School psychologists and mental health of children and youth
The concept of school psychologists is not well known in Bangladesh. Although in recent years we have been able to bring the issue of mental health to the fore, making provisions for having psychologists in school is still unchartered territory for us. Given the work they do and the impact their work has on the mental wellbeing of children and youth, it is of utmost importance that we start educating ourselves, the policymakers, and stakeholders about this profession.
Although the profession has not yet been mainstreamed in our part of the world, currently around 100,000 school psychologists are working in more than 48 countries including the US, Spain, Canada, Japan, Turkey, etc. As a licensed school psychologist, my aim in writing this article is to introduce the profession, and its practitioners, to the readers and to explain briefly who they are, what they do, and why it is important that we develop this field as a specialised professional area in Bangladesh.
Importance of the Field
School psychology is an offshoot of functional psychology that is concerned with the science and practice of psychology with children, youth, families, learners of all ages and the educational process. School psychologists are professionals who can help children and young people achieve success academically, socially, behaviourally, and emotionally. They can also advocate for the rights of children and youth with disabilities as well as assist parents and caregivers become better informed and stronger advocates for their family members.
The work of school psychologists enable schools and other institutions to successfully: improve academic achievement; promote positive behaviour and mental health; support diverse learners; create safe and positive school climates; strengthen family-school partnerships; and improve school-wide assessment and accountability.
There are a myriad of problems which can be faced by children and youth related to learning, social relationships, complex decisions, managing emotions, etc. They can suffer from depression, anxiety, worry or isolation. School psychologists can come into play in such situations by understanding and resolving the short-term and long-term issues and problems faced by the children and youth. They are a key medium for understanding how such issues affect learning, behaviour, wellbeing and educational engagement.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), school psychologists provide a range of psychological diagnosis, assessment, intervention, prevention, health promotion, programme development and evaluation services with a special focus on the developmental processes of children and youth within the context of schools, families and other institutions. They intervene at the individual and system level, and develop, implement and evaluate preventive programmes. They conduct ecologically valid assessments and promote positive learning environments for the healthy development of children and youth.
Ambit of Work
The primary responsibilities of school psychologists include:
- Undertaking comprehensive assessments to diagnose intellectual ability, learning processes, academic skills and aptitude, social skills, emotional functioning, behavioural problems, and neurological processes
- Consulting with parents, teachers, administrators, paediatricians, psychiatrists, neurologists and therapists
- Developing behavioural intervention plans, individual education plans, prevention programmes (for instance against violence, bullying, truancy and dropouts) and alternatives to corporal punishments
- Advocating for the rights of children and their families
- Conducting training for parents, teachers, and other professionals and imparting training on social skills
- Coordinating services existing in the community
Apart from the primary responsibilities enumerated above, alternate roles of school psychologists can vary from society to society and may include, administration, curriculum development, advising with legislation and policy development, crisis intervention and victim assistance.
School psychologists can be typically seen working in public and private schools, universities, school-based health and mental health centres, community-based day-treatment or residential clinics and hospitals, juvenile justice centres and even in private practice. School psychologists work for, and together with students, parents, teachers, paediatricians, neurologists, school administrators, community service providers, social workers and therapists.
Attributes and Qualifications
The attributes necessary for a school psychologist include principally, knowledge on psychology and education, usually satisfied by relevant postgraduate studies. They should have an understanding and respect for human diversity. They should be able to deliver a comprehensive range of direct, measurable services for children, families and educational institutions. Given the complexity of their responsibilities and the particular sensitivities associated with the mental health sector, appropriate training is also a prerequisite.
Although the specific areas of training for school psychologists will vary from country to country, as an example, we can look at the knowledge and skills required by such professionals in USA as prescribed by the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP): data collection and analysis; assessment; progress monitoring; school wide practices to promote learning; resilience and risk factors; consultation and collaboration; interventions; instructional support; crisis preparedness, response and recovery; collaborating between families, schools and communities; diversity in development and learning; research and program evaluation; professional ethics, applicable laws and systems.
As the above discussion sets out, school psychologists can play a crucial role in supporting the ability of children and youth to learn and succeed academically, socially, behaviourally and emotionally. By partnering with families, teachers, educational institutions and other stakeholders, they help create safe, healthy and supportive learning environments. It, therefore, goes without saying, that the introduction of school psychologists in the schools and educational institutions in Bangladesh would be a very positive move towards the healthy mental development of our children and youth.
The writer is a licensed school psychologist, Chairperson of National Advisory Committee on Autism and Neuro-developmental Disorders, Bangladesh and Member, Expert Advisory Panel on Mental Health, World Health Organisation.