In This Issue

My year with the Head Start program

A doctoral candidate shares his experiences and lessons learned

By Ethan J. Schilling, MS

Finding a practicum placement for myself this year was a bit daunting. My previous placements had occurred in clinic settings conducting psychoeducational and neuropsychological evaluations so I knew I wanted to find an intensive school-based practicum experience this year, particularly as I prepared for internship. I also needed to find a local placement as I was dealing with transportation limitations. Unfortunately, the public school district here in Athens, Ga. was not accepting practicum students for the coming year. This news was pretty frustrating until a faculty member in my department suggested I check into completing my practicum with the local Head Start program, an option I hadn’t even thought about. She had done a lot of work with this program in the past and was instrumental in setting up a meeting with their staff to explore this possibility.

As soon as I walked into that meeting, I could tell that this was a group of people who were extremely passionate about what they do; serving the needs of low-income children and families in the local community. They had not previously had a school psychology practicum student work with their program, but were eager to think of ways I might be able to contribute while also providing a rich training experience. For example, given my background in assessment, they suggested I could get involved in their regular Child Find screenings as well as assist in conducting program-wide screenings to target individual students for intervention at the beginning of and throughout the school year. Additionally, the Early Learning Center, in which the Head Start program is centrally located, was beginning to roll out a system of school-wide positive behavioral interventions and supports in the coming year. They thought I could contribute some input to this process given my training in school psychology. These were just some of the ideas they had and, as it turned out, I would experience many more fantastic training opportunities in the coming year. There was just one final hurdle in that they did not have an on-site psychologist to supervise me, a detail that was remedied when my faculty advisor agreed to provide me with formal supervision on a weekly basis.

Upon beginning my practicum at the start of the school year, I was placed with the education team. For those not familiar with Head Start programs, they are full of “teams”: education teams, health teams, teachers, home educators, directors and coordinators, etc., each with their own purpose in meeting the needs of students enrolled in the program. The goal of the education team is to provide classroom support through the mentoring of Head Start teachers, providing supportive strategies for students with challenging behavior and/or particular education needs, and ensuring that Head Start performance standards/early learning standards are being met. Within this team, I worked most closely with the behavior specialist whose job it was to address the needs of students experiencing emotional and/or behavioral health difficulties. Throughout the school year my work with her involved performing observations of students and classrooms with a particular eye to behavior management issues, conducting functional behavior assessments, designing behavior intervention plans for students in need of such services and consulting with teachers.

From these experiences, I learned the importance of finding a balance between respecting a teacher’s point of view and the particular needs of students, especially when working with this unique group of students. Many of these children come from fairly disadvantaged backgrounds with sometimesextensive trauma histories at a young age (i.e., exposure to violence, neglect, and abuse). I learned that it is one of the tasks of the school psychologist and others trained in issues around child development to help teachers see where students might be coming from and that they are usually “acting out” for a reason. Once this fact has been recognized, I have found that the task can then shift to identifying the most effective means of helping the child in the classroom. Through the experience of consulting with teachers in this setting, I learned how important it is to develop strong, trusting relationships with teachers and other school staff before any real meaningful work can be done. I think that as a practicum student in particular, let alone in a setting where they have not had a school psychology practicum student in the past, there is the danger of being misperceived. After all, how can a student help a teacher who has been working with Head Start kids for years? By starting off my experience with classroom observations, listening to teachers, and just lending a hand when it was needed in the sometimes chaotic Head Start environment, I was able to build up some mutual trust and respect that I feel made for a very rewarding and enriching experience in the end.

Following these initial experiences, I gradually became involved in more direct intervention work with students. With the help and support of the education team, I took on a caseload of four students identified as in need of individualized academic intervention. I quickly realized that most of these children were also in need of targeted social/emotional support. With much help and guidance from my university supervisor, I began more individualized counseling work with these students. Through my work with one child in particular, who at four-years-old experienced physical and sexual abuse, neglect, and an unstable family environment, I came to appreciate the particular challenges faced by school psychologists working in the Head Start setting as well as the difference they can make in undertaking this work. Drawing on my training, I was able to make some strides in helping this child see that not all adults are there to hurt her and that there are better, alternative ways of dealing with her emotions than just running away from things when they are too difficult.

I don’t want to downplay the positive role that good parents/caregivers can make in the lives of Head Start children as I came across many of these as well during my year of practicum. Family involvement is regularly encouraged as the program was always holding fun and educational events for families, which many would attend. I even assisted with a couple group sessions for fathers of children in the program designed to encourage involvement in their children’s lives. I found this helpful in understanding that many of these families, although sometimes misguided, are trying their best in raising their children given the circumstances they’ve been dealt. As such, this experience has given me an appreciation for the potential usefulness of supportive parent training/management work families in supporting family relationships within the Head Start environment.

Finally, assessment is a large part of the Head Start experience as the federal office of Head Start stipulates that local programs regularly track the developmental and educational progress of their students. As a doctoral student in school psychology, I was glad to get involved in not only conducting some of these evaluations, but also spending a good bit of time discussing and providing input regarding larger issues around the assessment of Head Start children. Are developmental assessments designed for preschool students also valid for evaluating Head Start students? How should things proceed when the results of two different evaluative tools disagree as to whether a child is meeting developmental expectations? How should a program measure and quantify the school readiness of Head Start children as they exit this program? These are just some of the important questions that need to be asked when applying assessment principles to Head Start students.

I think my experience as a school psychology practicum student with the Head Start program was probably not so different than the experience I might have had within another public school setting since assessment, consultation, and intervention were all included in my list of duties. If anything, my time with this program has taught me that, as developing school psychologists, we need to be aware of the range of students and families we may serve regardless of the setting we practice in. It has also taught me that school psychology has a place in Head Start. Given our training in relevant areas (i.e., child development, school systems, consultation, intervention and assessment), it is clear that school psychologists can be instrumental in helping address the needs of children and families enrolled in this program. Personally, I look forward to staying involved with the Head Start program throughout my professional career. I hope others in the field might consider this option as well.

About the Author

Ethan Schilling is a fourth year doctoral candidate in the School Psychology program at the University of Georgia.