support and input you receive from your colleagues is instrumental in preventing burnout and becoming a better practitioner. So in 2007, I began my blog, Notes from the School Psychologist (, in an effort to connect with other school psychologists and share knowledge I wish I had starting out. Whether I was talking about how to deal with nasty advocates at meetings or giving advice about how not to accidentally form a gang in group therapy, I felt good about helping other school psychologists learn from my mistakes. Little did I know, my blog and subsequent Facebook page for the blog would connect me to colleagues across the country, all of whom have great information to share, insights to learn from, and emotional support I didn’t even know I needed. I love hearing from colleagues about how to improve our skills, our profession, and our experience in day-to-day life as school psychologists.

I began to receive e-mails asking me to recommend a resource for school psychologists to learn the on-the-job skills needed to be successful. I knew of no such resource—one that provided practical, real-world advice about how to be an effective school psychologist. That is how this book came to be. I hope you find it useful, entertaining, and practical. I have enjoyed consulting with many of you to make sure the book captures the wide range of experiences we have in this profession. Thank you all for your input, and enjoy!


School psychologists are professionals who provide mental health and educational services within school districts, typically for students with special needs. School psychology was named one of the top twenty careers in 2009 by U.S. News and World Report, and represents a growing field. The U.S. Department of Labor cites employment opportunities in school psychology at both the specialist and doctoral levels as among the best across all fields of psychology.

Much has been written about the technical aspects of performing the job of a school psychologist, such as theories of learning, principles of cognitive assessment, and counseling theory. However, there is little so far about the nuts-and-bolts practical side of the profession—what school psychologists experience once they are in the field. There is a growing need for a survival guide for navigating the day-to-day challenges of working in the bureaucracy of a school district, managing large caseloads, dealing with legal and ethical challenges on the job, and crisis management. There is a dearth of materials for school psychologists with regard to how to bridge the theories learned in graduate school and the practical challenges experienced during the workday.

The purpose of The School Psychologist’s Survival Guide is to bridge that gap between research and reality. School psychologists just entering the field are often lacking the day-to-day practical advice they need to survive in the job, and the theories they learned in graduate school about how to deliver high-quality services in the schools often do not match the reality of the job. This guide will give new school psychologists ready-to-use tools they need to streamline their work flow and overcome the challenges they face every day. School psychologists who have already been working in the field will also profit from fresh ideas about how to improve their practice and prevent burnout.

The School Psychologist’s Survival Guide takes on the top challenges school psychologists face every day and provides real-world solutions. Instead of a dry textbook about the profession and a school psychologist’s job duties, it brings to life how to bridge the gap between best practices according to the research, and the realities of working in school district bureaucracies, often with limited resources. The purpose is to give new school psychologists a go-to resource with ready-to-use strategies and time-saving reproducible materials they can use every day.

Although I’ve taken great care to represent school psychologists’ experiences across the country, there are differences in how laws and policies are interpreted by states, districts, and school sites. You will want to stay current with your local and state guidelines and laws, and consult with your supervisors and site staff about the application of these hands-on tools and strategies in your local setting.

This guide begins with a big-picture overview of the job of a school psychologist, including the many roles that we play on a daily basis. Chapters Two and Three focus on the day-to-day logistical challenges that we face—from heavy caseloads to working in janitors’ closets to battling with unnecessary paperwork—and how to deal with them. The subsequent chapters are organized by the roles that school psychologists frequently assume in the schools. These chapters do not necessarily need to be read sequentially, as school psychologists’ jobs are often different depending on the particular schools to which they are assigned. Chapters Four through Seven detail ways to become more efficient in working with students experiencing academic and behavioral challenges. Chapter Four discusses practical ways to become involved in prevention and early intervention; Chapter Five outlines strategies for being effective in schools implementing a Response to Intervention (RtI) framework. Chapters Six and Seven highlight how to be more efficient in the special education referral and assessment process and how to be an effective presenter at Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings.

In addition to providing advice and resources for the assessment and intervention process, this guide describes nuts-and-bolts techniques for being an effective consultant (Chapter Eight) and providing counseling services (Chapters Nine through Eleven). Specific strategies as well as ready-to-use forms are available in these chapters, which discuss individual counseling (Chapter Nine), group counseling (Chapter Ten), and crisis counseling (Chapter Eleven). The guide concludes with an important chapter on preventing burnout and increasing job satisfaction (Chapter Twelve).

Overall, The School Psychologist’s Survival Guide aims to help new and veteran school psychologists become more efficient and effective service providers, improve and hone their skills in the multitude of roles they assume in the schools, and increase their job satisfaction. With practical ready-to-use forms and time-saving suggestions, this guide will be your go-to resource for dealing with the situations that were never covered in graduate school. Sprinkled throughout the guide is a touch of school psychologist humor, which is of course a necessary ingredient for survival in this profession!

chapter 1


The Roles of the School Psychologist

I’ve been told that you should be able to explain your career to a stranger in the time it takes to ride an elevator for a few floors. I have been working on my school psychologist “elevator speech” for years now, and I think I need to be in a high-rise elevator in order to fully explain my duties. That is because school psychologists may be responsible for many different tasks, and their roles vary considerably from school to school, district to district, and state to state. I have finally settled on saying, “School psychologists are like if a teacher and a psychologist had a baby. We do interventions to prevent school failure, test struggling students to uncover reasons for learning problems, and provide them with appropriate interventions. Those interventions could involve special education services, counseling, or consulting with teachers and parents to help students with their areas of need.” Then, inevitably, someone responds with, “Oh, so you’re a counselor?” Sigh. It really is a difficult profession to explain.

In general, school psychologists have four main “hats” they may wear in the schools: assessor, consultant, prevention and intervention specialist, and counselor. Each graduate school program places different emphases on these roles, but once you are working in the schools, you are often expected to fulfill many, if not all, of these roles in some capacity. There will also be unofficial roles in your job as well, depending on your school sites. These could range from supervising traffic during afternoon dismissal to serving on administrative committees. This chapter outlines the four most likely roles of the school psychologist and helps you identify chapters in this guide that will help you improve your skills and bolster your effectiveness in each role.


Assessing students is often seen as the primary role of the school psychologist, though this varies among districts and schools. Historically, school psychologists came on the scene in 1975 as a part of the first special education law, PL94-142. Under this law, school psychologists were identified as the professionals responsible for testing students to evaluate their school functioning related to special education disability criteria. Even now, for many school psychologists, assessment of students suspected of having disabilities and of those students already in special education continues to be the primary role in many districts.

In graduate school, the first courses I completed were in psychoeducational assessment, which covered the history of tests and how to administer them, and in applied statistics, which covered in part how to interpret the information that the test administrations produced. It was exciting learning all the new tools, practicing administering IQ tests (mostly on the children of professors and friends), and perfecting the art of the standardized assessment. I remember borrowing my first testing kit, then housed in a 1980s-style briefcase that weighed almost as much as I did. I felt so fancy clicking it open and administering the tests with my brand-new stopwatch that I had rigged to be nearly unnoticeable by removing its beeper. It was so exciting.

Ten years later, the luster and excitement of administering these tests has faded, my iPhone has replaced my cute little timer, I’ve ditched the circa 1982 briefcase, and I’ve administered IQ tests so many times that I have them memorized. I would estimate that I have given the same test about seven hundred times since becoming a school psychologist. Although this has the potential to become extraordinarily boring, one thing that keeps it fresh is the challenge of figuring out how to help a child learn more easily and efficiently. Each child is like a puzzle, and each test we give is a piece of the puzzle in understanding how the child learns best and what gets in the way of learning. No two children approach testing the same way. You can learn a lot about kids just from their reactions to the words, “Today we are going to do a series of activities to see how you learn best!” From “Go away, I’m not special ed!” to “Yay! Let’s go!” you can learn a lot about students that the numbers won’t be able to tell you. There are many tricks of the trade for making the evaluation process meaningful, in terms of both the numbers you get and of the qualitative observations of how kids tackle problems. Chapter Six outlines how to gain information from your assessments that is useful for helping students, their parents, and their teachers.

Your testing caseload will vary tremendously according to the size of your school district, the area of the country in which you are employed, the type of setting in which you work (rural, suburban, or urban), and the policies of each school district regarding your responsibilities in general education (intervention and prevention) and special education. As a school psychologist, you are often assigned both new referrals (often called “initials”) and legally mandated three-year assessments (often called “triennials” or “reevaluations”). Each of these assessments has its own legal timeline for completion, which is an added pressure for a school psychologist. The first year I was employed by a large urban school district, I was assigned three schools of approximately five hundred students each. The list of mandatory three-year evaluations I had to complete that year numbered about seventy-five. In addition, I was employed only three days per week! I couldn’t fathom how I would get through it all within the timelines, and many of the cases were already overdue when I walked in the door my first day. Even without any new referrals, I felt that my caseload was almost impossible if I wanted to do a thorough job with each student.

I learned more about the dramatic differences in caseloads through my blog, Notes from the School Psychologist ( I asked the online community of school psychologists who follow the blog to report their testing caseloads on the blog’s Facebook page. The reported yearly caseloads for full-time psychologists ranged from 4 to 120, with the median at about 60. One of the main factors that determined caseload was whether or not the district had adopted the Response to Intervention (RtI) method of identifying and responding to learning difficulties, which heavily emphasizes prevention and early intervention. Regardless of your caseload and whether or not your school has adopted RtI, in Chapters Four and Five you will learn more about how to infuse a preventive model of intervention into your daily work to reduce the amount of time you spend doing individual assessments.

Another key factor in determining caseload is school placement. School psychologists at the elementary level tend to have more initial evaluations, and school psychologists at middle and high schools tend to have more triennial reevaluations. Psychologists assigned to preschool diagnostic centers, bilingual assessment teams, charter school teams, and nonpublic school teams tend to have the most restrictive roles; evaluation responsibilities make up nearly all of their daily activities.

Your role may also be more complex if your student population has a high proportion of students learning English as a second language, if your school has a large homeless or transient student population, or if a significant number of students qualify for free and reduced lunch due to living in poverty. In these schools, assessment cases tend to be lengthier, and they are more challenging in terms of teasing out environmental and situational factors that contribute to learning and emotional challenges. Chapter Six details these specific roles within school districts. One of the great things about school psychology as a profession is that there are opportunities to mix it up in terms of the ages and types of students you will see.

In assessment-heavy school placements, one of the most challenging aspects for all psychologists is completing quality assessments within legal timelines. Fortunately, there are a few things that will help you streamline this process. Chapter Three will help you with a structure to organize and effectively complete your assessments within timelines.


One of the services that principals, teachers, and parents value the most is consultation with you. Once you establish yourself as a resource, you will have plenty of “customers” knocking on your door, calling you for advice, or e-mailing you about their concerns for their students. In my experience, I often get a ton of little notes in my school mailbox with requests to talk about particular students. Given all the other obligations you have and the limited time available to talk to teachers during the day, you will probably find it challenging to carve out quality time to consult about students. At times it can feel as though you’re doing “psychological triage”—sorting all the calls, notes, e-mails, and requests by urgency of need.

School psychologists are expected to be knowledgeable in many areas, including but not limited to child development, disabilities, assessment, teaching, parenting, learning, special education law, general education law, discipline, district procedures, classroom management, relationships, intervention, prevention, data analysis, crisis management, and counseling. Tall order! I remember when I was in my school psychologist internship, people would come to me all the time with really difficult questions that I would have no idea how to answer. Even now, after nearly ten years of experience, I still get stumped by some of the situations that arise.

Learning to be an effective consultant is not about knowing all the answers. In many ways, it’s about knowing the right questions. Effective consultation also requires an understanding of the relationships between you, the consultee, and the student or students in question. Despite its complexity, consultation offers many rewards. When you effectively consult with a staff member about how to work with a child in need, you educate him or her on working with similar children down the road, and all the kids in the teacher’s class benefit from the new knowledge. Depending on your graduate school program, you may or may not have been explicitly taught how to consult, especially how to consult with staff who seem unwilling to consult with you. There are many different models of consultation as well, and finding one that is a good match for you is important. Chapter Eight discusses how to be an effective consultant, and Chapter Eleven talks about ways to use consultation in crisis situations.


Even before special education law first introduced the term Response to Intervention (RtI) in the revision of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 2004, school psychologists understood the importance of prevention in increasing positive student outcomes. Whether or not your school has existing structures to support prevention and early intervention activities, you can often carve out a role for yourself in providing prevention services. The benefits of dedicating your time and energy to prevention include reducing your assessment caseload and keeping students from falling so far behind that they give up.

School psychologists will often face discrepancies between research-supported best practices and the realities of the school district policies and legal guidelines regarding eligibility for special education services. Many times I have heard myself say ridiculous things, such as “He is below grade level, but he’s not far enough behind to be considered disabled, so he doesn’t qualify for services.” What? That doesn’t make sense. The idea behind early intervention and prevention is that kids receive targeted services before they fall behind or give up on school. A student shouldn’t be forced to fail in order to receive much-needed assistance.

The school psychologist plays a key role in developing appropriate interventions for struggling students. Since the change in IDEA law, there are more and more opportunities to prevent students from struggling in the first place. Your role will depend on what your district’s policies and funding structures are, and whether your state or school district has adopted RtI. Unfortunately, it is still the case that many school psychologists are put in the difficult position of adhering to policies that don’t make intuitive sense and aren’t backed up by the robust research on the power of prevention and early intervention. Some school districts have followed the research about prevention and adopted an RtI model of service delivery. The general concept of RtI is that prevention and early intervention are better than remediation—financially, ethically, and practically speaking. However, the traditional role of the school psychologist has been to intervene when things become so difficult for a student that a disability is suspected and special education may be warranted. This “wait to fail” model is not supported by research or common sense. School psychologists are often in need of practical suggestions on how to navigate a useful course between best practices and district policies. Chapter Four talks about ways to infuse a prevention model of delivery into your day-to-day work schedule, and Chapter Five details the array of school psychologists’ roles in RtI.


When I first heard about the profession of school psychology, I had this fantasy of sitting in a cute little office full of play therapy materials, sipping herbal tea and waiting for little friends to come by for a warm, cozy session where we talked about feelings. Doesn’t that sound great? Little did I know, most days would involve my frantically trying to prioritize and tackle my to-do list, which grew exponentially by the minute. I never thought my only counseling time would be spent doing crisis counseling. Colleagues across the country have reported on the Notes from the School Psychologist Blog Facebook page that they are not even allowed to do counseling at their school sites. So sad! Counseling is one of the most rewarding parts of my job because it allows me to have direct, ongoing contact with the students. Carving out this quality time can be a challenge, though.

As I became more efficient with my other obligations (assessment, report writing, attending and leading IEP meetings), I liberated more of my time to devote to counseling. I started a few counseling groups at lunchtime so that I could provide direct services to students and feel more preventive. Your counseling caseload will likely vary by school site, funding structures, physical space, and district priorities. Counseling might not even be a permitted role for you, or you may not have the training to feel comfortable with a counseling role. In some states, school counselors are responsible for counseling services, particularly at the elementary school level. In other states, there is a distinction between school psychologists and school psychologist examiners, and only the school psychologists can do counseling. It should be noted, however, that counseling is not for everyone, even if you are permitted to do it. For those of you who share my love of counseling and are permitted to do it in your current role, Chapters Nine (individual counseling) and Ten (group counseling) discuss in detail the counseling roles you may assume.

As a note of encouragement for those who enjoy the counseling role, when I changed districts, there was funding in place for two full days a week of counseling and prevention activities. I finally got to talk about feelings with my little friends on a regular basis, just as I had imagined. Sure, I shared my cute little office with three other people, I had to buy my own therapy supplies, and there was no electrical plug for a teakettle for my herbal tea, but I still love the regular direct contact with students.


Reading the list of all of our responsibilities as school psychologists can be daunting. That list is not even exhaustive! There are days when I am alternately on yard duty, consoling crying teachers who want to quit, getting icepacks for kids who have fought on the yard, searching for a lost file, tracking down paperwork, fighting with Human Resources about inaccurate pay, putting on parent education nights, attending school events, driving to a school to test a kid who won’t work with me, driving to a child’s home to locate a parent to sign documents, or even searching for a stapler or a functioning printer. These are the days when I feel stretched in too many different directions to be functional or efficient. The good news is that most school psychologists love the excitement, challenge, and ever-changing environment, and often thrive in the chaos. We adapt, learn amazing executive functioning and planning skills, and feel empowered to make a difference in the lives of our students.

We also need strong, reliable coping skills to manage the stress and chaos. You cannot help others effectively if you do not have a deep bag of tricks for managing your own stress. Burnout in this profession can be high, and, as for any job, you need to learn how to tackle the daily stressors and cope with the challenges of the job. It is often the challenges of managing your time, enforcing emotional boundaries, and dealing with bureaucracy that cause burnout rather than the direct work with the children. Chapter Three details practical tips on taming the “Bureaucracy Monster,” and Chapter Twelve discusses the importance of self-care in becoming an effective and emotionally healthy school psychologist. You might want to bookmark those chapters!

Key Points


1. What are the current roles of a school psychologist in your school or district? How are they defined? Is there flexibility in roles, or are they prescribed for you?

2. If you are not yet working in a school, which role is most appealing to you? Which is least appealing? Why?

3. How do you set role boundaries at your school site? It can be challenging to say no to extra duties, especially when you are a new employee or your duties are ill defined at your school site. What are some strategies for defining your role without appearing rigid or unwilling to take on more work?

4. At times, a school psychologist’s roles are defined by those of his or her predecessor. How do you renegotiate your role with employees at your new school site?

5. In which of the four roles do you think you need the most support in developing your skills? What supports are available to you for professional development and practical advice?

6. If you were in an interview for a job in a school district, what key questions would you ask about roles expected of school psychologists?