The Non-Glamorous Side of School Psychology

You know what is not interesting about being a school psychologist? Writing up psychoeducational reports. Sure, at first it was exciting, trying to figure out new and exciting ways to explain results from the Differential Abilities Scale, but now, not so much. And you know what I never write about on my blog? The boring stuff (you’re welcome). There are some parts of my job that make me want to poke my eyes out (thanks, Mrs. Mimi, for that phrase!) Writing reports and filling out paperwork are in that category, and it is a huge part of my job.

Sorry to break the news to all the eager people who email me asking if school psychology is the right career for them, but it’s not all warm fuzzies. And contrary to my headshot photo, I do not typically stand in front of school busses with perfectly coiffed glamorous hair. If you picture yourself in warm, fuzzy, cable knit sweater that makes students feel comfortable in your presence, safe to share, as you sip on your green tea in your cozy office with one of those squeezy balls, let me paint you another picture.*

Every time I come to my office, it is pitch black in the hallway so I can’t find the keyhole, and there are new piles of stuff/unidentified liquids or food/fresh graffiti in front of the door. It’s typically a degree in there and I spend the first few minutes of my day orchestrating an elaborate tripwire heater situation because there is no electrical outlet. I plan to do a photo collage for my Facebook Fan page at the end of the school year. The series will be entitled, “Crap In Front of My Janitor’s Closet..oops…Office.”

I have digressed. My point is that like in any job, there are pros and cons. There are also going to be undesireable tasks in every job. I tried so very hard to change my job description in my previous school district so I could do more than write reports, but the Bureaucracy Monster was too big for me to fight. Instead of quitting, my mantra ended up being, “Free Yourself of Why” (as in: “Why do I have to log the same information in 5 places?” “Why do I have to test a student with a 4.0 grade average?” “Why is my caseload so high?” “Why are you giving me another school to serve when I am already drowning?” “Why did I get a Ph.D. to sit in an elevator shaft in San Francisco when I will surely die if there is any seismic activity?”)

Free yourself of “Why” in a large urban school district or you will go clinically insane. I finally changed my attitude (and districts) and I am so much happier. My new strategy is to be super efficient at the low desirability tasks to get to do the high desirability tasks** So after 9 years of working as a school psychologist in the San Francisco Bay area, I have finally worked out a few tricks to getting reports done faster without sacrificing quality. These tips come from the girl who loves a good multitasking solution. I dry my hair in the morning with my car heater on blast, saving ones of minutes each morning. I double-down on New Years Resolutions (do more cardio and learn more Spanish) by listening to Spanish podcasts on the elliptical. I hope a few work for you, and I hope that you can all contribute more to share with other readers. Teachers, feel free to chime in some time-saving strategies for paperwork—I know you have mounds of paperwork too.

1) After you assess a child, the second that kid is back in class, take 10 minutes to write up your testing observations. Sure, you jotted down some notes on the protocol, but trust me, you will forget the nuances when you go to write it up 3 weeks from now. Every time I do this, I save myself time going back through the protocol and looking through notes and trying to remember, “was this the kid who rushed through stuff or took forever?”

2) Attend pre-referral meetings (e.g. Student Study Teams, Parent-Teacher Conferences, support staff meetings) if you can and have with you copies of developmental histories and behavior rating scales in every language possible. When the conversation inevitably turns to whether or not a psychoeducational assessment is needed, whip out those papers and give them to the parents right there to fill out and bring to your next meeting. Tell them this is the first step in getting more information for the assessment to guide the process toward their concerns/questions. I know, it’s ideal to sit with them and do it together, but if it is a pretty straightforward case/family dynamic, you can have them get started on remembering when the kid spoke his first sentence or learned to ride a bike.

3) Get really good at scoring stuff up while the kid works on other subtests. I usually have most of the cognitive assessment scored up by the time the kid is finishing up with the last subtest. This is a natural process that will occur after giving the same test over and over again. And over…and over….

4) Spend some time really working on your templates so that you have a good structure to work from. Borrow other colleagues’ templates and take the best parts from each one. Write all your recommendations into the template and then delete the ones that do not apply to the student you assessed at the end. Add new ones that occur to you that are particular to that student and add it to your master list. Also, in your template, use “Xx” as the child’s name and then when you find and replace “Xx” for the name, it will have proper capitalization.***

5) Write up background history before testing the kid. You will thank yourself later when you are all done with testing and don’t have to go back and do that part. Also, it guides your selection of assessments. When I first started, one time I didn’t look carefully at the kid’s English language testing scores and did the whole assessment before realizing it should have been a bilingual assessment. So mad at myself (for not looking, and also for not being bilingual. Hence, the podcasts).

As I am wrapping up this post, I realize that this post is kind of boring. I may or may not have just fallen asleep for a second at my own post. But welcome to the world of report writing. It doesn’t give you that same warm fuzzy feeling as working with a kid who has a breakthrough, helping a parent or teacher really understand how the student learns best, or hanging around in your frumpy second sister wife sweater, waiting to transform the lives of the yoots. But reports have their own value when done well. And when you’re done, you can get back to the “fun and glamorous” part.

*I do have this scenario in my private practice office twice a week. It’s lovely. Also, I appreciate having an office at all at my school sites. I used to have to carry around 40 lbs of testing materials, my purse, and my lunch wherever I went and begged people for testing space. I tested a student in an elevator shaft once. Klassy.
**Sound familiar, class? Anyone? Anyone? Premack Principle.
***A note about templates. Use them as a skeleton for your reports, but elaborate to tell a story about that child’s approach to tasks. Scores can always be imported into a template, but your reports will be more useful to people if you supplement with qualitative information. And for the love of Pete/Phil/Patty, don’t use the wrong kid’s name over and over, like Frau Psychologist. Dead giveaway for over-reliance on templates.

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Comments on The Non-Glamorous Side of School Psychology

  1. EABeam says:

    I think it is rare to find the perfect personality type for school psychology.

    You have to balance very opposite type of personality traits.

    On one hand, there is the analytical, anal-retentive traits that make for good reports and paperwork.

    On the other hand, there is the social, emotive, and flexible traits necessary to work with these students and parents. (and staff!)

    Tough balance.

  2. Erin says:

    Great advice. I will be starting my internship in July (fingers crossed) and after several years of long, long neuropsych reports, I'm getting very pleased with my template. I'm looking forward to working with some new supervisors on internship to check out their report-writing styles/templates to further improve what I've been using. Thanks for showing this side of the profession.

  3. NANCY RUIZ says:

    Hi. In my private practice I have different templates for preschoolers and schoolers because I use different batteries. But your post has given me more ideas… Thanks!!

    I love your posts! They make me laugh and "see me" "from outside view". The reality of a School Psychologist may be sometimes awesome, others not that great.

    Thanks for sharing your stories with us!!

    In Spanish: ¡Gracias por compartir tus historias con nosotros!)
    If you need some things in Spanish, just ask! I'll be glad to help!!

  4. Kirsten says:

    To keep up the intensity on your treadmill, I will be doing the exact same thing on the other coast.

    PS. Put in some rocking Hispanic music every now and again, like stuff by Juanes.

  5. Great post. The specialists, like you, are always bogged down with paperwork. The classroom teachers are always bogged down with preparation and grading.

    I guess each job has its downside. Even cops have to do paperwork, though they gloss over that on the crime shows. If they didn't, who would watch?

    I wrote a post on my blog where I touch on different types of jobs in education:
    http://theresamilstein.blogspot.com/2009/10/classes-of-teachers.html

  6. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for that advice. I am in my final semester of a Masters in School Psychology program and never realized how much clerical work is involved. I feel that school psychologists need a personal secretary. I have made up a few templates but wanted to know if you could attach some of yours? I like to read how others explain results. Thank you.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Year 3 of school psyching and I'm starting to crumble and think I made the wrong choice. I appreciate your take on the job and hearing that you have found a way to enjoy it even with the report-tsunami. You are reminding me of why I made this choice in the first place (sort-of)…

  8. Anonymous says:

    "“Free Yourself of Why” (as in: “Why do I have to log the same information in 5 places?” “Why do I have to test a student with a 4.0 grade average?” “Why is my caseload so high?” “Why are you giving me another school to serve when I am already drowning?” “Why did I get a Ph.D. to sit in an elevator shaft in San Francisco when I will surely die if there is any seismic activity?”"

    Honestly, those sound like pretty light "Bureaucratic Monster" "why's" to face, compared to what I've had to deal with in the "corporate world". This actually sounds like a breathe of fresh air, and gives me even more reason to become a School Psychologist. Thanks 🙂

  9. Melissa says:

    I’ve just enrolled for School Psychologist program and I did not know anything about a case load or other stresses. I haven’t started school yet, and now I’m wondering if I’ve chosen the right path.

    1. admin says:

      Hi Melissa! Don’t be discouraged…school psychology is a wonderful profession and with the right support and training and mindset, you will learn how to cut through the Bureaucracy nonsense and get to the real part of the job we all love–working with kids to meet their potential. Every new job has stressors, it’s all about finding the right support, early on, to manage them. Best to you in your program!

  10. Dave says:

    These are great tips, and many seasoned psychologists would agree are ideal strategies.

    I use a little Bluetooth keyboard to discretely type my observation notes in an email on my phone while I’m observing. Saves that 10 minutes of writing and i can do a few observations back to back without confusion.

    I also automate my reports using a few hacks in MS Word. It’s more complicated than find replace, but approaches report writer software using your own words. You can learn it for free at http://www.psychreports.blogspot.com

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