The Role of the School Psychologist in Applications of Theory
With training in theory, preventive and responsive services, schoolwide practices that support learning and assessment, and interventions that promote mental health and social skills (NASP, 2010), school psychologists are well suited to serve in the capacity of selecting and facilitating social, emotional, and behavioral supports in schools. School psychologists have a unique vantage point in schools in that they are typically not confined to a classroom, as most educators are, but have the opportunity to interact with school personnel across disciplines and observe many settings throughout the school—and often several schools. Also, because what works in one school may not work in another, it is important that school psychologists working in multiple schools apply their knowledge of ecological and social learning theories, along with research, to adapt programs to fit the needs of their specific communities, school, and students. With these more expansive, ecological understandings and experiences, along with their theoretical knowledge and research-based training, school psychologists are positioned to serve as effective team leaders and program/support coordinators. Also, school psychologists can bring a culturally responsive lens to their school team to help those within their buildings understand the nuances of social, emotional, and behaviourally related cultural norms, such as how different cultures may place emphasis on the collective versus individuality or emotional regulation over emotional expression (Hecht & Shin, 2015).
It is important that school psychologists carefully consider the social and cultural contexts of their school communities in the selection, adaptation, and implementation of SEL programs and assessments. For instance, school psychologists can consider effective SEL programming that is built upon—or has evolved to include—ecological and social learning frameworks that promote culturally responsive practices and pedagogy (e.g., sociocultural theory; Vygotsky, 1978). Moreover, researchers have successfully used the Ecological Validity Model (Bernal, Bonilla, & Bellido, 1995) as a framework to guide cultural adaptations to SEL programs (e.g., Strong Kills-, Castro-Olivio, 2014). School psychologists can use this ecological model to appropriately adjust existing social, emotional, and behavioral programs.
Another way that school psychologists can support schools and generate substantive results is to ensure that social, emotional, and behavioral systems are integrated, coordinated, and aligned. To illustrate the importance of this point, we can consider the previously discussed frameworks. Being a primary application of behavioral theory, the SWPBIS framework tends to focus on prevention, identification, and the support of those with externalizing or disruptive behaviors such as aggression and defiance. Traditionally, the framework has not focused on those at risk for internalizing problems such as anxiety, depression, social withdrawal, and perfectionism and, in all, there has been relatively little discussion of students’ cognitions and emotions in this behaviourally based field (Weist et al., 2018). If we consider traditional mental health supports typically offered in schools, they, too, have their limitations, as most tend to be oriented to provide support in a reactive way, serving only those students with elevated mental health problems (Barrett, Eber, & Weist, 2013). Without a preventative and ecological lens, the effect of traditional mental health services in schools is limited; they are neither far reaching, optimally effective, nor sustainable, especially given the rising mental health needs in schools (e.g., sharply increasing rates of substance abuse and suicide attempts).
By intertwining prevention-oriented frameworks, such as PBIS and SEL, however, the reach of supports is likely to be broader and the impact can be more meaningful and sustainable (Barrett, Eber, McIntosh, Perales & Romer, 2018; Bear et al., 2015; Cook et al., 2015; Swain-Bradway, Johnson, Eber, Barrett, & Weist, 2015). With SWPBIS, problem behaviors are prevented by altering the environmental factors that may be maintaining them, and school professionals can focus their energies on defining, teaching, and acknowledging what is expected of students. With SEL, professionals account for students’ intrapersonal skills, and teach them coping skills needed for resilience along with other SEL competencies needed to flourish in life and school. For example, a school psychologist working in SWPBIS schools with a high percentage of students and staff affected by trauma might understand that behavioral approaches may be necessary but not sufficient; cognitions and emotions also need to be addressed. As such, a school psychologist might investigate and advocate for the application of supplemental theoretical frameworks that can serve this need, such as cognitive-behavioral and mindfulness approaches found in effective SEL programs designed to promote intrapersonal competencies such as self-awareness and self-management.
School psychologists can also use their knowledge of developmental theory and champion the early identification and prevention of both externalizing and internalizing problems, as they can be effectively identified and addressed in young children (Garber & Weersing, 2011). Historically, externalizing problems have received more attention and support by educators and researchers as compared with internalizing problems (Bradshaw, Buckley, & lalongo, 2008; Bruhn, Lane, & Hirsch, 2014; Gresham & Kern, 2004)— despite the fact that they are both important and can have negative longterm impacts if left unaddressed (Dishion & Snyder, 2016). This bias has been noted even in the field of SEL, as there has been a tendency to prioritize observable skills, such as behaviors associated with dysregulation (i.e., deficits in self-management) with relatively less prioritization of intrapersonal skills requisite for self-management, such as self-awareness (Feuerborn & Gueldner, 2019).
School psychologists can also leverage their knowledge of SWPBIS and SEL frameworks, along with their knowledge of youth development, to organize supports offered in the building. It can be confusing to determine how different strategies fit within a broader systems framework, and it is not uncommon for numerous programs and strategies with multiple goals (e.g., substance abuse prevention, mindfulness, peer mentorship) to be implemented in isolation in any given school (Weissberg et al., 2015). Moreover, it is not uncommon for schools to simply add more to what currently exists, without strategic planning and coordination (Elias et al., 2015). School psychologists can help in this regard by conducting systemic needs assessments, inventorying effective existing practices, and identifying redundancies, gaps, and priorities.
If school psychologists work in one of the states with developmentally defined, state standards and competencies in SEL (e.g., Illinois), they can use these standards and competencies, along with theory, as guides for both teaching outcomes and assessment benchmarks. If not, however, they can use another state’s standards as a model, and perhaps also advocate for the development of SEL standards in their own state. Unfortunately, the Common Core State Standards (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010) do not offer comprehensive guidance, but they do outline intra and interpersonal competencies such as responsibility, conflict resolution, communication, and collaboration and flexibility, initiative, appreciation of diversity, and metacognition (Denham, 2015). Nearly all states have SEL standards for early childhood; however, and they tend to be organized around selfmanagement and regulation. As students age, it is of increasing importance to consider and address relationships skills such as peer inclusion and friendship along with the expression of more sophisticated emotions in context-appropriate ways. With adolescents, there is need for more complex skills and competencies, such as forming intimate relationships with all genders, taking multiple perspectives, gaining independence, and forming an identity (Denham, 2015).
In sum, the opportunities for school psychologists abound. School psychologists can effectively serve as a MTSS team leader, collect and analyze systemic data (e.g., needs assessments, screening), monitor program implementation, plan for ways to integrate social and emotional skills throughout the day, assist with training and professional development, and vet programs and assessments to modify and/or select those that align with and effectively fit the sociocultural and contextual needs of their school communities.