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“School Psychologist of the Year” on the changing role of mental health services

Dr. Andrea Clyne, a school psychologist at Louisville Middle School, was recently selected as the 2014 School Psychologist of the Year by the Colorado Society of School Psychologists. Here’s what she had to say about how she got into the field, how it’s changed and the importance of making sure students feel connected to school.

Why did you become a school psychologist?

I was in my undergrad program at the University of Colorado-Boulder and I was taking a summer seminar course for seniors and a lot of different types of psychologists came in and spoke to our class about careers. When I heard about school psychology I got really excited because I’d never heard of it before.

I’ve always loved children. I found out I could start working with a Master’s degree and I came from some more humble beginnings so the idea of making some money before getting a Ph.D. appealed to me.

In 1989-90, that was the school year that I did my internship while I was in grad school, and I actually interned in Boulder Valley with several different school psychologists… I was actually at this school one day a week for a school year.

At the time, school psychology traditionally involved really more itinerant services. Through the years, I’ve worked at several different schools, but this has always been my common school… I’m here four days a week and I have a private practice in Boulder one day a week.

What is a typical day like for you?

A typical day involves a lot of consultation with kids and with the adults. I work a lot with the counselors and our administrators around system-level things… I consult with them about mental health concerns that students have, talk with them about parents who are needing support.

I work with students individually, with different social concerns… if they’re really struggling in different classes, doing some problem-solving. [With the counselors] we give social-emotional lessons to the entire school in small group assemblies. We do that eight times a year.

What do you see as the biggest challenges that school psychologists face today?

We come from very rigorous training programs so we’re prepared as school psychologists, and probably the biggest struggle is just the sheer number of students needing our consultation and our support, and families.

I would love … to be here full time. I would love to also have a social worker here full time because there’s plenty of work for everyone to support students trying to succeed academically and socially. That’s nothing new and that’s not a real easy thing to solve.

In terms of the profession, we really have a huge problem, especially in the western states, with shortages of school psychologists.

You’ve been a school psychologist for 24 years, how has your work evolved over that time?

My role took a big turn half way through my career, about 10 years ago, the role of school psychology broadened nationally. This happened as a result of some different legislative changes…IDEA [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] was reauthorized…One of the changes…had to do with the identification of learning disabilities and RTI [Response to Intervention] became part of that decision-making paradigm…That really pushed forward more of a consultative role.

We began…performing less and less formalized cognitive testing because that was not part of the new criteria for qualifying for a learning disability…Also, what became a big educational trend at that time was Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports [PBIS]. In 2006,…we launched a PBIS program here. RTI and PBIS together came about right around the same time and that helped me as a school psychologist evolve into a consultative role.

On the flip side, how have the problems that students face changed during your tenure?

Truly, I don’t see the children changing that much over that 20 year period of time…Some of the issues remain exactly the same. Everybody wants to be liked, everyone wants to fit in, no one wants to look different in a bad way. Everybody wants to be understood and to be successful in school.

We seem to have more parent involvement now, over the last 10-15 years, and I think it’s really good for kids.

One change is that…students are way more tech-savvy than they used to be. That has produced a crisis at times regarding cyberbullying…That’s why at our school we do a lot of education with all the students about being careful what you send, being careful with your decisions when electronics are available to you. We touch on cyber etiquette and responsible use of electronics at least six times a year in our assemblies with students.

Do you think universal mental health screenings should be a standard tool for schools?

I do… and there is a new paradigm that we’re working on right now…It’s MTSS and that stands for Multi-Tiered System of Support. What it does is bring together the idea of Response to intervention and Positive Behavior Support together, with the further idea that we provide enough layers of support in a school to try to meet everyone’s needs.

If we don’t know who is struggling emotionally, it’s difficult to be able to do that. So, some sort of screening for mental health concerns is a major part of the MTSS model…I’m not exactly sure what that will look like, but we’re working on that as a district. It’s going to be a multi-year project.  

The recommendation letter from your principal states that you said believe the most important behavior information isn’t discipline data but whether students felt attached to the school? How did you come to that conclusion?

I’d like to give [my principal Ginny Vidulich] credit for this. For years and years, our leadership team has talked about the relationships between teachers and staff and students. The data shows that students who are more involved at school and who have positive relationships with their teachers have better outcomes behaviorally and academically.

A few years ago, she devised a method for measuring the level of involvement of every single one of our students–600-plus students…She made this tremendous spreadsheet…We have gone one by one to make sure that we have students who are connected to school or connected to a teacher.

We might find a student who maybe is not much of a joiner of clubs and sports, but we know they have a very strong relationship with several of their teachers and they have conversations with them about things other than just school.

How do you and your colleagues identify students who don’t feel a sense of belonging at school?

We have an activity that our school did last week….It’s called a DOT activity, “Developing Our Ties”…Teachers identify students where they might not have connections with any teachers. Then we work on matching teachers with students that they would like to mentor and form connections with.

It’s usually teachers who already have the student in one of their classes. So it becomes a more natural way to show more interest, get to know them more, ask them more about what they’re involved in at home, what different hobbies they might have. They might show interest and go to a football game on a weekend, things like that.

We’ve just found that it works. It helps our students feel like there are people at school who care about them and that’s a huge protective factor right there.

Middle school is a notoriously tough time in terms of peer relationships, how do you help students navigate problems like cliques, mean girls, peer pressure and bullies?

Now…I’m able to work at different layers and tiers of the system whereas before it was at the top tier with the student with the most disabilities or struggles. We teach some of these social-emotional learnings in assemblies to the whole school and we have no more than about 60 students at a time…We talk about friendship skills. We talk about conflict resolution.

The second level of support is the counselors or I will work with pockets of students who need a little more practice with it…so we might even meet with a group of students together and do some very short-term counseling intervention.

Individual students who are really struggling, probably the biggest intervention that makes the most change for them is for them to find a friend or two. That goes so far in terms of supporting their mental health…So we really work hard on helping students to find friends, and to at least start with friendly acquaintances….Then we also sometimes work with positive peer mentors to help support that process.

By eighth-grade, almost without fail… students sort of find their people…Now that doesn’t solve every mental health problem, but in terms of the fitting in aspect, that helps quite a bit.