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Predicting the unpredictable

When is a teenager just being a teenager? And when is their angst a sign that more destructive behavior is just around the corner?

A teenager leans against his locker in between classes, face buried in his phone while he stares at unanswered friend requests on his social media account from the same people he sees in the hallways snapping selfies and photos with each other every day. He isn’t sure some will ever “accept” him.

Some of his own status updates have left the few classmates who did accept his friend requests pondering on his “jokes” or some of his comments. But they keep their opinions to themselves even when he’s looking for some kind of a response.

The bell rings and the boy does not move, dreading the thought of returning to a classroom filled with people he is sure will ignore him in person too. A passing janitor asks if everything is all right.

“I’m fine,” the boy responds. He forces a smile, grabs his bag, and heads to class. The janitor goes on about his day, not totally convinced he believes this kid.

But there’s nothing more anyone could do, right?

Countless parents, teachers, public safety personnel, and support staff are grappling with decoding teen angst versus legitimate alarming behavior every day in the U.S. and beyond.

This conundrum has also brought increased attention to the role of school psychologists—professionals tasked with predicting the unpredictable in an effort to make America’s schools safer during an era of cyberbullying, mass shootings, and deteriorating student mental health.

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There have been nearly two dozen school shootings in 2018 alone and 290 incidents of violence in schools since 2013. While school should be a safe zone in which adolescents are free to learn, grow, and enjoy the usual milestones, this rise in school violence has left an entire nation grappling with how to approach school culture differently.

“I’ve been in the field for a long time,” says Candice Hughes, Ph.D., faculty in The Chicago School of Professional Psychology’s School Psychology Department. “When I started, misconduct from children was almost invariably blamed on the parents—especially moms.”

Still, Dr. Hughes was caught off guard when her own parenting skills were challenged. After living abroad and working as a school psychologist in international schools in Germany and Switzerland for 10 years, she wasn’t prepared for how much American schools had changed. When she returned to the United States in 1999, she was perplexed by police officers roaming the halls of American high schools.

Then three days after her son started high school, a police officer called her to say he believed her son was affiliated with a gang. Why? Because he was wearing baggy pants, a long shirt, and a chain—common wardrobe for skateboarders, a group her son belonged to while living in Switzerland.

“From that moment, I realized that schools had profoundly changed while I was living outside of the U.S.,” Dr. Hughes says.

James Walsh, Ph.D., chair of TCSPP’s School Psychology Department at the Chicago Campus, believes school psychologists will need to continue to play a vital role as the school environment confronts new challenges.

For one, school psychologists can help support the teachers and parents of children to recognize the psychological factors related to emotion, behavior, and the environment that may affect children in schools. They are trained to focus on at-risk individuals—sometimes through referral by a teacher, administrator, or someone else in the school system—and attempt to determine if there is a verified concern, what interventions may be necessary, and what additional support services may be needed. This can be at an individual or school-community level.

For example, a school psychologist may conduct a more focused analysis when responding to concerns about a single student’s troublesome behavior, but take a more systemic, data-driven approach when examining a potential rise in incidents of bullying within a school.

“One of the many things that today’s school psychologists do is to help schools create a happier and more supportive school climate in order to reduce the risk of violence,” Dr. Walsh says. “We examine how to improve behavioral expectations in a school, how to prevent bullying, and create a plan regarding what to do if a person might be suspected of violence or violent tendencies.”

The dynamics of school psychology have drastically changed in the last century. In 1910, these “experts” were needed to assist in placement for special education services, according to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). With early models of school psychology widely linked to Lightner Witmer, G. Stanley Hall, Theodore Simon, and Alfred Binet, it was a blend of the first individual testing movement, student services, and researching normative characteristics among groups.

When Public Law 94-142: Special Education in Transition passed in 1975 guaranteeing a free and appropriate public education to children with disabilities, the number of school psychology practitioners rose from 5,000 in 1970 to more than 20,000 by 1988. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that by 2016, there were 147,500 clinical, counseling, and school psychologists—and a majority of them (86 percent) are in public schools. Their jobs have moved from a reactive model to a proactive model. The scope of responsibility has expanded to include mental and behavioral health; family-school-community collaboration; crisis preparedness, response, and recovery; and more, according to NASP.

But while the field has grown, there is still a shortage of school psychologists. NASP recommends a ratio of no more than 1,000 students per school psychologist. For schools that require more comprehensive and preventive services, that ratio shrinks to a maximum of 700 students per psychologist. However, they report that school psychologists in the U.S. are juggling more than 1,350 students on average.

Sadly, this trend is set to continue, with NASP predicting continuing shortages of school psychologists through 2025.

And the strain for mental health care professionals is coming not just from a numbers standpoint. In a WebMD/Medscape survey “Preparing for College: The Mental Health Gap,” approximately 500 mental health professionals were asked about the state of teen mental health in the past five years. The conclusion of the survey found that 86 percent of teens have had more anxiety and stress than in prior years.

It seems that while gun legislation has become the focus of partisan politics in the national debate surrounding school violence, school psychologists—those on the frontlines interacting with students daily—may have become an afterthought at a time when student mental health is in decline and at-risk students may need someone to turn to.

Schools can offer the greatest mental health resources in the world, but it doesn’t matter if parents and students don’t know they exist or are hesitant to speak with someone for fear of blame.

Nancy Zarse, Psy.D., professor in TCSPP’s Forensic Psychology Department, who regularly provides a “Violence Risk Assessment” workshop for school psychologists and other mental health professionals, emphasizes that a concerted effort needs to be made with parents so that they feel comfortable reaching out to school personnel about their own children’s behavior for treatment, as well as their kids’ peers. 

“Parents are with their children on a daily basis and will more than likely be able to notice red flags even before they arrive at school,” Dr. Zarse says. “Whether it’s officers, teachers, principals, professors, or school psychologists, we all need to feel comfortable with reporting warning signs. We must get away from that ‘snitches get stitches’ mentality when reporting concerning behavior to school faculty and law enforcement.”

While creating a reassuring environment for adults to report concerning behavior is important, it is even more imperative for the students walking the halls or sitting in classes with their peers feel comfortable raising their voice.

“In one of the schools that I worked in, we had a very popular male high school student who was sexually attacked by his drama teacher,” Dr. Hughes says. “Students knew the student was in a fragile state, but nobody said a word. We were all shocked when it finally came to light. As mental health professionals, we’re trained to examine youth cognitive skills, their problem-solving skills, their social maturity, and sometimes their exposure to very mature content. But we also have to encourage them to feel open to speaking with authority figures.”

One way to encourage this is to break down the barriers between students and those authority figures. Pip McGirl, Ed.D., an associate professor for TCSPP’s School Psychology Department, is adamant about school psychologists leaving their offices and literally roaming the hallways, using presence as a form of prevention.

“Mental health professionals must make themselves more accessible in the school,” says Dr. McGirl, who spent 10 years as an educational psychologist in England and now trains TCSPP students with the PREPaRE curriculum, which provides evidence-based resources and consultation related to school crisis prevention and response. “We should be getting out of our offices and talking with adolescents,” she says. “We must continue to build trust with students and parents so they’ll both be more comfortable talking with us. We should not be strangers to the students before a crisis occurs.”

But roaming the hallways is just one way to increase student awareness of the mental health resources available to them. At an international school where Dr. Hughes worked, one teacher brought together all of the ninth-grade students and introduced them to the people they may encounter throughout the school day without understanding their role—the janitor; the secretary; the school psychologist (who balances a workload of academia, counseling, and behavioral disability learning); the school counselor (who focuses on the general education population and college placement); and the school social worker (who caters to students who have been exposed to trauma, whether at home or in their communities).

That introduction alone resulted in four to five students approaching Dr. Hughes with significant personal concerns, including suicidal thoughts, and other students who’d just drop in to say hello.

In today’s political and social climate, students are also beginning to use more public forums to speak out and start conversations about social justice, school violence, and more.

“There’s been a huge shift recently in the way people have started to advocate for themselves—whether it’s kids in school, victims of sexual abuse, etc.,” Dr. McGirl says. “Particularly after the Parkland, Florida school shooting, the young people there have taken control of themselves, using social media and grassroots organizing, and have become powerful advocates.”

Parkland students’ work to change gun laws has been front and center in the news. But what may have snuck under the radar is that after 17 students were killed earlier this year, the survivors were greeted on their first day back to school with mental health professionals and therapy dogs.

“School psychologists are in a really good position to be able to take on a leadership role, working in consultation with school personnel, with families, and with the students themselves, so we’ve got to get ahead of what’s going on now and be very proactive in getting threat assessments in schools, getting prepared training in schools, making sure that everybody is talking the same language,” says Dr. McGirl. “Safety plans can’t just sit on a shelf, getting dusty. With proper training, we create a living, active awareness to improve and protect the school community.”

On the surface, this may seem like added pressure for aspiring school psychologists and those already in the field. However, Dr. Hughes is optimistic about the heightened focus on mental health professionals.

“There was a time when school psychologists literally just ran from one testing session to another, but we are realizing that school psychologists can be more effective when they have some breathing room to set their own priorities in terms of engagement with the student body,” Dr. Hughes says. “While each child, family, and school system is different—kind of like a jigsaw puzzle—this is a big strength of our field. We use our consulting skills to bring all of those pieces, and people, together.”

Read articles from the Fall 2018 issue of Insight:

1. President’s Letter: “Four decades and counting”

2. “Rhymes + Rhythms = Revolution”

3. “Principled profits”

4. “Aging alone

5. “Project 1948: Bosnia”

6. “Global education in action”


Shamontiel L. Vaughn

Shamontiel L. Vaughn joined TCS Education System’s Marketing Department as the Editorial Writer in February 2017. She has previously worked in digital media with the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Defender, CBS Chicago, and Sun Times Network.


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