What is a School Psychologist?

As any seasoned educator will tell you, the school environment is chock full of landmines of the behavioral, social and academic kind. From peer pressure and social cliques to very real (and very scary) crisis situations to the unique needs of students with disabilities, there’s plenty of challenging situations and circumstances that are part and parcel of the social microcosm called school.

How the education team navigates them (and how they help students navigate them) is crucial for establishing and maintaining a positive, nurturing, and supportive school environment where children thrive and grow emotionally and behaviorally as they learn.

As experts in mental health and well-being among children and adolescents, school psychologists are the backbone of the educational team when it comes to achieving a positive school environment and the exceptional student outcomes that result.

What Do School Psychologists Do?

The better question may be, “What don’t school psychologists do?”

This is because the work of school psychologists is focused on student success at all levels—academically, behaviorally, emotionally, and socially.

They achieve their goal of providing healthy learning environments for students by delivering direct interventions and implementing and supporting programs, policies, services, and resources.

School psychologists lend their expertise in child and adolescent mental health and behavior to the following areas:

Direct Student Services

School psychologists work directly with students, providing individual and group instruction and interventions for both short-term issues and long-term, chronic problems.

Some of the issues they help students with include:

  • Problem solving
  • Anger management/conflict resolution
  • Anxiety/depression
  • Coping skills
  • Positive peer relationships
  • Managing emotions
  • Social skills

School psychologists work with special education teachers and other educators to manage classroom behavior, modify/adapt coursework or classroom environments, and plan IEPs for students with disabilities.

School Environment

School psychologists create healthy school environments, which includes developing and implementing policies, services, and initiatives aimed at:

  • Bullying
  • Tolerance/cultural sensitivity
  • Substance abuse
  • Mental health
  • School violence
  • Positive discipline
  • Behavioral supports
  • Crisis prevention/intervention

Family/Community Support

These mental health professionals collaborate with teachers, administrators, families, and outside mental health and social services professionals to ensure that students thrive both in school and beyond the school walls.

While school psychologists work directly with students, teachers, and administrators within the school environment, they also frequently support families and work with outside mental health and social services professionals to strengthen family-school partnerships. For example, they help families understand the needs of their child and provide them with the tools for supporting their child at home.

They help students transition from mental health or juvenile detention facilities back into the school environment, and they help match families with outside services, including mental health and social services providers. They also partner with outside services to provide coordinated care for students.

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Incorporating Applied Behavior Analysis into School Psychology

School psychologists always benefit from having a solid foundation of knowledge in applied behavior analysis (ABA), which is now commonly used when working with students with autism, ADHD, and other developmental disorders.

School psychologists with knowledge in ABA can help develop and implement effective IEPs and collaborate with special education teachers, occupational therapists, and speech-language pathologists who frequently utilize ABA techniques. They can also use any number of ABA therapies to provide direct intervention and positive behavior support.

While the majority of school psychologists work in the K-12 public school system, these mental health professionals also work in private schools, juvenile detention centers, residential mental health hospitals, clinics, and mental health centers.

How to Become a School Psychologist: Degree Requirements and Certification Options

All school psychologists must be licensed/certified to practice. All states license school psychologists through their boards of education, with the exception of Texas and Hawaii, which license school psychologists through their board of psychology.

To become a licensed school psychologist, you’ll need to complete a specialist-level degree (EdS, MA, MS, PsyS, or graduate certificate) in school psychology that includes at least 60 graduate semester hours and a 1,200 hour internship. These degrees usually take three years to complete, including the one-year internship.

You’ll also need to take and pass a state-approved exam before you can earn licensure in your state to practice as a school psychologist – usually the Praxis II School Psychologist subject-specific exam and sometimes the Praxis I general CASE exam, or similar state equivalent exams. You can find the state-specific requirements to become a school psychologist here.

National Certification Options

National certification is not a requirement to practice as a school psychologist but is often pursued because of its professional benefits. The two most common national certifications include:

  • The Nationally Certified School Psychologist (NCSP) through the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). To qualify for this credential, you’ll need to hold the proper state-issued license/certification to practice as a school psychologist, and you’ll need to pass the Praxis School Psychologist test with a minimum score of 147.
  • The Board Certified Behavior Analysis (BCBA) credential through the Behavior Analysis Certification Board. To qualify for the BCBA, you’ll need to complete one of the following: (1) a master’s degree in psychology, education, or behavior analysis that includes a verified course sequence (VCS); or (2) a VCS that’s completed either during or after the completion of a master’s degree in one of these three fields. The VCS is offered by a number of schools as either a stand-alone course sequence or as a graduate certificate. Many schools now offer the VCS entirely online, thereby accommodating working professionals and those with geographic limitations. Upon meeting eligibility requirements, you’ll be required to take and pass the BCBA exam.

How Much Do School Psychologists Make?

According to 2021 statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), School Psychologists earned a median salary of $78,780 annually. 

  • 25th percentile: $62,070 
  • 50th percentile: $78,780 
  • 75th percentile: $100,040 
  • 90th percentile: $124,950 

School Psychologists earned the highest mean salaries in the following states: 

  • Colorado: $103,240 
  • New York: $97,640 
  • California: $96,530 
  • District of Columbia: $96,120 
  • Washington: $95,780 

The top-paying metropolitan areas for School Psychologists, according to mean salary, were: 

  • Boulder, CO: $116,280 
  • El Centro, CA: $116,010 
  • Fresno, CA: $115,360 
  • Modesto, CA: $113,440 
  • Merced, CA: $112,890 
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2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for School Psychologists reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed January 2023.