A Day in the Life of a School Psychologist

I get several emails a week from readers wanting to know if a career in school psychology is right for them. I can only speak to my experiences in large, urban school districts, but I am always happy to tell them the good, bad, and ugly. Sometimes, my candor sends them running for the hills, and sometimes, they can’t wait to apply to grad school to get started. So go ahead, peek into a day in the life of my job and decide for yourself…

I arrive at my middle school campus today at 8:00am, armed with coffee, water bottle, lunch bag, bag of testing materials, my laptop, and a bag of toys. I greet the secretary in Spanish (she’s my own private language tutor) and grab a bunch of little notes out of my mailbox marked, “Dr. Bell, School Psychologist.” As I re-shuffled the weight of my zillion bags o’ stuff, a group of middle school girls came in the office. They were so cute and middleschooly awkward, and I smile and greet them. They give me the “I’m too cool to say hi to adults half-smile and squinty eye” and as I walk away, I overhear them:

Girl 1: Who was that?
Girl 2: Dr. Bell.
Girl 1: What does she do?
Girl 2: I don’t know exactly. All I know is that she LOVES kids.

That is the best job description ever. That is what I do. That is why I carry a zillion bags to 3 different schools every week. I am a school psychologist. Here is my day.

8:00am: Aforementioned shuffling of bags and lesson in middle school conceptualization of what I do.

8:05am: Accosted in hallway by vice principal. We walk and talk as I head to my little office in the back of the auditorium. It’s a State-of-the-Union address, middle-school style. Franklin needs a check in because he got into a fight. D’Andre is doing better in class. Cherie’s teacher wants to check in about reading difficulties. A teacher is out today. Karen’s mom wants me to call her about grief counseling. Special education meeting this afternoon for Kevin. Got it.

8:10am: Throw everything in office and read through mailbox notes. More of the same:
“Do you have any strategies for anger management for Michael?” “Can you check in with Erin? She seems sad.” “Dr. So-and-So called and wants to talk with you about whether you think T.J. has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.” “Is D’Andre doing his behavior chart?” “Padres Unidos meeting tonight at 6. Can you come?”

8:15am: Deep breath. Organize and prioritize! Review new items and existing list of students I had planned on testing and seeing for counseling today. Testing must be done today. I have to figure out why three of my students are failing. Learning disability? Emotional problem? Behavioral problem? Poor instruction? Bad attendance? Doesn’t understand English? Low ability? Peer difficulties? Do they need special education to be successful or can they make it in the general class with help? I am a detective gathering clues every day.

8:20am: Call parents back. Leave messages.

8:30am: Coffee now in bloodstream. Ready to go. Deliver “Talent Group” passes to 6th grade girls for counseling group that will occur after lunch. Squeals ensue. As I leave classroom, another girl yells, “I’m talented too! Take me!!!”

8:35: Back to office to regroup. Set up testing materials: one IQ test, drawing paper, stopwatch, pencils, sundry other tests of how kids learn best (listening? looking? doing?) and behavior rating scales for teachers, parents, and student.

8:40: Enter classroom to get Devin to “work with me for a while.” Kid bounds out of chair and then asks, “Wait, am I in trouble?” Assured he is not, just that his mom wanted me to test him to see how he learns best and what we can do to make school easier and more fun for him. He takes the bait.

9:00: Give tests of problem solving with visual aids, language-based reasoning tasks, memory tests, and drawing tests. Student is very compliant and seems to enjoy testing, once he is assured it was not for a grade, but to see how he solves new problems on his own. At end of testing, student reports that testing “wasn’t so bad.” Agree to meet again next week to finish up.

10:30: First counseling kid of the day. He’s a 7th grade boy who just got in a fight. Head hung low, he joins me in my office. He lights up when he sees the game of Uno. We play what may be our 100th game of Uno this year. After we finish, he sheepishly looks up at me and admits, “Dr. Bell. I was bad yesterday.” We talk.

11:30: Next counseling kid. She’s an 8th grade girl having family problems. He sister is in a gang, and she is afraid for her. We draw together. She is chatty and open. This is my second year with her. After we play what may be our 400th game of Mancala, she earnestly asks, “Did you have to go to college to do this job? Because it seems like playing Mancala isn’t that hard.” I privately reflect on how yes, I did go to college and grad school, and yes, I do get paid to play around on the job.

12:30: Call from other school I work at, located down the street. Student with major truancy issues is there today! Given I have been trying to test Caroline to see what is causing her to hate school so much, I tell the principal I’ll be right there. Grab my lunch bag for a meal on the go. Pop head into office and exclaim, “Tengo que irme a…my other school!” As I fly down the hall, secretary yells, “My other school is ‘mi otra escuela!” Yes, that’s right. Dang it. I knew that one.

12:32: Finished with lunch and get in car. Yeah, that’s right, I shoved a sandwich in my face in two minutes. Over the years, I’ve learned how to multitask. I’ve even managed to break up a faux knife fight while eating in the teacher’s lounge.

12:35: Arrive at high school. Observe Caroline socializing happily with boyfriend. The bell rings, and she makes her way to class. I intercept her. She agrees to come with me in lieu of chemistry class. Not a tough sell on that one.

1:15: Caroline reveals that she skips school because she feels dumb and “doesn’t ever get it.” She came today because she missed her friends. She agrees to continue testing to see why school is so hard. She becomes curious and engaged in my tests. I wish I could stay and test her all day. But my Girls Talent Group is starting in 15 minutes. I cross my fingers and hope she comes back tomorrow.

1:30: Back to middle school. Girls are eagerly waiting by the door. Today, we have to decide who we will invite to the end of the year talent show. Fight ensues over whether or not to invite Alejandra, who is friends with one girl, and enemies with the other. One hour of tears, yelling, more tears, storming out, storming back in, and talking yield to agreements and hugs all around. For now.

2:28: Back to my office. Jose is at my door, waiting for his 2:30 counseling. He wants to play basketball today. I glance down at my high heel shoes and think of that Easy Spirit commercial in which a group of women’s high heels are so comfy that they can play basketball in them. These are not those type of shoes, because those shoes are ugly and I would never buy them. We compromise and talk as we do free shots together. He talks about being bullied and his fear that his dad will be deported.

3:30: Score Devin and Caroline’s testing. Devin is above average in all areas. Caroline’s profile looks like she may have a Reading Disability. Further testing is needed to see why Devin is failing despite having the ability, and at what grade level Caroline is reading so we can target interventions.

3:45: Review my report I wrote on my testing last week for Kevin for meeting in 15 minutes. Kevin is a bright 6th grade student who is not completing any work in English, and has an A in Math. He is a sweet boy who sometimes shuts down and sulks when given a writing assignment.

4:00: Individual Education Plan (IEP) meeting for Kevin starts. Teachers, mom, principal, me, and Kevin are attending. We go over Kevin’s strengths. I present how Kevin learns best and what is getting in the way of his learning. His mom and teacher ask questions about how to help him. I make sure Kevin understands how he learns best and why school is hard for him. He has a visual-motor processing problem. I explain that he is like an awesome, super-fast processing computer, only his printer is a little slower than other kids. He smiles. I can tell he gets it.

4:45: Go back to office and grab my one million bags and pack up. I walk by the hip-hop dance club doing their thing and I see my shyest student dancing her heart out. I walk by the school garden, and see two of the talent group girls chatting and laughing. I smile to myself. Then, I see two of my boys I see for counseling fighting in the hall and saying unspeakable things about each other’s mamas. I drop my bags and decide to stay a bit longer. Why? Because like the girls said this morning, I love kids.

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Comments on A Day in the Life of a School Psychologist

  1. Sarah says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post. I have no desire to be a school psychologist, but liked the way you told the myriad of stories from a typical day.

  2. Confused in Cleveland says:

    Thank you so much for posting this. I am currently a junior in undergrad and I am trying to figure out if school psychology is right for me. This really helped!

  3. JNB2 says:

    Your typical day in the life of a school psychologist is quite “on the mark.” Being able to multi-task is a must. I think the variety of tasks and being able to work with students individually keeps so many of us doing this job year after year. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Hi. I am a school psychologist in Michigan. I love the part about eating the sandwich in 2 minutes. I’ve learned through my 12 years of working to never count on “buying” a lunch. ALWAYS bring lunch or have a snack ready. My luck is on days I plan on getting lunch at the school, I get called to another! I have worked assignments with 2 schools, 4 schools, and 6 schools. It is always an adventure.

  5. Natalie says:

    I am a potential grad student in school psych (anxiously waiting to find out if I’m accepted!) and so appreciate reading about your experiences. I admire your ability to come up with clever metaphors that kids can understand. This typical day sounds like a dream to me!

  6. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for you all of the information! Is the school psychologist the same as licensed specialist in education? Should I plan on getting a doctorate and how is the salary? I don’t mean to bombard you with questions, but I think I would REALLY love the job!

  7. Anonymous says:

    This is a great thread! There is not enough information out about school psychology.

    I was wondering if you could write a bit on your experiences in graduate school? A typical day, masters thesis, dissertation, practicum experience. These would be very valuable stories!

  8. Jason says:

    I agree with the grad school daily schedule post.

    That would be a good post.

    I wasn’t one of the ones who asked about the day, but it was much like I expected.

    I was evaluated by a school psych for the gifted program.The test was mainly oral.

    I would like to know why it is mainly oral?

    NOTE:I am a student in Louisiana. I am also very auditory with learning.

    What type is a psychologist usually and are there ever auditory ones?

  9. Jess says:

    Wow, I really loved this post. Thanks so much for your honesty.

  10. Anonymous says:

    This post has made me want to pursue school psychology even more! I am planning on applying to Phd programs this year and would love it if you could write about your experiences in grad school, what mostly occupied your time, advice, what you may have done differently! I am looking at Berkeley's program, as well, is this where you went??

  11. Rebecca says:

    I did go to Berkeley's program! It was 90% fabulous and the other 10% I have PTSD about (mostly the dissertation process!) I will try to write a post soon about what to expect in grad school that won't make people run away screaming. It was a Ph.D. program, so you have to really LOVE school and reading and writing, as I do. If the back-to-school signs at Target make you squeal with joy and anticipation every September, then Ph.D. grad school is for you! What I liked about UC Berkeley is that it combined traditional school psych curriculum with a much broader curriculum that taught consultation skills, educational leadership, and clinical psychology.

    I get a lot of emails asking about the differences between a M.A., Psy.D., Ph.D. and Ed.D. and the difference between school psych and clinical/counseling psych. Perhaps a clarifying post will be in the future. 🙂 Until then, I say go for the Ph.D. and Go Bears!

  12. Sazaen says:

    I am presently a psychology student and I'm leaning towards becoming a school psychologist. At the moment I've been substitute teaching at a local high school and I would love to learn more about the role of a school psychologist. You seem to have an abundane of information to help a young student prepare for the career ahead. I would love to explore these options more with you if it were possible to email you for further exploration. I'm taking an interviewing class and it would greatly help in my class.

    Thanks Christina

  13. Rebecca says:

    Christina,

    Sure, you can email me at rebecca@studentsgrow.com.

    Subbing in high school? You're a brave soul!

  14. Anonymous says:

    I'm currently a School Psychologist in training (MA/CAS)and I must admit your "day in life" read exactly like my own adventures in the school during field placement. Although not many people understand what our job is all about, it is clear we play a very important role in the functioning of the school on a daily basis. This field is definitely not for the weak at heart, its fast paced and exhausting but the benefits of helping at least one child significantly outweigh the exhaustion. Thanks for posting this it made me feel like I'm not alone in quest to be the best and busiest school psychologist!

  15. Anonymous says:

    This post really cracked me up…I too work at a middle school and Uno and Mancala are sitting right behind me on the cabinet as I type this! I always slightly cringe when students ask me about the "typical" day of a school psychologist – I tell them there really isn't one, but that to me makes the job more exciting!

  16. Thank you so much for your blog posts! I am currently applying to grad school for School Psychology and I would love to pick your brain about the field. Would it be okay to email you?

  17. Jazzinitup says:

    So I am still brainstorming possibilities of grad school. I decided to google "day in the life of a school psychologist" and big suprise, your blog was top of the list almost verbatim! Great read… couldn't wipe a smile off of my face.

    Your post may or may not have just decided my future.

    Would love to hear from you if you read this, map15@geneseo.edu!

  18. Rebecca says:

    @Jazzinitup: Gak! The pressure! 😉 I hope you like our field of school psych. I'd suggest shadowing a psych in your area so you can get a real feel for it.

    @Aneka: You can email me at rebecca@studentsgrow.com with any questions. Sorry it took me 2 months to respond!

  19. infinityx says:

    Hi! I'm an undergrad psych student. My goal is to be a school psychologist and open a non-profit dance studio for children who have trouble paying for dance classes.

    Your blog not only put a smile on my face, but gave me a lot of insight into the job. I couldn't help but imagine myself doing the same exact things while reading your blog.

    I'm still not 100% sure if going to grad school for school psych is for me (Law School, and Counseling Psych are still on the table) but your blog was EXTREMELY helpful!

  20. Marcella says:

    After a deep conversation with a close friend a few days ago I started to question my future happiness as a School Psychologist (I recently started an Ed.S. program), and thanks to your post I can happily & confidently say that I will be happy to begin a career like yours in a couple of years… This post made me think of some of the activities I could develop in the schools I will work in… I love working with kids, and despite the amount of time I will spend writing reports and dodging litigation issues, I believe I will love the job. Making even the smallest difference in a child's life is what I'm all about… Thanks for the insightful post, I'm glad I found your blog!

  21. ashlea says:

    HI! I officially just got hired for my first school psychologist job. Do you have any suggestions for how to start the first few weeks of school- establishing relationships with teachers, meeting the students on my case management load, working with the other members of the child study team etc…

  22. rkinkoph says:

    Thank you for a great post. Getting ready to interview for School psychology grad school and one of the questions was "Describe a day in the life of a school psychologist". Very helpful. Thank you!

  23. Anonymous says:

    Great article! I am currently freaking out about whether or not I want to do this career (Of course this all hits me AFTER I get accepted to my Ed.S. program) and your article calmed me down a little bit. I am still debating, but you make it look fun, exciting, and not as stressful and horrible as some people make it out to be!

    Thank you!

  24. serena says:

    i absolutely love your blog because you discuss what we go through. reading this makes me laugh because that is such a typical day but at the same time, each day is so different too (if that makes sense)!

  25. Anonymous says:

    Thankyou so much, a fantastic blog which wasn't just great input for my Forensic Psychology assignment but also a joy to read which was absolutely captivating.

    Once again, THANKYOU!

  26. Amanda says:

    I really enjoyed reading this. I smiled the whole time. I want to become a school psychologist, more for high school. There is an amazing school psychologist at the high school I went to and I want to pass the things I learned from her to others and be there for the kids just as much as she was for me and to care for the kids just as she did for me. I am a freshman in college. I have a lot more years to go, but I am pretty sure this is what I want to do. I mostly want to counsel, but I won't mind testing. I am going through depression and anxiety so I want to help kids like me and I love school. I know it's about learning disabilities and other things as well. I really want to do this.

  27. This is a great description of what a school psychologist does. At least interested students would now have more reason to be one other than a high school psychologist salary.

  28. Pedro says:

    Does a School Psyc take a lot of their work home with them (ie. evenings and weekends)? I am currently a high school teacher and marking is interfering with a lot of the extra curricular interests (such as coaching) that I have and are the reason why I got into the profession in the first place…

  29. Pedro says:

    Does a school psyc take a lot of their work home with them? (ie. evenings and weekends) I am currently a high school teacher and find that marking is interfering with the extra curricular interests that made me get into the profession, such as coaching…

  30. Anonymous says:

    I am currently a senior in college, looking into a school psychology graduate program. I have been researching this career for months, because I want to make sure that I will love what I do every day. So, I googled "a typical day as a school psychologist" or something along those lines, and came across your blog. I've been reading random posts (as in, not in a particular order) and I just want you to know that I love it! You are so excited about your job and you love what you do and the kids that you work with. This has justified my decision and makes me excited to start my career! I just wanted to say thank you!

  31. Cataliya says:

    Thank you for creating this blog and writing this post. I am in the middle of a career transition (I graduated with an art degree in 2005) and now I'm researching a career related to working with/helping children (I have ruled out teaching). This blog is very insightful and this post especially, is helping confirm the path I need to be on. Now it's just a matter of getting caught up with some psychology courses, studying for the GRE, that I need to prepare for.

  32. I really enjoyed reading this. I am a senior that will be graduating with a Bachelor in Psychology. I wanted to go to graduate school for clinical psychology but then I thought maybe school psychology would be of interest too I wasn't sure if I did focus on clinical if I could still pursue a career as a school psychologist? Also I want to focus on children too. My goal was to be a clinical child psychologist. If you could give me some feedback I would much appreciate it.

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