The Non-Glamorous Side of School Psychology: Thrice Bitten, Not Shy
Dr. Rebecca Branstetter
I posted once on my Facebook Fan Page that I was “writing reports, which is the non-glamorous side of school psychology.” One of my wonderful colleagues wrote back, “Wait, there’s a glamorous side???”
Okay, so there’s not really a glamorous side, but I try to tell the cyberworld the truth of this profession—the warm fuzzies, the cold pricklies, and the insane. I don’t want to sugar coat how hard this job is, though I try to write about the positive stuff as much as possible.
Recently, I’ve been getting lots of emails asking me what experience would be good for preparing one’s self for graduate school in school psychology, and being a school psychologist. Being biased toward my own experience, I say that you should work with kids with special needs before deciding on this career. The best training I ever got was before grad school, working in a group home for developmentally disabled adolescents, and then during grad school, in a home for emotionally disturbed kids. I figured, if I work with the most difficult to manage students, I could handle any kid that comes in my office after that. I was, for the most part, correct. After getting stitches for having a scooter thrown at my head, managing kids who threw objects or bit me, I can handle a surly teen who doesn’t feel like doing my tests. I also have an expansive verbal repertoire for redirecting behavior: “Stoves are for cooking, not throwing, Jeffry,” “Climb on the play set, not the roof, John,” and “Sorry, we can’t push the lawnmower to Safeway. Shall we push a stroller instead?” So glamorous, right?
Since working with students with disabilities over the past 9 years, I have been able to keep myself safe from severe situations except on three occasions:
I was working in a group home for adolescents with developmental disabilities. The ”OJ is going to jail!” kid always went home on Friday afternoons with his grandmother. This Friday, his grandmother had cancelled. Kid shows me his suitcase and says, “Grandma is coming.” I tell him for the 10th time that day that Grandma is coming next week, and he screams and bites the back of my right hand and won’t let go. Why the right hand? I need that one, buddy. No one is around to help me. I tell him to let go. He doesn’t. I tell him to sit down (I don’t know why) and to my surprise, he sits down and releases my hand. I cry. He says, “Grandma is coming” and plays with the buckle on his suitcase.
Working with a 6 year old who has severe language issues and is possibly on the autism spectrum. I ask him, “What color is the sky?” and he sniffs my face, then arm, and then gently bites my arm. I say, “Can you tell me what you are thinking about instead of biting my arm?” He says, “this game is too hard.”
Trying to test a 9 year old boy in foster care, who is severely inattentive and impulsive. I present him blocks. Blocks get thrown. I present copying. Pencil gets thrown. I try a talking game (ha! No objects! You can throw all the words you want!). He leaps out of his chair, starts crawling on the ground, snarling, and says, “I’m a mean, mean, dinosaur! Run away from me.” I say, “you look like a nice dinosaur to me.” He says, “No! Play my game, I’m bad!” I peer down at him and he swipes at me and then bites my ankle. I take a breath, ankle throbbing and say, “Actually, I have studied dinosaurs for many years now and you appear to have all the features of the Nice-a-saurus Rex who happens to be angry right now.” He giggles and gets back in his chair and starts working. I pretend my ankle doesn’t hurt and try to recall when I got my last Hepatitis B shot.
What are the lessons from these incidents?
1) If you want to work as a school psychologist, make sure you have your Hep B shot current.
2) Be prepared that every so often, you may get a surprise bite, or have an object thrown at you. If you work with severe needs kids, it could happen. Working in a group home is a good way to get on the job training so you can handle any kid who comes in your office.
3) The majority of kids school psychologists work with are not severe needs students, but you don’t get to pick who gets referred to you. Get experience working with all kids, and you’ll be much more comfortable in your role.
4) In 99.9% of situations, you can prevent acting out with good de-escalation techniques.
5) Most importantly,the kids who act out are often trying to communicate something to you by biting, hitting, or throwing, that they cannot put into words—-they are disappointed, the work is too hard, or they feel like a bad kid. Try not to take it personally and work with the kids, parents, and staff to teach them alternative ways to communicate.
I hope I have not frightened anyone from the profession. But you gotta hear the non-glam side too…