The worth of service in school psychology

Our profession — the school psychologist — is a vocation representing a lifelong and enduring commitment to socially, emotionally and psychologically healthy youth

By Beth Doll, PhD

Face it. There is a little bit of social activist in every school psychologist. If we were searching for wealth or prestige or fame, there are better professions to pursue. Our profession — the school psychologist — is a vocation representing a lifelong and enduring commitment to socially, emotionally, and psychologically healthy youth. We invest our professional and our personal lives into this task and, in this sense service is integral to the identity of every school psychologist. It is who we are and what we do. That is why it was a remarkable honor to be recognized with the Jack Bardon Distinguished Service award from Division 16 — it is recognition by a community of service champions.

School psychologists work to strengthen the psychological well-being of children and youth. We develop behavior plans that increase children’s behavioral success at school or home; we teach social emotional learning competencies; we help children regulate their disruptive emotions and interrupt maladaptive self-talk. We foster peer and caretaking social environments that promote children’s sense of life-satisfaction and accomplishment. Over the past three decades, we have made tremendous progress in identifying the school psychological services that work (they bring about lasting and important changes for children), defining the most effective ways to provide these services (with manualized interventions and evidence-based databases), and assessing the needs of children and the impact of our services in meeting those needs. We have redefined school psychological services to be increasingly rigorous and effective. Nevertheless, it is easy for the work that we do to be misrepresented as simplistic ‘feel good’ actions whose impact fades once the children’s momentary enjoyment lapses. This occurs when we allow our occupational reputation to be marred by three pervasive fallacies that distort our communities’ understanding of school mental health services and dishearten school mental health professionals. The purpose of this paper is to expose these myths, sketch out viable responses, and explain why debunking these myths will be important for valuing the service that we contribute to our communities.

Myth 1: Anybody can do it

I confronted this myth two weeks ago, when a geosciences professor explained to me that he was careful to incorporate psychology into every course that he taught. He went on to describe how he taught with an eye towards multiple intelligences, carefully consulting a popular psychology book that he had purchased at Barnes & Noble. “I am a strong advocate for psychology,” he said, smiling benevolently at me. In truth, what he was advocating was a form of pseudo-psychology that sounds convincing and feels good, but had been stripped of the science and rigor of evidence-based practices. There is danger in our profession being miscast as a set of values or beliefs without acknowledging the strong empirical and theory-driven knowledge base that shapes our practice. It becomes even more dangerous if we come to believe the myth — and come to believe that anyone can do what we do. So, in response to the first myth, a caution: In daily conversations in the community and with ourselves, we must reinforce the science and skills that comprise the profession of school psychology. Use these words often: “science,” “skill,” and “profession.” Point out how we use evidence to sort through the cacophony of solutions to identify those most likely to have meaningful impact on children’s lives.

Myth 2: These kinds of problems are inevitable

School psychologists spend a good deal of time with children who are struggling mightily to overcome the deleterious effects of socio-psychological risk: poverty, violence, neglect, discord, et cetera. In the proverbial terms of prevention, we often stand at the bottom trying to catch the children who are falling off of a cliff, and trying to repair the damage when they crash into the ground. When the stream of damaged children does not diminish, and when we are unsuccessful in repairing the damage for too many children, it is too easy to believe the popular press — that we have failed to live up to our responsibility for the psychological wellness of all children, regardless of the history and life experiences that they bring into the school. The response to this myth: it is important to remind our communities (and ourselves) that they share a responsibility for building the fence along the top of the cliff. We need to be strident in insisting that social and psychological risk is not inevitable. Instead, and in many respects, these are manufactured disturbances that are challenging our children and the ultimate prevention lies in social policy and community actions.

Myth 3: Does it really matter?

I have lived on the prairies of the Great Plains for almost three decades now, and I’m accustomed to seeing almost a hundred miles in any direction when driving along our rural roads. I can see a thunderstorm coming for at least an hour before it arrives, and I can watch it moving away from me and into the next counties. Now, when I have occasion to drive along a country road near the East Coast, I find it very disturbing to be hemmed in by trees on all sides. Away from the prairie, I can’t always see where I’ve been and where I’m going. Working with children’s mental health is a lot like driving along those tree-lined country roads. Unless careful records are kept, it is difficult to see the differences between children’s lives today and the lives that children had 20 or 30 years ago. And it is just as difficult to see into the future. What will it matter, 20 years from now, if a child’s second grade behavior plan is successful? The dilemma is that much of our work requires that we aim long — to shift children’s trajectory so that things are better long into their futures — and we cannot always see those futures. To protect ourselves from the inevitable discouragement, we must do two things: We must keep careful records that track the impact of school mental health services; and we need to attend to and celebrate the small successes that ripple out from our services. I have several of my own mementos in my office: a letter from the grateful parent of a child with learning disabilities on the occasion of his high school graduation; a victorious painting of a happy girl on a playground from a first grader who learned to play; some statues that were gifts from successful graduate students on the day that they were hooded. These aren’t just mementos; they are the proof that something we did mattered.

Once, when I was about to purchase a particularly unflattering dress, my husband stopped me by explaining “Beige is not a color; it’s a lifestyle.” Service is a lot like that – it’s a lifestyle and not simply a collection of a few generous actions sprinkled across a lifetime. I treasure school psychology’s commitment to advocacy and I am committed to ensuring that our profession’s service lifestyle remains ‘flattering.’ Ultimately, our own professional efficacy must be protected so that we can continue to research the best school mental health practices, demonstrate the impact that we have on children’s success, secure the commitment of our communities to work alongside us in protecting our children and youth.

Certificate text

President Shane Jimerson (left) and Stacey Overstreet (right) present Beth Doll with the Jack Bardon awardDr. Beth Doll exemplifies the spirit of the Jack Bardon Award with regard to both her leadership in the development of innovative school psychological services and sustained contributions to major professional organizations. Her line of research includes population-based mental health services in schools and building resilient classrooms to facilitate child wellbeing. Dr. Doll has communicated and advanced the purposes of the APA Division of School Psychology through her extraordinary service and leadership on numerous committees and elected positions. These include: Council Representative to the American Psychological Association, President of Division 16, Chair of the Council of Directors of School Psychology, Chair of Division 16 Fellows Award Committee, Chair of APA’s Committee on Children, Youth, and Families, Vice-President for Social and Ethical Responsibility and Ethnic Minority Affairs for Division 16, and Liaison from Division 16 to the Board for the Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest of the APA.


Beth Doll, PhD 
University of Nebraska Lincoln
238 Mabel Lee
840 North 14th Street
Lincoln, NE 68588-0234