By Elaine Hosie MAPS
Director of Educational Services, Melbourne Grammar School
The primary task of the school psychologist is to counsel students about matters that impact on their academic progress. While this is a varied and psychologically diverse task, it would appear not overly complicated and is aimed at achieving the best possible educational outcomes for the student using focused generalist behavioural principles.
While the purpose might be clear, the reality of being a resident psychologist in a school becomes more like walking the high-wire while juggling an increasing number of ethical and professional balls, and at the same time maintaining the primary focus of student educational progress. This juggling act creates possible conflicts of interest at every move. The school psychologist must balance a system of interlocking networks that all have an interest in the life of the student – the school’s values and expectations, teachers’ expectations, concerns of parents and families, the internal psychological life of the student, and the ethical standards expected of a practising psychologist. This requires multi-dimensional expertise, a canny political nous and an abiding sense of adventure – not for the faint hearted!
Schools differ in their particular expectations of their students, but reliably expect that students are prepared to learn, will abide by the values of the institution and will accept consequences for behavioural indiscretions. The students in schools today (Generation Y’ers) have been brought up with a strong personal voice, are shaped by emotion rather than the cognition of the Baby Boomers generation, make decisions based strongly on peer influence, are ‘digital natives’, and seek new and exciting experiences (McCrindle Research, 2007). This presents challenges to education institutions, especially those embedded with traditional values that are deemed by many students as irrelevant to life in the new millennium.
It falls to the school psychologist to assist with the aberrant behaviour of students, while having an obligation to represent and uphold the values of the school, such as: that time will be spent nightly on homework; that students show respect to teachers who in turn respect the student; that students arrive each day in a condition in which they can be educated; and that a defining uniform be worn with pride and respect. On the other hand, the psychologist is required to build a trusting relationship and accept the student with personal difficulties with unconditional positive regard. The school psychologist has an ethical responsibility to advocate for the needs of the student as well, and is therefore frequently faced with dilemmas associated with conflicts of interest and service to multiple clients.
The school psychologist is also expected at any given time to be an expert witness about a full range of policy issues affecting young people, their families and the institution. A sample includes development of school policies on bullying and harassment, peer support programs, equal employment opportunity, drugs and alcohol, safe partying, safe use of cyberspace, critical incident management, professional responsibility in the disclosure of confidential information, conflict resolution, implementation of restorative practices, mandatory reporting and management of difficult relationships to name just a few.
Teachers are trained and expert in establishing programs, securing outcomes and maintaining order in a lively and rapidly changing environment, the classroom. In the main, teachers are expert tacticians, are outcome driven by necessity, are able to rapidly assess and evaluate programs, are accomplished performers, and are able to define programs and events in concrete discrete terms. They are able to quickly spot an incoherent argument, are sometimes intolerant of that which they do not know, and expect change to be rational, coherent and outcome driven (Smith, 2000).
Conversely, psychological interventions with young people are unpredictable, unreliable and ever-changing as is the world in which they live. What is described as a clear goal today quickly becomes irrelevant and unnecessary tomorrow, or a major crisis is resolved overnight. Psychological interventions are the antithesis of classroom interventions, and can be most unpalatable to a teacher who wants the behaviour of a disruptive student changed quickly so that classroom teaching can proceed uninterrupted.
Psychological intervention at school is a relatively recent introduction to many educators and cynicism runs deep, with the ‘boot-up-the bum’ regime seen by many as preferable and quicker. This may be so for the teacher, but rarely so for the student for whom this methodology simply reinforces that adults are the enemy. The school psychologist is required not only to understand psychological interventions for the student, but to understand the demands of the teaching profession and the impact of behavioural management on teachers.
The family systems in which young people live are becoming increasingly complex, with relationships becoming more disconnected. Australian Institute of Family Studies (2006) statistics show that in 2001, 24 per cent of families with adolescents were sole parent families and 68 per cent of mothers in these families were in paid work. Whilst anecdotally many young people report that their particular family situation is acceptable, with many adolescents reporting that they enjoy the freedom these family arrangements offer them, schools report that a new brand of young person is presenting. These generations are being labelled the ‘under-parented generations’, with children who grow up too fast, too stressed and disconnected from busy parents who want to be best friends rather than actively parenting their children (Selekman, 2005).
When family values clash with school values the student is placed in a compromising situation. The school psychologist is required to unravel this network by being in contact with parents at the same time as maintaining age-appropriate confidentiality for the student. This dual relationship represents a potential minefield and an ethical dilemma for the psychologist, who is required to deal with both student and parental outcomes. The conflict for the psychologist is to hold the confidentiality of the counselling relationship, while at the same time engaging the parents to assist in establishing new behavioural outcomes for the student and a common platform for the child’s behaviour to be reinforced both at school and in the home. This high-wire walk is likely to become the riskiest of the lot, with one ball dropped in the wrong place at the wrong time likely to destroy the entire exercise by disenfranchising either the parents or the student or both. The student who lives between two parents and two houses with different expectations and emotional lives represents a particularly difficult triumvirate for the school psychologist to navigate.
Assessment of the mental state of the student and planning the clinical intervention for a myriad of clinical conditions is fundamental to psychological intervention in a school. At any given time the clinical conditions range across mood disorders, anxiety disorders, substance abuse disorders, post traumatic stress disorder, self harm, suicidal ideation, sexual and gender concerns, sleep disorders, family issues, emerging personality disorders which present in the context of the developmental stage of the child or adolescent, and the existential angst of adolescence.
While the Australian Psychological Society Code of Ethics (2003) is the ‘bible’ under which all psychologists work, the following ethical standards are of particular relevance to the practice of psychological services in a school: informed consent process; confidentiality; professional responsibility; conflicting demands; psychological assessments; conflicts of interest; provision of services at the request of a third party; service to multiple clients;
and record keeping.
The work of the school psychologist is highly specialised in handling the developmental stages of young people, their families, their teachers, the school institution and the ethics of psychological practice. It involves the capacity to negotiate a complex web of personalities and relationships, and the provision of psychological expertise across a broad range of educational and clinical interventions requiring an expansive knowledge of education, psychological practice and strategic awareness. This is not the practice of straightforward general psychology, but the juggling of multiple relationships in a specialised domain of psychology.
The author can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Australian Institute of Family Studies (2006). Snapshot of Families with Adolescents: Fact Sheet for National Families Week. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
Australian Psychological Society (2003). Code of Ethics. Melbourne.
McCrindle Research (2007). Seriously Cool: Marketing and communicating with diverse generations. Retrieved May 26, 2007 from http://www.mccrindle.com.au.
Smith, J. (2000). The Learning Game. London: Little Brown and Company.
Selekman, M. (2005). Pathways to Change. London: The Guilford Press.