Major Theories and Applications

Major theories in school psychology can be grouped into 11 substantive areas: Diversity; Prevention Science; Child Development; Social, Emotional, and Behavior Development; Behavior Change; Health Behaviors, Crisis and Trauma; Learning and Instruction; Literacy, Mathematics, and Writing; Systems Theory and Systems Change; and Family-School Partnerships. This grouping acknowledges the multiple roles and functions that define school psychology, as well as the different systems and their intersections within which school psychologists work and children develop. Each area has unique theoretical considerations, while also sharing an emphasis in a few theories. For example, an ecological systems theoretical approach is a consistent and strong influence on each area. In the sections that follow, we provide an orientation to each area with examples of representative theories.


School psychologists collaborate with children, families, educators, and community stakeholders from an array of identities, such as race, gender, and language. It is essential that school psychologists understand their identities, the impact of their identities on their practice, others’ identities, identities that privilege them, risk associated with intersecting identities, and health and related outcome disparities (Proctor, Williams, Scherr, & Li, 2017). This complex set of responsibilities is embedded in school psychology training programs and articulated through a scope and sequence of lifelong learning and development. Several theories can serve as a guide for emphasizing diversity and embedding diversity in every facet of research, practice, and policy. Ecological theory is commonly used to describe the diversity within and across settings within which children develop (Newell et al., Chapter 2, this volume). However, ecological systems theory does not sufficiently characterize identity development. Holmes et al. (Chapter 12, this volume) noted that the phenomenological variant of ecological systems theory was developed to capture identify formation for youth from minoritized backgrounds. In addition, critical theories, the multiple worlds typology, and inter-sectionality describe institutional systems and socio-political contexts that describe factors that have led to oppression and discrimination, as well as how present systems and contexts continue to oppress and discriminate individuals and groups of individuals from minoritized backgrounds (Holmes et al., Chapter 12; Newell et al., Chapter 2; Proctor et al., 2017). Advances in research and practice hold promise for addressing these issues. For example, McIntosh, Ellwood, McCall, and Girvan (2018) defined a framework for improving equity in school discipline through addressing implicit bias in discipline decisions through identifying vulnerable decision points and articulating actions to intervene during the vulnerable decision points. McIntosh et al. (2018) integrated the approach for addressing implicit bias within a schoolwide system for social-emotional support that is aligned within a school-based leadership team with strong systems for managing and using schoolwide data.

Prevention Science

Prevention science focuses on understanding risk and resilience and building and examining programs that promote adaptive behavior and reduce the risk of longterm negative outcomes (Society for Prevention Research, 2011). In addition to these foundational elements of prevention science, there is also an emphasis on advancing the science of prevention, which includes standards of evidence that articulate benchmarks for moving programs through development, efficacy, effectiveness, and scale-up research (Gottfredson et al., 2015). Thus, prevention science is concerned with implementing and sustaining evidence-based prevention systems and practices in real-world community settings by natural treatment agents, such as teachers and parents (Splett et al., Chapter 3, this volume). Major theories underlying prevention science include ecological systems theory and a developmental cascade model. Together these theories articulate interlocking systems that define child development, the sensitive periods to target intervention across development, and the ways in which interventions can be aligned and integrated in real-world settings to maximize reach and effectiveness (Dishion,

2011; Feldstein & Glasgow, 2008). As Splett et al. (Chapter 3) noted, the Classroom Check-Up is an example of a prevention program that embeds a collaborative, ecological approach to assessment and intervention in classrooms to improve classwide social behavior and academic engagement. The Classroom Check-Up works by engaging teachers in a three-session intervention where consultants use motivational interviewing as a method of communication to identify important targets of intervention and promote use of evidence-based practices to address the targets (Reinke, Lewis-Palmer, & Merrell, 2008).

Child Development

Developmental changes in children and youth, and the ways in which those changes intersect with social contexts, require flexible and responsive educational systems. Early theories of child development included stage-based orientations to cognitive development, with later theories emphasizing a bio-ecological orientation to development that defined development through a set of systems and corresponding interactions between an individual and their ecological contexts (Lyons et al., Chapter 4, this volume). Building on early developmental work with corresponding consideration of systemic prejudice and mistreatment of individuals from minority backgrounds, as well as changes in development across various aspects of an individual’s identity, Lyons et al. (Chapter 4) advanced an integrative model developed by Garcia Coll et al. (1996) to capture developmental competencies for youth from minoritized backgrounds. Finally, positive youth development is an approach for understanding child development that emphasizes individual differences and factors to promote strengths. School psychologists can embed child development into schools and educational systems, as well as within each role and function that defines school psychology practice. For example, a child’s developmental level must be considered when selecting assessments and adapting evidence-based interventions. In addition, family culture must be assessed and considered alongside development to design and implement culturally responsive approaches. School systems have been associated with disproportionate negative impacts on youth from minoritized backgrounds. School psychologists can use an integrative model of development to understand a youth’s intersecting identities and any historical oppression of the youth’s family to join with the family and school personnel to embed practices to change school systems in a manner that is responsive to the youth’s development across school, home, and community settings (Garcia Coll et al., 1996; Lyons et al., Chapter 4).

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