A school psychologist deals with both prevention and intervention, and the work begins when students are young. Kelly Caci works as a K-5 school psychologist in the New Windsor School in the Newburgh, where she has spent 14 years in the noisy hallways and in her colorful office of trust.
She explained that the most pressing issues with which she assists students are their mental health needs in relation to experiencing poverty and trauma, and attendance issues that impact student progress. Together, they add up to situations that can impact a student’s progress and success in school – both academically and socially/behaviorally, said Caci, a member of the Newburgh Teachers Association.
Across New York State, school psychologists charge up schools with positive behavior support programs; conflict resolution; and teamwork.
Psychologists bring new programs, enthusiasm, knowledge and belief to the challenges students are facing; they also bring optimistic ideas for change. Psychologists routinely work with school nurses and counselors, and sometimes with art or music teachers.
November 13-17 is School Psychology Awareness Week, and this year’s theme is Power Up! Be a Positive Charge. The National Association of School Psychologists hopes to shed light on how school psychologists help students take even small, positive actions to create connections. This leads to what NASP describes as positive change, greater success and the development of the academic and social–emotional skills that students are trying to grasp.
“In education, we believe in educating the entire student,” said NYSUT Second Vice President Paul Pecorale, a former teacher who oversees health care professional members. “Mental health is part of that and that’s why school psychologists are an integral component to our school systems.”
Often, the school psychologist position is targeted when budgets are cut, damaging school services. The need for them is well established in helping students who may be experiencing an unexpected stressful situation; an ongoing difficult living arrangement; test anxiety; anger issues; concern about a parent in the military; living with an addicted parent; living in a home with food insecurity; and many other challenges that life can present.
Holidays can bring out even more stress for students, especially those living in families with poverty and trauma.
“A lot of time, kids before the holidays are having issues,” said Caci, who runs a Thanksgiving food drive, along with a backpack program for students needing extra food.
“I am currently co-facilitating a schoolwide Positive Behavior Interventions & Supports (PBIS) program with one of the music teachers in my building,” Caci said. The program is in its third year and utilizes what she describes as a tiered approach to take on emotional and behavioral issues through a positive/learning approach. It is sweeping.
“PBIS encompasses all facets of school — from the bus to the classrooms, to special subjects and lunch and recess,” Caci said. “Our students are taught the schoolwide expectations and recognized for following them. Students who need more support are provided with different interventions such as behavior plans, counseling, etc. “
This year, she is working with the elementary school counselor to roll out a Yale University program called RULER. It provides information to teach both students and staff emotional intelligence.
“In the past, I have also facilitated other supportive schoolwide programs such as the Olweus bullying prevention program, a peer mediation program, and social skills lessons in classrooms,” said Caci, who works with the New York Association of School Psychologists on legislative issues relating to her profession. The statewide organization provides advocacy and professional development conferences.
Her charge at school includes working both preventively with students, along with providing direct interventions through counseling. She also develops specialized groups, such as the Banana Splits groups for changing families.
Any student can be seen by a school psychologist, based on self-referral, teacher referral or parent referral.
“I see kids based on need, which is determined either by us in school or by request of the parent or the student. The counselor and I each have our own students we see on a regular basis, and we also respond on an as-needed or crisis response basis, depending on whatever situation arises,” she said.
“I get to know most students in my building, although not every student interfaces with me personally by receiving an intervention like counseling. Students know who I am and that I am available for support and help with many different types of issues. I let teachers, students and parents know I am available as a resource — I tell kids that part of my job is to help kids and teachers solve problems,” the seasoned psychologist said.
For students, feeling a sense of security will help them with personal achievement, growth and resilience, as well as a sense of belonging and well being, the National Association of School Psychologists points out.
Visit nyasp.org to view the history of psychologists in schools and the struggle to preserve school-based positions during budget cuts.