By Associate Professor Erica Frydenberg FAPS and Vicki McKenzie MAPS
Faculty of Education, University of Melbourne

School psychology has been part of the Australian educational landscape since the 1950s. Today in some States, like Victoria, one fifth of registered practising psychologists are in the field of education. Nevertheless, since the early days of the profession the demand for services has well exceeded the supply. Service provision ranges from assessment and intervention to consultation and prevention.

More students than ever before are needing support to deal with a range of issues, such as those relating to motivation and achievement, social and emotional difficulties that may be reflected in school absenteeism, self-harm, depression and substance abuse to name a few. The health services, where available, are constrained and are able to take only the most severe cases. To cope with both the range of concern and the volume of demand there has been a growing focus on wellbeing policies and programs in the context of the school. This is consistent with the emergence of the emphasis on positive psychology and a shift away from the emphasis on pathology to one of prevention. Professional training has to take into account the changing needs and demands of the system so as to equip school psychologists to both serve and provide training for professionals to meet a broader spectrum of educational needs.

The challenges facing schools

There are numerous stresses and strains being experienced by young people in our complex societies. The contributing factors include, for example: the breakdown of the traditional family structures; longer working hours for those in employment; high unemployment rates in some sectors, particularly in rural areas; isolation in rural communities; environmental concerns relating to drought, floods and global warming; various pressures on the family unit affecting the emotional and financial security of family members; the advent of new technologies which has taken away a lot of the manual labour from our workplaces thereby reducing vocational opportunities for those with lesser qualifications; pressures on young people to succeed and the need for them to meet higher qualification requirements in order to get a job; the projection of violence into our lives particularly through the media; and a growth in obesity in young people, which when coupled with the greater emphasis on image and beauty, increases the stress on our youth to be 'accepted'. Each of these, alone or in combination, contributes to the challenges facing schools and puts demands on them to play a more active role in nurturing the social and emotional development of young people, a task educators feel poorly equipped to handle and sometimes reluctant to manage on top of the demands of a crowded curriculum. This is the environment in which a school psychologist needs to provide the skills of a professional consultant who can train, lead and work collaboratively within the school system.

Competencies of school psychologists

In Australia, competencies for practice and accreditation as a school psychologist have been developed by the College of Educational and Developmental Psychologists, whose interest has been lifespan development rather than a specific focus on practice within the educational context. A more recent and targeted set of guidelines for competency was developed in 2006 in the United States by the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP).

The NASP Blueprint for Training and Practice describes school psychologists as mental health practitioners who “can guide parents and teachers to create environments where children and youth feel protected and cared for as well as sufficiently selfconfident to take risks and expand their range of competence”, as well as being institutional consultants skilled in learning. The focus is on building capacity, developing a shared vision between the school and the practitioner, along with the need to provide primary, secondary and tertiary prevention1. This includes the delivery of programs to the school system so that schooling can produce healthy contributors to society who relate effectively and have the skills to be autonomous. There are the 10-20 per cent of young people who require a more targeted approach to skill development, and then there are the 1-7 per cent of young people with chronic and more severe problems that require targeted intervention. The NASP Blueprint identifies eight domains of competence that are essential for the practitioner to meet the range of demands of the school system, which are listed in Table 1.

Table 1: Domains of competence for the training and
practice of school psychology (NASP, 2006) 

Foundational competencies

  • Interpersonal and collaborative skills
  • Competence in aspects of diversity
  • Technology and its various applications in the contemporary
  • Professional, legal, ethical and social responsibility

Practice competencies

  • Data-based decision making
  • Systems-based service delivery
  • Enhancing the development of cognitive and academic skills
  • Enhancing the development of wellness, social skills and life

Training of school psychologists

In the Australian context, a scientist practitioner model underpins accreditation of training programs for school psychologists, where courses are comprised of 1/3 coursework, 1/3 research and 1/3 supervised practice.

Coursework components need to include not only the areas highlighted as core competencies, but provide the skills of a professional consultant who can tackle any demand that is placed upon them. These educational psychology consultants need the skills of advocacy on behalf of themselves and their clients. They need to be able to train, lead and work collaboratively with other educational and clinical professionals. They also need to be able to manage the range of issues that confront the educational system today and tomorrow, which includes the challenge of bringing social and emotional competence into the school curriculum (see below).

Additionally, within school psychology training programs the practicum requirements can be supported by lectures which focus on professional identity, presentation, promoting one’s services in the school communities, identifying a mentor, establishing supportive relationships in the field, and looking after one’s own health and wellbeing. When it comes to supervised practice in the field, programs rely on the voluntary labour of supervisors to teach and oversee the development of skills required for practice. These supervisory relationships need to be nurtured and supported by the institutions that call on their services.

The research training of school psychology practitioners needs to include training in evidence-based practice and the capacity to evaluate their own practices. The nature of the research requirement often determines the career path that graduates pursue. If the research is closely linked to professional practice the needs of both the students and the educational systems are better served.

Social and emotional learning in the school curriculum

Given recent advances in children’s social and emotional learning research and practice, social and emotional development programs are now being implemented in more than 50 per cent of schools in the United States (Foster et al, 2005). Whilst the number of social emotional learning programs in Australia is not known, they are numerous and diverse. Educational psychology training therefore needs to include teaching the skills required
to develop, deliver, and train others to deliver social and emotional learning programs, as well as skills with which to evaluate such programs.

Social and emotional learning programs are based on the premise that social and emotional competence can be learned. Social and emotional competence includes key qualities which when put into practice, produce socially and emotionally healthy and productive individuals, as well as safe and responsive communities. Qualities include reflection and empathy, flexible and creative problem solving and decision-making, control of impulses, clear and direct communication, and self-motivation. There is a growing body of research showing that social and emotional factors influence children’s health, citizenship, achievement motivation, school connection, and academic learning (Greenberg et al, 2003; Zins et al, 2004).

In Australia, there is an ever-increasing number of programs that address children’s social and emotional learning in school and community settings, such as, those relating to managing conflict, dealing with cultural diversity, parent-school relationships, dealing with grief and loss, learning to cope, and specific programs like MindMatters and KidsMatter to name a few. Programs can be offered universally, that is, to all students, or to the targeted 20 per cent who might need skill building.


This review of the skills and training required for the practice of psychology in the school context has demonstrated that it is time for a re-examination of the core competencies of the APS College of Educational and Developmental Psychologists. Additionally, the Course Accreditation Guidelines should be reviewed in light of the diverse demands being placed on school psychology practitioners in a community where there is an increasing call for services, a role that is constantly changing and evolving in unpredictable ways, and where there are numerous players in the field such as clinical practitioners, student welfare personal, chaplains and language consultants, as well as school administrators and teaching personnel. Continuing education and lifelong learning are required to meet the range of demands and the diversity of settings in which school psychologists find themselves today and where they may find themselves in the future.

The authors can be contacted on and


Foster, S., Rollefson, M., Doksum, T., Noonan, D., Robinson, G., & Teich, J. (2005). School mental health services in the United States, 2002-2003. DHHS Pub. No. (SMA) 05-4068. Rockville, MD: Center for Mental Health Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Greenberg, M.T., Weissberg, R. P., O’Brien, M.U., Zins, J. E., Fredericks, L., Resnik, H., Elias, M. J. (2003). Enhancing school-based prevention and youth development through coordinated social, emotional, and academic learning. American Psychologist, 58, 466-474.

National Association of School Psychologists (2006). School Psychology: A Blueprint for Training and Practice 111. Bethesda, MD: Author.

Zins, J. E., Weissberg, R. P., Wang, M. C., & Walberg. H. J. (Eds.) (2004). Building academic success on social and emotional learning: What does the research say? New York: Teachers College Press.