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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 02/27/2012

School psychologists: Shortage amid increased need

This was written by Mark Phillips, professor emeritus of secondary education at San Francisco State University and author of a monthly column on education for the Marin Independent Journal .

By Mark Phillips

We spend so much time arguing about national educational policy issues — assessment, inequity and the achievement gap, for example — that we sometimes forget about lower profile issues that also need attention. One is the struggle of our schools to provide sufficient psychological support for the growing number of students who need it.

The adolescent suicide rate continues to rise, with each suicide a dramatic reminder that the lives of a significant number of adolescents are filled with anxiety and stress. Most schools have more than a handful of kids wrestling with significant emotional problems, and schools at all levels face an ongoing challenge related to school violence and bullying, both physical and emotional.

Yet in many schools there is inadequate professional psychological support for students.

Although statistics indicate that there is a significant variation from state to state (between 2005- and 2011 the ratio of students per school psychologist in New Mexico increased by 180%, while in the same period the ratio decreased in Utah by 34%), the overall ratio is 457:1. That is almost twice that recommended by the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP).

THE NASP noted a shortage of almost 9,000 school psychologists in 2010 and projected a cumulative shortage of close to 15,000 by 2020. Mental Health America estimates that only 1 in 5 children in need of mental health services actually receive the needed services. These gross statistics also omit the special need of under funded schools and the increased roles school psychologists are being asked to play.

This problem, for the most part, is not one of commitment or values. Most school leaders recognize the problem and want to effectively address it, but they report that most of the counseling support services they have are for testing and helping kids with special emotional and/or learning problems. Even this is inadequate, with the psychologist available only a day or two each week.

In the best-funded districts, there is more full-time psychological counseling available for students. Yet, even in these districts, principals indicate that they have more students who need help with stress management than the existing counseling services can provide.

The problems extend beyond inadequate support services. School advisories — when a group of students meet with a teacher for advisory help — are supposed to provide psychological support but rarely do. Most students I’ve spoken with perceive advisories as a time for academic help but not a place they can go to deal with personal problems. Few schools are able to offer the training that teachers need to be able to provide that kind of support. Even those schools that have sponsored a program like Challenge Day, which provides an opportunity for students to openly discuss their individual struggles, rarely have a sustained follow-up program in place.

A bill was introduced in Congress last November that would provide some alleviation of this problem in lower income areas. H.R. 3405 is the Increased Student Achievement Through Increased Student Support Act. It would provide grants to partnerships between schools and low- income local educational agencies to improve the ratio of school counselors, social workers, and psychologists. Although limited in focus, it is at least a start. The bill was sent to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce and has still not been acted on by the Committee.

Even with the psychological services that should be provided and often aren’t, schools can’t fully prevent suicides, acts of violence, bullying, or the daily stresses that weigh on kids shoulders. The malaise runs deeper and broader.

Still schools need more resources than they receive in order to provide more programs that actively identify and counsel those kids that need help. At the very least, they need to alleviate some of the stress these kids are experiencing and to help improve the quality of their daily lives.

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