The National Association of School Psychologists (“NASP”) recommends that schools have one psychologist on staff for every 500 to 700 students. Prior to 2010, the NASP’s recommended ratio was one psychologist for every 1,000 students; however, as our societal attitudes towards mental health issues have changed, the demand for (and acceptance of) treatment for mental health issues has increased. To reflect this increase in demand, the NASP adjusted the target ratio to its current status.
The new ratio of psychologists to students is an attempt to ensure adequate coverage of the student body as a whole. Recognizing that in any population there will be some individuals who use more mental health care resources (and some that use less), the NASP’s suggested ratio is a figure that will ensure adequate mental health care resources are available to an average student in an average student population.
However, rather than seeing an increase in the number of school psychologists, most schools are experiencing an acute shortage. Fewer psychologists means that those who are on staff are not able to adequately care for the student population and have little time to perform anything more than a cursory analysis of a given student.
This shortage is a legitimate cause for concern, and this piece will attempt to explore its root causes, impact, and possible solutions. While it is impossible to completely dissect the issue and resolve it in the course of a short discussion, it is possible to touch upon the main points and encourage further dialogue on the matter.
Reasons Why the Shift in Psychologist Numbers is Taking Place
Although such a widespread phenomenon cannot fully be explored in a short piece like this one, there are a few readily apparent factors that contribute to the shortage. Both factors arise from the recession of 2007-2009, although one is a measure of its economic impact on the psychologists themselves while the other is a derivative of its impact on school budgets.
- Increased Retirements as the Great Recession’s Effects Recede.
A major driving force behind the reduction in psychologist numbers is simply that more psychologists are retiring and leaving behind unfilled jobs than ever before. While attrition through the aging of the workforce is nothing new, and is certainly not unique to the field of psychology, the simple fact of the matter is that more people are leaving the field than are being trained to enter it.
The NASP predicted this issue over a decade ago. Indeed, as far back as 2004, the NASP predicted that more than half of the then current psychologist workforce would have retired by 2015. Further, the NASP stated that two-thirds of the then practicing school psychologists would have left the field due to retirement or other reasons by the year 2020.
Although this shortage is nothing that was not expected, the severity of the coming wave of retirements has been delayed, primarily due to economic reasons. Specifically, the years 2007 to 2009 were very tough for almost every sector in the United States, and many people who had planned on retiring during those years (or shortly thereafter) changed their plans and continued to work in order to absorb the financial hit that their retirement accounts suffered as a result of the recession.
However, now that many people have seen their retirement portfolio recover from the losses incurred during the recession, those who were planning on retiring are beginning to move forward with those plans. This means that, although the NASP’s prediction of the exact timing of the school psychologist shortage was somewhat off due to the impact of the 2007-2009 recession, the prediction is now coming to fruition.
- Higher Demand as School Funding Increases.
Further, some school districts may have used the retirements of school psychologists as a way to absorb mandated budget cuts during the prolonged recession. Simply put, a school system that saw its school psychologist retiring may have elected to eliminate the position in order to meet budget requirements, meaning that although the position was no longer filled, neither was it reported as unfilled. This would have the effect of understating the true shortage of psychologists. Now, with many school districts seeing an increase in their budgets, they are beginning to look for new psychologists to hire as they aim to return to previous staffing levels. In fact, some schools are interested in increasing the staffing levels of psychologists due to a combination of increased funding and a higher emphasis on the benefits of mental health services.
Regardless of the reasoning behind the schools’ search for more psychologists, the reality is that a number are searching for talent to add to their staff, only to find that there is a marked shortage of labor. This presents a challenge to school administrators who are attempting to achieve or maintain a specified ratio of students to psychologists.
This shortage is somewhat puzzling to experts, as the U.S. News and World Report noted in 2015 that the job of a psychologist is actually highly desirable. The high levels of pay relative to the stress level of the occupation coupled with the high levels of job satisfaction that many psychologists derive from performing their jobs would suggest that more people than ever would be striving to enter the career. Yet, in spite of the obvious attractions of the field, the rate of people undergoing the necessary training to enter the field is lower than the rate of those who are leaving, whether due to retirement, career change, or for some other reason.
What Impact Does this Change Have on Schools?
As one might expect, a shortage of school psychologists has a real effect on the educational environment. Had this shortage occurred decades ago, its impact may not have been as severe: until relatively recently, there was not much of an emphasis on mental health services, and thus psychologists were not in demand as they are today. Of course, our society’s changing attitudes towards mental health conditions and our increased focus on addressing them as legitimate issues rather than brushing them off is itself a contributing factor to the shortage due to the increase in demand it has contributed to.
Overall, student populations have less access on an individual basis to psychologists than ever before. As a result, even though students tend to be more willing to seek out help for mental health issues, they are less likely to be able to get it. This can in turn affect both the students who need help as well as those students with whom they interact, as a student who is unable to get the help that he or she needs is more likely to act out in ways that disrupt both the classroom setting and the everyday experience of the other students.
While it may seem that this issue—namely, the effect of a given student on others when he or she is unable to get the help he or she needs—would be primarily something to affect younger students, this is not always the case. Older students can still be extremely disruptive to the learning experiences of others, albeit in a slightly different manner. Regardless of the age, a student who struggles with mental health issues and is unable to get the help that he or she needs is likely to cause other students to have a less than satisfactory educational experience.
What are Schools Doing to Cope with the Change?
While much about the education system may change as the years pass, one thing remains constant: schools, and their administrators, are no strangers to dealing with adversity. Administrators have long dealt with shortfalls, whether in funding, equipment, necessary space, or—as in this situation—in the number of qualified employees needed to adequately perform a given role.
Schools are responding in a few different ways. One way is to press other mental health professionals into service, using them to play the role of a school psychologist. While this solution may seem creative and harmless—after all, to some people at least, a mental health professional in one discipline is pretty much the same as a mental health professional in another discipline—the fact of the matter is it leads to subpar service to the students.
A school psychologist has been specially trained to fill a role in a school system. A school-based mental health system is different than a community-based one; yet, mental health professionals who have been trained and have experience in the latter situation are being pressed into service in the former. This solution is probably better than neglecting the shortage completely, but it certainly leaves something to be desired and cannot be considered a legitimate solution to the problem.
Other schools, used to screening their students through the use of standardized evaluations, have slightly altered the roles of their school psychologists. Rather than allowing the psychologists to provide services that would help students suffering from mental health issues—and by extension, helping the students around those students—some schools are instead using their school psychologists to offer the bare minimum that is necessary to comply with various federal laws on the matter.
For example, the psychologists may engage in routine screening of students, but may not be allowed to delve further into when a particular issue is identified with a specific member of the student body. Instead, that student’s parents may be alerted to the possibility of an issue, and urged to seek help outside of the school setting.
Still other school systems have enlisted the aid of teachers to act as screeners, giving standardized behavior screenings to students on a regular basis. Any students that are identified as potentially having issues are then referred to the school psychologist, who can engage in further screening and analysis. This system allows schools to process more students for review for possible mental health issues without forcing school psychologists to spend their very limited time administering routine screenings.
Finally, some school administrators seem to have given up on the issue, and simply refer students who may have behavioral issues to their school psychologists for further screenings. While this approach probably uses the least resources at the outset, it is much more reactive than proactive, and there are a number of types of mental health issues that could slip under the radar for a prolonged period of time before the student suffering from them is ever able to obtain help for his or her condition.
Potential Long-Term Solutions to the Issue
While schools are doubtless doing the best they can to manage the problem, there are some potential long-term solutions that really should be explored. By aggressively taking steps to address the problem today, it is possible to bring about a solution to it in the near future.
The first step, as noted by a recent outgoing NASP President, is for the NASP to make this issue a focal point of its efforts to improve the training of psychologists and the quality of life of the people those psychologists help. The NASP is uniquely positioned to exert considerable influence over the training regimen of those persons entering the field, and can help steer more candidates down the school psychologist career path.
Secondly, psychologists—or would-be psychologists—who may be interested in entering the school psychology field are somewhat hindered from doing so due to a lack of mentor and development opportunities. To address this, school psychologists and the NASP can take steps to assist psychologists interested in entering the field through increased mentoring and career development programs. This will have the effect of lowering the barriers to entry to the school psychologist field, which will in turn lead to an increase in the number of professionals who choose this career path.
At the same time, states can and should explore ways to encourage universities to pursue further developments in their programs to train and educated school psychologists. These could include special funding designated towards the development of school psychologist training programs, making financial aid available to those students interested in entering the field, and other forms of financial incentives for those institutions willing to devote resources towards training more school psychologists.
In addition to providing financial incentives to institutions and students, states could explore some type of tuition reimbursement or student loan repayment for those psychologists who choose to enter the field. This could operate in a similar manner to those programs employed by states that use them to lure professionals in high-need areas (such as the medical field) to practice in rural areas of those states.
This is particularly important in those states that do not have programs for training school psychologists. While most states have some educational resources available for people who are interested in entering the field, many have only limited programs and a few—such as Hawaii, Alaska, and Vermont—have no programs whatsoever.
While it is true that school systems across the nation face a unique challenge in hiring and retaining enough school psychologists to reach the 1:700 psychologist-to-student ratio recommended by the NASP, the situation is not entirely without hope. Taking concrete steps to address this problem can lead to long-term results.
The NASP can and should explore ways to steer new professionals into the field of working as a school psychologist. This can be done through a number of ways, including developing mentoring programs, aggressively recruiting people who are considering the field, and implementing training and professional development programs.
At the same time, the individual states can take steps to encourage universities to train more people to enter the field. This can be done through financial incentives and grants specifically earmarked towards the development of professional education programs (in those states where there are already some training resources available) or the creation of such programs in those states where there are none in existence.
Likewise, the states could offer financial incentives to those graduate students who may be considering a career as a school psychologist. Whether this would take the form of educational grants, stipends, or even some form of tuition forgiveness would be up the individual states. It is worth noting, however, that many states already have a mechanism in place to lure professionals such as doctors and nurses to practice in regions where their services are needed; further developing these mechanisms to fit those who decide upon a career as a school psychologist should not take a great deal of additional time and effort.
In the interim, school administrators can explore ways to address the problem using the limited resources they do have. Using teachers—rather than school psychologists—to administer basic screenings will help identify students who are a candidate for further assistance without taking up the time of the school psychologists—time which can definitely be put to better use elsewhere. By taking steps to address the long-term issue while engaging in proactive, immediate-term plans of action, school administrators and psychologists can together ensure the proper mental health care for students of today and tomorrow alike.