The ideas and applications of psychology have taken hold in so many different parts of our society, and in so many ways, that sometimes we hardly notice the degree to which marketing and business organization strategies are guided by psychological principles, or the extent to which the so-called dismal science of economics has been more colorfully rendered through the lens of behavioral science. But, one area where the metaphorical footprint of psychology remains very much present and visible is the educational system and our schools. Learning, after all, is a function of psychology, as are cognitive and social development.

Psychologists study all of these processes, and apply what they learn to practices that improve our abilities to learn, cope with frustration, balance emotions, and handle social pressures. School psychology is an area of specialization within psychology that is particularly concerned with these issues as they relate to children and young adults at every level of the educational system. “School psychology,” as the American Psychological Association (APA) explains in its literature on the discipline, “has evolved as a specialty area with core knowledge rooted in psychology and education.” Its broad purview encompasses, in the APA’s words, “psychological diagnosis, assessment, intervention, prevention, health promotion, and program development and evaluation services with a special focus on the developmental processes of children and youth within the context of schools, families and other systems.”

PhD in School Psychology Concepts

  • Lifespan development
  • Psychology of personality
  • Biopsychology
  • Cognitive psychology
  • Social psychology
  • Statistics
  • Design of research methodology
  • Testing and measurement
  • Observational strategies and interviewing techniques
  • Psychological assessment methods
  • Development of reading and literacy theories
  • Theories of social change
  • Psychopathology
  • Counseling and psychotherapy theories and techniques
  • Issues with multicultural environments
  • Consultation practices
  • Theories and application of preventative measures
  • Ethics of professional school psychology practice

Benefits of Earning a Doctorate in School Psychology

Because school psychology is an area of psychological practice that involves working with and counseling children, young adults, and families in the critical arena of education, the training and sensitivity that comes with a doctoral or an educational specialist degree is now commonly the minimum requirement for a career in the field. School psychologists also engage in research aimed at improving educational outcomes for culturally, ethnically, and economically diverse populations, an endeavor that also demands the deep base of psychological knowledge and scientific rigor that doctoral and educational specialist degrees in school psychology are designed to impart.

So, if you’re someone who’s drawn to working in the rewarding field of education, and using the theories and tools of psychology to help students, parents, and educators cope with the diverse challenges of education, an upper level degree in school psychology is a particularly appealing option. Again, from the APA’s literature on school psychology: “School psychologists have advanced knowledge of theories and empirical findings in developmental and social psychology, and developmental psychopathology within cultural contexts, and in the areas of learning and effective instruction, effective schools, and family and parenting processes. School psychologists conceptualize children’s development from multiple theoretical perspectives and translate current scientific findings to alleviate cognitive, behavioral, social and emotional problems encountered in schooling.” In other words, doctoral and educational specialist level training in school psychology is designed to arm psychologist with a full complement of principles and practices that, at heart, are aimed at improving the educational opportunities and ultimately the lives of children.

What to Expect from a School Psychology Doctorate Program

As an academic discipline, and as a profession, school psychology is unique in that it incorporates two somewhat distinct knowledge bases, drawing both on educational pedagogical methods and the behavioral science of psychology. So, unlike pure clinical and counseling psychology, which are confined to PhD (doctor of philosophy) and PsyD (doctor of psychology) programs at the upper level, school psychology has evolved to allow for teachers and educators who go on to specialize in psychology to practice professionally. In real-world terms, this means that there are a number of different degree options that can qualify a person for licensure as a school psychologist, depending on the state. In fact, it’s possible with just a master’s degree and two or more years of experience working in education to gain licensure in some cases.

However, it’s more common for school psychologists to have a so-called terminal degree, and it’s far easier to find work and qualify for the best jobs with a doctorate. In school psychology, there are several options: a PhD in school psychology; a PsyD in school psychology; or an EdD (doctor of education) in school psychology. An EdS, or specialist degree in education with a concentration in school psychology, is another lesser option that is largely the equivalent of a master’s in school psychology.

As complicated as that may seem, the APA has noted that PhD and PsyD degrees have evolved to have more similarities than differences. EdD degree programs are housed within education departments and tend to be more geared toward practical applications than research in the field. In terms of years of schooling, an EdD is thought to take between one and two years less to complete than a PhD, with PsyD degrees coming in somewhere in the middle. However, much of this depends on the particulars of whatever internships and doctoral research opportunities an individual takes on as part of the degree program. In either case, you should count on spending between three and six years earning a doctorate in school psychology.

According to the APA, graduates should be equipped with the skills and knowledge necessary to:

  • Know effective instructional processes
  • Understand classroom and school environments
  • Understand the organization and operation of schools and agencies
  • Apply principles of learning to the development of competence both within and outside school
  • Consult with educators and other professionals regarding cognitive, affective, social and behavioral performance
  • Assess developmental needs and develop educational environments that meet those diverse needs
  • Coordinate educational, psychological and behavioral health services by working at the interface of these systems
  • Intervene to improve organizations and develop effective partnerships between parents and educators and other caretakers

Coursework and Specializations in School Psychology

While the particulars of class descriptions and curricular requirements vary from program to program, school psychologists should be grounded in the theories and practices of clinical psychology, behavioral psychology, cognitive developmental psychology, and social psychology, as well as in the realities of how the educational system operates and the role school psychologists play within it. To get a sense of what that looks like in terms of actual classes, here’s a sampling of courses typically found in PhD, PsyD, and EdD school psychology programs:

Typical Courses Found in School Psychology PhD Program

  • The Biological Foundations of Behavior
  • Human Cognitive and Emotional Development
  • Academic Assessments and Interventions
  • Psychological Research Methods in Education
  • Theories of Counseling and Psychotherapy
  • School Crisis Prevention and Intervention
  • Multicultural Issues in School Psychology
  • Social Development Psychology
  • Ethical and Legal Issues in School Psychology

School psychology is itself considered a discrete area of specialization within the larger realm of psychological practice. But, as with most graduate degrees in psychology, PhD, PsyD, and EdD school psychology programs typically offer students the opportunity to find their own grounding in the field through internships, elective coursework, and the individual research associated with a dissertation. For example, a student in any of these programs might choose to focus on multicultural issues in education, assessment strategies for secondary school children, crisis intervention at the high school level, or cognitive behavioral therapy in primary school settings.

Career Paths and Licensure for School Psychologists

Licensing requirements for school psychologists vary from state to state, but the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) offers a national certification exam that some states recognize. The NASP also maintains a database of links to individual state licensing boards. The American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) provides voluntary certification for school psychologists, which hew to the same standards as its other certifications in psychology: a doctoral degree, plus at least 1,500 hours of supervised internship experience.

In terms of the types of jobs that are typical for school psychologists, not surprisingly they tend to be in schools or other educational institutes, working with students, teachers, and administrators to provide counseling, assessment, and, when cause arrives, interventions. But, training in school psychology can also lead to careers in the healthcare system and in other areas that involve children and learning, such as daycare and recreational centers. The latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics pegs the average annual salary for school psychologists at $74,030, as of May 2014. The data also provides a glimpse of where those school psychologists are predominantly employed, and how they are compensated.

Industries with Highest Employment for School Psychologists:

Elementary and secondary schools43,880
Offices of other health care practitioners13,970
Individual and family services6,630
Outpatient care centers5,560
General medial and surgical hospitals5,130

Industries with Highest Wages for School Psychologists:

IndustryMedian Annual Pay
Child day care services$96,180
Specialty hospitals$90,050
Scientific research and development services$87,430
General medical and surgical hospitals$82,070
Offices of physicians$81,510

The BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook does not collect separate data for school psychologists, but it projects that demand for psychologists at large will increase at a healthy rate of 12 percent through 2022. It also offers a snapshot of how the average annual salary for clinical, counseling, and school psychologists stacks up next to other related professionals in the realm of education:

OccupationMedian Annual Pay
Clinical, Counseling, and School Psychologists$68,900
Secondary School Teachers$56,310
Education Administrators$89,540
Educational, Guidance, School, and Vocational Counselors$53,370
Social Science Teachers, Postsecondary$65,320

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