PERA Member Spotlight: What It's Like to Work As a School Psychologist

August 15, 2017

The following first-person account comes to us from PERA member Stephanie Jones, a school psychologist in Englewood, Colorado. Are you, too, interested in submitting a guest post to The Dime? If so, email us at dimecontact@copera.org.

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When I was a high school senior, I was one of two students selected from my home state of South Dakota to travel to Phoenix and attend a summer institute for propsective teachers. I was nominated by my high school guidance counselor, Tom May, and every day I'm thankful for him encouraging me to take that first step. That same year, I overheard one of my friends say, "I'm not going to vote for Steph for 'Most Likely to Succeed' because she wants to be a teacher." Without Mr. May and my experience in Phoenix, it would have been easy for me to listen to the doubts of my friend—that I could be something much better than just a school employee. But going to Phoenix and being around like-minded peers is what tipped the scales for me; it's what convinced me that teaching was a noble profession for smart, successful students. 

Today, I'm proud to say that I'm a school psychologist. I currently work at Clayton Elementary in Englewood, and previously worked in Douglas County for 15+ years. When people ask me what's 'typical' about a day in the life at my job, I usually respond that nothing is typical—and that's what I love about it. Most days, I greet kids as they come into school with the awareness that I have the opportunity to be the first smiling person they see. Kindness matters at my job, and I work to make sure that kids feel kindness first thing in the morning. There are usually two or three students with unique challenges or circumstances at home who I intentionally check on each morning. I want to make sure they start the day off right.

On Mondays, I usually have  Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings, which we use to address the kids with educational disabilities (as determined by state guidelines). If they meet the requirements, they are entitled to a special IEP that best suits their needs. On other days of the week, I usually work with kids independently or in small group structures, teaching them to channel their emotions in various ways. Despite being so young, kids can sometimes be flooded with emotions just as viciously as adults can—and that impacts their judgment and decision making. I listen to heartbreaking stories and do my best to lend support, give a hug, or just simply validate what they're feeling. I use famous quotes, lessons, art, and books to inspire kids to channel their emotions and find positivity.

Some days day might also include working with families of children I see on a regular basis. We work to find ways to keep their child's attendance at school consistent, and locate resources the resources needed to meet their basic needs. I often encounter homeless families, or kids who come from extremely troubling circumstances at home. Unfortunately, this usually leads to violent behavior at school, where students lash out by throwing chairs in the classroom or expressing their emotions in other inapporpriate ways. When this happens, I respond by helping the child de-escalate. My preference is always to prevent problems by conducting assessments to determine why a child is acting the way he or she iswhat he or she is communicating through negative behaviorso we can design a plan that will help the little one meet his or her needs in a more functional way.

At my school, we teach children to be safe, respectful, responsible, and friendly; it's what we call our Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports Initiative (PBIS). We brainstorm ways to focus on positive behavior, and build a culture connected to reinforcing those behaviors in troubled children. I collaborate often with teachers and administrators to plan how we can individually shape a child academically, socially, or behaviorally if what's being done in the classroom (that works for most students) is not working for him or her.

Though I love my job, there are some downsides. The worst part of it for me is when children tell me that they're being mistreated at home, requiring me to file a report with social services. It's also hard completing risk assessments, which determine whether a child is suicidal or a threat to others. Columbine and other school shootings changed my profession in this way; it's a much scarier career as a result. When I talk with my husband about my job, he often questions how I'm able to do it every day. I never do, though. I reflect back to those teachers and guidance counselors who helped me become who I am, and that helps me remember the amazing responsibility and gift that is my career.

In the end, I was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” my senior year of high school. While it's possible that the Ironman/triathlete/future doctor might have been robbed of what was rightfully his or her title, I know I fulfilled the expectations of those who voted for me by choosing a life of public service.