Walt Disney wasn't technically an educator or a psychologist, but it's probably fair to say that the work he did through the media company he built touched on both the education and the psychology of children. And he is credited with one of the better known and more oft-repeated quotes about the value we vest in our children: "Our greatest natural resource is in the minds of our children."
In many ways, that broad sentiment informs the mission behind school psychology, an area of specialization within the larger realm of psychology that focuses on the inner workings of the minds of children, adolescents, and young adults as they confront the challenges of the educational system. After all, learning itself is a psychological process, one that encompasses the cognitive, behavioral, and social development of individuals as they move through childhood and adolescence into adulthood. And these are the very aspects of human existence that psychological theory, research, and practice are rooted in.
School psychology simply aims to apply this body of knowledge and the insights that come with it to formal educational settings in order to improve our children's learning outcomes by providing them with strategies for overcoming challenges, coping with stress and anxiety, and handling social pressures. As the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) explains, school psychologists "apply expertise in mental health, learning, and behavior, to help children and youth succeed academically, socially, behaviorally, and emotionally… partnering with families, teachers, school administrators, and other professionals to create safe, healthy, and supportive learning environments that strengthen connections between home, school, and the community."
Master's in School Psychology Concepts
- Respect for individual differences
- Collaborate problem solving
- Individual, group, and organizational intervention techniques
- Inferential statistics and research
- Testing and measurements
- Research methodology
- Child and adolescent psychology
- Multicultural perspectives in human behavior
- Principles of school psychology
- Legal issues in public schools
- Behavioral assessments
- Stress and anxiety
- Worries about being bullied
- Problems with family or friends
- Loneliness or rejection
- Concerns about sexuality
- Substance abuse
Benefits of Earning a Master's in School Psychology
School psychology exists at the intersection of two distinct yet related professional fields: psychology and education. As an area of study and a potential career path, it represents an opportunity to apply the theories and methods of behavioral science to the important and rewarding mission of educating our children. For students who have an innate interest in the workings of the human mind and feel drawn to the noble pursuit of teaching, and for those who like the idea of working in the educational system in a capacity other than teaching, school psychology can be a uniquely compelling career option. And, as the NASP alludes to in its description of the profession, school psychologists aren't off somewhere on their own; they're part of a network of professionals, including teachers, principals, social workers, guidance counselors, and coaches, who work in concert to improve educational outcomes.
It is important to note that qualifying for licensure as a psychologist is not among the many benefits of earning a master's in school psychology. Because of the serious and sensitive nature of the work psychologists do in treating patients, every state requires those who practice as professional psychologists to be licensed. And individuals must earn a doctoral degree in psychology before they qualify for licensure. However, a master's degree in school psychology can be an important step along the way to earning a doctorate and embarking on a career as a licensed school psychologist. Indeed, one of the benefits of earning a master's in school psychology is that most programs are designed to prepare students for doctoral programs, and credits earned in a master's program can often be applied to an eventual doctoral degree.
What to Expect in a School Psychology Master's Program
Like most areas of specialization in psychology, school psychology is generally taught using the scientist/practitioner model. That's a fancy way of saying that these programs put equal weight on establishing a firm grounding in psychological theories and research methodologies, and fostering clinical skills through supervised field work and the practical application of psychological theory.
Most master's degree programs in school psychology are based around this principle, and designed to be completed in what amounts to six semesters of work both in and out of the classroom. This tends to break down into roughly four semesters, or two academic years, of classroom work, and two additional semesters of supervised internship or practicum experience and/or independent research. In some cases, the internship/research requirements can be completed over the summers before and after the second academic year, which allows students to finish their degree in two years. Other programs designate a third year for the completion of those requirements.
Degree requirements vary from school to school and program to program, and may include a master's thesis or capstone as part of an independent research project. Coursework will also differ between programs, but the list below, drawn from the online resources of the National Association of School Psychologists, offers an overview of the key areas of competency for school psychologists:
- Collection and analysis of psychological data
- Psychological assessment theories and methods
- Academic/learning interventions
- Mental health interventions
- Behavioral interventions
- Special education services
- School-wide practices to promote learning
- Family-school-community collaboration
- Crisis preparedness, response, and recovery
- Diversity in development and learning
- Research and program evaluation
- Instructional support
- Prevention and intervention services
- Professional ethics, school law, and academic systems
The American Psychological Association (APA) provides a more detailed list of parameters that define the professional practice of school psychology. It includes:
- 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
Degree Options and Specializations in School Psychology
School psychology is itself a distinct area of specialization within psychology, recognized as such by the APA, which has a division dedicated to the discipline founded in 1945. It is often seen as a branch of clinical or clinical counseling psychology, and in some cases it falls under the purview of educational psychology, which is another branch of the disciple that encompasses research into learning modalities and the design of larger scale educational policy and programs. In contrast, school psychologists are more likely to work in the schools themselves, implementing and assessing those policies and programs, counseling individual students, and collaborating with teachers and administrators to improve educational performance.
Within school psychology it is possible to create a further area of specialization, by focusing on a specific facet of school psychology like special education services, kindergarten and pre-k education, or sports and education. But this is something that generally happens as part of a doctoral degree and not at the master's degree level.
There are three different but largely equivalent degrees available at the master's degree level in school psychology: the MA (master of arts), the MS (master of science), and the MEd (master of education). The first two are generally thought to be the same, although the MS degree has its roots in the scientist/practitioner model, while the MA was historically based on the research university model for advanced degrees. An MEd in school psychology is offered through schools of education, rather than psychology, and tends to be more focused on pedagogical theories than on psychological principles. But, again, these degrees have the same basic function in that they qualify graduates for entry-level positions in the field of school psychology and lay the groundwork for further study at the doctoral level.
Careers in School Psychology
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not have separate data for school psychologists. Rather, it includes school psychologists as part of a broader category of psychologists, a profession that is expected to grow by 19 percent through 2024, according to the most recent edition of the BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook. That is significantly higher than the national average for all job growth through 2024, which is projected to be 7 percent. It is worth noting that, of the roughly 173,900 psychologists who formed the data set for the 2014 analysis, a full 25 percent were employed by state, local, and private elementary and secondary schools. So, school psychologists accounted for one quarter of all professional psychologists that year.
Most of the career options for school psychologists are in schools, although it is possible to set up a private practice as a school psychologist and there are some jobs for school psychologists at private educational companies. It is, however, important to realize that employment as a licensed psychologists requires a doctoral degree, so the jobs open to graduates with a master's in school psychology are at the entry level. BLS Occupational Employment Statistics data puts the mean annual salary for clinical, counseling, and school psychologists at $74,030 as of May 2014, with those in the 75th percentile earning $89,830 or more, and those in the 25th percentile earning $51,980 or less.
The chart below offers a glimpse of how the mean annual wage for school psychologists in 2014 compares to other similar professions, according to the BLS:
Mean Annual Wage in 2014
Clinical, Counseling and School Psychologists
Elementary School Teachers
Special Education Teachers
School and Vocational Counselors
Elementary and Secondary School Administrators
Licensing Requirements for School Psychologists
Licensing in psychology is handled at the state level, and the requirements do differ. For example, some states require school psychologists to be credentialed just as teachers are, in order to work in the public school system. In other states, a license to practice psychology, which is available only to those with a doctorate and between one to two years of supervised professional experience, is sufficient for those aiming to work as a school psychologist. There are also states that provide credentials to school psychologists who have earned a master's degree and then go on to complete an EdS, or educational specialist advanced degree in school psychology. The Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards provides details about each state's requirements for licensure.
- National Association of School Psychologists, "Who Are School Psychologists," visited on February 28, 2016; http://www.nasponline.org/about-school-psychology/who-are-school-psychologists
- American Psychological Association, "School Psychology," visited on February 28, 2016; http://www.apa.org/ed/graduate/specialize/school.aspx
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Psychologists, visited on February 27, 2016; http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/psychologists.htm#tab-3
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2014, visited on February 27, 2016; http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes193031.htm