Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Three Stress Tolerance Techniques I Use in Schools

I’m excited to be back this school year to re-establish long held relationships with students, families, faculty and staff.  I’m also excited that through my work as a psychologist, I can assist families and students to access needed resources for their emotional and academic learning.  With this excitement also comes stress, a great deal of it.  In the education business, we all feel this stress, and the most insidious kinds come from things that impact our lives that are out of our direct control.  In the broad education world, we have the implementation of the common core, standardized testing, politically based teacher evaluations, school improvement plans, and other so-called “accountability” measures from the ed reform movement.  More locally, we see budget cuts, limited staffing, special education legal requirements, locally based school board controversies, and so forth.  On a personal note, it is special education deadlines, large caseloads, and striking a balance between strong advocacy of a students and family’s needs with increasingly limited resources available.    What all this boils down to is stress.  Now as a psychologist, I often think, ok, my job is to help others manage stress; it may not be a good sign if I’m not managing my own particularly well.  I do try to do so, with varying degrees of success, and this current blog post is meant, in reality, to clarify in my mind what it is that I do to alleviate this stress.  If I can figure that out, I’m much more likely to be able to help students and staff with theirs.

My first stress tolerance technique is mindfulness. There are a lot of stressors out there.  Again, they are not under our direct control.  We can, however, control our own reaction to our environment.  A great way to direct my focus is the use of mindfulness.  This in short is maintaining yourself in the present moment.  Focus on every aspect of what you are doing to bring you into sharp focus.  Many take this a step further and practice meditation techniques to sharpen focus in a quiet setting.  They focus on breathing, or on things that are out of our usual present awareness, to bring them in.   Mindfulness can also be a daily work technique, some psychologists may refer to it as “flow.”  Focusing on writing without multitasking, the conversation in front of you without checking your phone, focusing on student observation without having your mind drift to what needs to be done later.  This focus in the present moment gives you the pleasure of enjoying what you are doing with your full attention.  Then other larger stressors stay off in the background.

The second technique is a simple reminder, which I try to do often, of why I’m in this business. --Focus on the students.  Many stressors invariably come to impact our daily work, and we have to address and deal with them to the best of our ability.  However, we need to keep our eye on the ball of focusing on kids and families regardless of how these other factors are playing out.  This means focusing on our day in and day out interactions with children and families, making sure they are positive.  It means making sure that we are, in our daily efforts,  in some way contributing to students and families, whether it is through our teaching and counseling interactions, or in my case, to get students needed supports.  I have lately been turning to Twitter for these reminders, as there is daily support there, from my PLN, about keeping the focus on kids.

Finally, take some time to enjoy activities that you are passionate about.  This is certainly true of focusing on our passions outside of the work setting (for me sports, art, music, reading, comedy).  What’s even better is if you can bring those passions into your work setting, especially as a teacher, AKA “Teach Like a Pirate” – (Dave Burgess) style.  Most professions have a certain drudgery component to them, in my case, special education paperwork, which is a necessary condition of doing business.  However, on a day in and day out basis we need to enjoy what we do in order to be successful.  This means spending time cultivating what you are good at, and the joys of your job. 

Everyone has different stress tolerance techniques that are their “go-to’s” to keep them sharp.  Mindfulness, keeping the focus on the kids, and cultivating my own interests and passions are the stress tolerance techniques that keep me relatively sane.  I often need daily reminders of these techniques to reset my own scale, to make sure I’m on the right path.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Back in the Game

It's funny what comes down the pike when you are forced into situations to make yourself more relevant.  I'm reflecting on this idea after reading Tony Sinasis' recent blog post about how his PLN saved his career -- It's a great post, please read it!  I identified with his notion of things sort of settling in to a situation where you do the same things every day.  Where you are stuck in routines and not growing.  I've had thoughts recently that I can't bear to give another IQ test, even though I probably have 150 ahead of me this year, with questionable value to student learning on top of it.  I've been caught up with the politics of fiscal conservatism vs. advocating for what kids need.  I had been in a long rut. The fact is though, I desperately don't want to be in one.

Here's the thing, however... Twitter refreshed my career too!  I'm back to being excited to learning again, and I have my wife @bekcikelly and @thomascmurray to thank for that.  It was they who introduced me to Twitter, despite many initial reservations.  Because of their encouragement and my change of mindset, I can now get online everyday and talk freely and openly about being a school psychologist, and what a school psychologist should be doing --working every day to help students learn, both academically and emotionally.   Or, I can have grander conversations about being an educator, and what that means in a 21st century world.  In addition, I can protest the grounding of education from the standardized test movement. Even better, I can advocate for increased mental health services in schools and increased social/emotional learning.  Honestly, I feel like I have a voice again!

Twitter has also helped me become less isolated.  Being a school psychologist can be an isolating position at times.  I have three schools, and although I work at it all the time, I'm often not fully integrated into any one of them.  Despite that fact that I get along very well with the staff there, and have gotten to know students and parents well, I still feel at times like a psychological gypsy, so to speak.  If I want to have professional conversations, they come and go, either in the hallway, or through professional meetings that are set up to talk about such things.  Those are good avenues, but are just not strong enough, and not completely what I'm looking for intellectually. My PLN however, has become a 24/7 go to for professional development and ongoing exciting conversations in the world of education!  The resources I have come across, have been game-changers, and the collaborations I've developed with people with like minded excitement and interests have been a career changers as well. Twitter really makes me feel like I'm back in the game, doing what I love to do. I'm incredibly appreciative of that! So thank you, everyone in my PLN, like Tony said, you may have saved my career too!

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Inspiration Personified -- The Lessons of my Mentor

Typically on Saturday mornings I aim to join #satchat on Twitter, but my family life intercedes and instead I catch the end of the discussion.  Nothing being new about this process, I caught the tail end of #satchat and discovered a post by @pammoran about the meaningful contributions of her mentor.  This is a beautifully articulated piece; I encourage you to read it.  It got me thinking about the influence of my own mentor and inspired me to put those thoughts down in writing.

My mentor, who in his career was an itinerant teacher for the blind, a supervisor of special education, a pupil personal director, and assistant superintendent, is the type of human being who inspires you, an individual you would aspire to emulate.   The first attribute that struck me when I met him was his ability to listen.  He is a powerful listener who has the ability to reflect thought, and the emotions behind those thoughts, and redirect his communications back to you to sharpen your own mind.   Ironically, as a psychologist, this ability is a tenet of my training, but here was an individual who possessed this ability naturally, and intrinsically understood the importance of listening, who instead was training me

He listened to parents in the most difficult circumstances during contentious special education meetings, framed exactly where they were coming from, and without having yet addressed the solutions to their concerns, gained their trust.  One of the primary reasons for this, other than his extraordinary listening ability, was his deep capacity for empathy.  My mentor knew instinctively how to step into another’s shoes and view the world from another’s point of view.  He cared deeply for every member of the community, and wanted everyone who lived there to have a strong bond with their families, the school district, and institutions within the community.  He actively worked to achieve this goal.  If people were struggling, he felt it, and he took active solutions to alleviate their suffering.  I may be the fortunate beneficiary of this empathy, as he hired me, two crisis guidance counselors and a social worker after it was determined the district needed more social services to assist families.  He started a community charity that was meant to assist families during difficult times.  He was active during the holiday season, making sure every child and family in the community would have what they needed.  This empathy carried over into everything he did, and filtered into our school district, where families knew that their child would be well cared for.

My mentor was one who valued the whole child, and was always active in making certain our community did as well.  He was a champion of the arts and always put aside time and resources to bring the arts to our community, particularly to our children.  He started an artist in residency program that brought in writers, visual artists, and musicians who would spend time with our kids teaching lessons from their careers.  He championed our local arts world, including actively supporting our strong music program.  He was a leading member of an educational foundation to bring leading speakers from their fields to kids to help mentor them.  He also left us with the best public arts display I’ve seen at a high school, a public display of Walter Baum impressionist paintings that had been gathering dust in closets or offices of administrators, that stand side by side with student art displays. 

In addition to possessing these amazing human bonding and relationship building qualities, he had the innate ability to plan.   He taught me to never act impulsively, but to take time and reflect, always thinking about the best direction in which to take action.  This meant that every phone call, email and correspondence that was laced with emotion did not need to be immediately addressed.  He taught me to take time to reflect on the thoughts, feelings and behaviors of others, and use that time to plan a response taking those into consideration.  He taught me that when you start a building or a community initiative to take time to build capacity, gather resources and ideas, include others, and be thorough in your preparation.  This is why he was such an outstanding member of my dissertation committee; he had me be prepared, although it was he who asked the toughest questions at my defense! 

My mentor has now retired, however his teachings are never far from my thoughts.  I like to think he’s always there guiding my decisions – in the back of my mind he’s telling me, “Reflect, Be Patient, Plan, Be Empathetic.”  When I run into tough times, he always is there as a resource, and when I’m lost for a course of action, I often think back to what he would do, which helps me steer my path.  There is no greater value than one of a good mentor.  If you have the fortune to have a mentor that has these qualities, your work will be enriched, as will that of those around you.  Thank you so much, Jim.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Twitter as a Professional Development Tool for School Psychologists

New to Twitter?  A social media tool such as Twitter is an online resource that can’t be beat for daily professional development at your fingertips.  It can provide a vast resource of research information, which can be easily shared with individuals in your own created “Personal Learning Network,” where you can connect with other professionals in the field.

If psychologists don’t have a Twitter account, it’s easy to get online and make one.  School psychologists can then search out specific hashtags (#) related to the field where people post comments and specific resource of use in education.  Some popular hashtags in school psychology that have been posting information recently have included #psycchat, #schoolpsychology, and #schoolpsych.  If you find a school psychologist posting information that would be useful to you in the field you can follow them.  You now can have a daily feed of ideas and resources available at your fingertips if you choose to access it. 

Quick Learn of easy concepts:

A Hashtag (#), is basically an online “room” where people post related to a topic of interest.  There are tens of thousands of hashtags, some very useful, and some completely irrelevant for professional use.  Find professional hashtags related to #schoolpsychology, or other professional subjects of interest to post to.

Posting – When you post a Tweet, or a resource, it is only readable to your followers.  If you would like other professionals to read your post, post to a hashtag where professionals regularly visit for information.

Directing a Tweet at a specific user -The use of the @ symbol directs a tweet to a specific user, such as @emmauskevink, or @bekcikelly.  Postings then go right to them to read.

Direct Messaging – You can send a Direct Message (DM) to someone as well, but only if they are following you.  If you would like to communicate with someone who is not following you, use the @ symbol and their Twitter name. 

Choosing who to Follow --While obviously this is certainly up to you, I would recommend you follow individuals you know that will help you grow professionally.  Although Twitter certainly is used as a fun social tool, its vast professional value comes from learning from the connections you make.  The wiser you choose, the more you learn.  Remember, professionals are there to learn from you too, it’s a two-way vehicle, so be sure to regularly share your knowledge and resources with others!

Potential Follower Recommendations for School Psychologists:

School Psychologists

School Counselors

  Connected Educators to Follow

Twitter Chats:  The use of Twitter can be highly interactive as well, where a school psychologist can join in on live discussions that are happening in the field of education in general, and school psychology in particular.  Twitter chats occur generally weekly for 60 minutes, and moderators pose questions on a predetermined topic of interest.  Participants use a consistent hashtag to communicate.  For instance, at #edchat, (Tuesdays, Noon to 1 PM ET and 7-8 PM ET), Tom Whitby and colleagues have regular weekly conversations about topics related to broad education related topics. In addition to #edchat, there are a whole host of other education related chats that are state specific or topic specific (#edchatri (Rhode Island), #iaedchat (Iowa), #ptchat (parent teacher chat), #escchat (elementary school counselor's chat), #scchat (school counselor's chat), #satchat (broad based educational chats on Saturday Mornings, etc..).  These hashtags are also great places to meet professional colleagues or find resources.  A list of Twitter Chats can be found Here: Twitter Chats.

Posting Links: Links to newspaper articles, online documents, pictures, or research articles all can be posted and shared on Twitter as well, a feature I find of particular value, as the sharing can be endless!

Overall, the use of Twitter as an online resource is highly valuable, and can bring learning right into your living room,at any moment you’d like.  It is a great place to make professional connections and to have regular dynamic conversations about the field of psychology or education in general.  It may just jump-start your professional world!

Friday, July 12, 2013

Five Stages of Organizational Change

When considering organizational changes, it may be helpful to look to a theory of change from the world of psychology Prochaska and DiClemente’s (1984) Transtheoretical Model. This model, which was originally based on changing health related behaviors, such as helping people quit smoking, proposes a semi-linear path towards change from not contemplating change at all, to actively making and maintaining a change.  In the five stages of change, the change itself doesn’t occur until the fourth stage, highlighting a great deal of prior preparation and planning that is necessary in order for the change to be successful and lasting. 

The first of the five stages is the Precontemplation Stage.  In this stage, an individual is not actively seeking to make a change at all, and is perfectly happy remaining static with the behavior they are currently exhibiting.  Here, individuals usually deny the need to change, or may not be consciously aware at all, of an overriding need to do things differently. Using a behavior such as smoking as an example, a smoker might make statements such as “I enjoy smoking, why would I quit?”  Or deny overriding research related to the deleterious health effects of smoking, or make statements such as “I’m going to die anyway, so why not smoke?”  There is evidence to suggest that we tend to stick to our own ways of thinking or dig in further when presented with refuting evidence to the contrary, what is called a confirmation bias.  In therapy in the precontemplation stage, we spend a majority of our time just convincing people of the need to change.  This at times is an arduous task, which is a task of education and presentation of evidence.  Arguably, of the five stages of change, moving people (or organizations) off of stage 1 may be the most important step in the stage process, due to the intractable nature of people or organizations related to the confirmation bias.  If someone is successful getting someone to the next stage, a great leap in therapy (or organizational change) has been made. 

The second stage in the process is the Contemplation Stage.    This is a stage where an individual tends to start to get ready for a change, but is not quite there yet.  They have heard the arguments, and are beginning to think about behaving differently.  They are still in a stage of stasis however, caught between the dissonance of pros and cons of changing.  Being stuck here prevents movement to actually take productive action.  A good way of convincing people (and organizations here) is to continue to highlight the pros of changing, offering several examples and models, as well as highlighting the cons of not changing.  If successful, the individual will make a cognitive leap into the change process, convinced of its benefit. 

The Third stage is called the Preparation stage, where individuals are actively taking the necessary steps to change.  In the smoking world it could be developing a plan to reduce the amount of cigarettes smoked, or developing a timeline to begin, or actively talking with others about it.  In this stage, we can actively develop a partnership with people (or organizations) to help them with their plans, and to develop a plan for the future.

The fourth stage is the actual behavior change stage Action
.  Individuals have acted on their plans, and are moving ahead.  We can help individuals in this stage by encouraging the implementation and fighting the temptation to move backwards. 

Finally, the fifth stage is Maintenance, where individuals work on continuing the change into the future and are flexible with developing plans around roadblocks that develop related to the change.  In this stage, particularly in the beginning, individuals may need the most support from others who are on board with them.

These stages can easily apply to organizational change the same way.  Take an initiative such as Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) for example.  If an organization were considering moving to such a philosophy, in the beginning it would take the convincing of key stakeholders to make the change.  This may entail talking to key leaders in the school district or a school board about the need to make a change.  If an organization moved to a contemplation stage, it would begin to see the benefits, but not be ready for action.  Here we can provide research studies to key stakeholders, and visit model schools where they conduct it well.  In a preparation stage, we can form organizational committees, and talk with faculty at faculty meetings about the positives of change.  We can begin to fill out a team and convince staff to collaborate and get on board with planning.  The next stage would be the change itself, which would entail the intervention moving forward.  Finally, with maintenance, we would need good leadership to anticipate roadblocks, and to help team members feel fresh and excited about the program, and the staff as well. 

The Transtheoretical model has mainly been used in an individual therapy model; however, the processes of change in an organization are exactly parallel in nature.  To effectively make a change, we need to spend most of our time and energy in the stages prior to the actual action stage itself, in planning and preparation.  If appropriate time is spent here, getting investment in change, much of the rest of the process tends to fall in line.  Let’s hope that we spend the time and energy planning and getting investment from key stakeholders in order for our changes to having meaningful and lasting benefits. 

Prochaska, JO; DiClemente, CC. The transtheoretical approach: crossing traditional boundaries of therapy. Homewood, IL: Dow Jones-Irwin; 1984. ISBN 0-87094-438-X.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

7 Leadership Qualities for Educational Success

Leadership comes in a variety of sizes and shapes and there are many attributes that can make a true leader. The main attributes that come to mind include an appropriate and wide/oriented long term vision, planning, follow through, modeling and giving of feedback, the ability to listen through a culture of trust, creating a culture of innovation, and the ability to inspire. This is a long list of attributes, and it is likely that not all leaders will have all of these attributes present to the fullest extent. However, it is essential for an organizational leader to have some combination of them.

Wide/Oriented Long Term Vision

A good leader needs to have a broad and long term vision for where an organization is headed. This includes broad goals, which can eventually be broken down into a short term benchmarks to measure successes in getting there. In the world of education, the overarching goal would be maximizing student achievement. However, a leader must have a solid definition of what student achievement is, a philosophy, a vision. Is student achievement increases in standardized tests scores, or something broader? How do we define success outside of our school environment? Once we define that success, how do we get there? If leaders define success in a narrow way, for instance, increases in achievement on such and such a measure, and design a plan to meet that objective, your vision may be fulfilled, but you may miss the broader consequences of meeting that vision. If your vision is defined in a broad way (e.g. identifying what makes a successful graduate in college or life, and then working backwards to create an environment where those attributes and skills can be highlighted), this would constitute a wider scope approach, which likely will have a significant effect on the overall culture and structure of an organization, and thus student’s lives.


No vision comes across in an organized and effective manner without a plan. The amount of time spent planning for a major shift in practice is directly related to how fluidly the change integrates itself into the organizational structure, and how successful the plan ultimately will be. Planning involves first, finding a model of success if one exists; if one does not exist, finding experts in a field to organize thought around the closest existing models. Planning takes time, for reflection, to anticipate potential difficulties, to identify key stakeholders, to work on organizational investment in the plan, for training, and for implementation. It also is helpful to have written guides and policies for teachers to turn to when there are questions about a new procedure. If a leader does not invest time in a planning process, organizational chaos can result, as there are communication lapses, errors or complete lack of implementation, a lack of inspiration and investment from staff, and then, thus a general lack of organizational orientation towards the ultimate vision. With wide and oriented long term vision, should come significant long-term planning.

Follow Through

Teachers and staff in a school need consistency and to know what to expect. If a leader plans and communicates the implementation of their vision effectively, there needs to be appropriate follow through. This means that everyone in the organization has to be invested and on board, and the leader needs to make sure this happens. Teachers, and ancillary staff thrive on consistency, and the knowledge that everyone in the school or organization is on the same page. A leader should make sure they are actively involved in the training and implementation stages of a plan, and be able to make sure that the plan is followed through on in an effective manner.

Modeling and giving of feedback

Once a vision is outlined, and a plan put in place, teachers are trained and the plan implemented, a good leader should be actively observing teachers and staff in action. In schools, this means that a principal should be out in classrooms as much as possible, observing teachers, and offering feedback of their own. In addition to feedback, the modeling of what is expected is essential as well. Leaders should be visible, present in a way that is not meant to be intimidating, but in a way where there is a culture of learning at all times. If a supervisor waits one time a year to visit a teacher and develop an evaluation based on that observation, the teacher will make sure they are working on their best lesson and the visit will seem mainly judgmental in nature. However, if there is a culture of trust, and feedback is given as a device to inspire and improve, and it is expected and happens often, there will be much more value in the classroom visit.

Ability to Listen / Culture of Trust

A good leader should be able to listen to their employees, who are on the ground floor every day, regarding what is going well, and what avenues may need to be tweaked, re-adjusted or outright abandoned if not successful. A good leader should be able to receive feedback in a non-defensive way. It is not helpful to surround yourself as a leader in a groupthink situation, where everyone is telling you what you are doing is correct. If there is a culture of fear, and no honest feedback can be provided, the leader may be receiving very inaccurate information regarding what is actually happening. If a leader does not listen to feedback or even seek out advice from others who may have a different approach, they will never get a broad view of a problem or be able to figure out new approaches about how to solve one. Thus, in order to be a good listener, and to take feedback, the leader must instill a culture of trust to make sure that this is possible within the organization. In this way, the leader can then, seemingly instinctively, almost be able to detect the needs of the organization.

Creating time for Risk Taking and Innovation

Good leaders hopefully have hired staff that have the qualities of risk taking and innovation. If the goals are broad enough for a teacher to implement, there should be room to maneuver in many ways to achieve these goals. A culture of trust should be created where a teacher feels that they can use their talents in specialized ways to come up with a creative plan of keeping students engaged. If the long term goal of a school district is developing higher level thinking skills and creativity in students, a teacher should have the ability to design and implement lesson plans that are innovative and creative themselves. Thus, a culture of innovation, creativity and risk-taking is modeled for the students. Teachers hopefully should be willing to take risks and try new things to expand their and their student’s horizons. In order for this to happen, however, a leader must create an environment where this is not only safe to do, but is encouraged.

Ability to Inspire

Ultimately a good leader has the ability to inspire their staff. They have the ability to clearly articulate their vision and get everyone excited and on board with it. They have created a culture of trust, innovation and a lack of fear, where teachers can experiment and innovate to find new creative ways of fostering student success. There is broad communication across the board, where there is a culture of sharing and collaboration surrounding the broad goals of student achievement. Modelling and feedback is expected, encouraged and shared, and everyone learns from each other, but is focused on the big picture. When there is a good leader, you would go to battle for that individual, taking their vision and moving forward, bringing everyone along with you. The best leaders inspire in this way, and make an organization a proud place to work.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Cognitive Ability Tests? There are better uses of a psychologist's (and a student's) time.

Most school psychologists, spend most days of most weeks of the year assessing children.  This year I've assessed over 140 students in some manner, and in most cases an intelligence test was administered. This is mandated assessment, and when I say mandated, we're not talking about re-evaluations that occur every three years, or whether or how to choose a battery to diagnose learning disabilities; it is mandated, in that our district uses a discrepancy model to determine whether or not a student has a specific learning disability, and whether or not they qualify for special education services.  If you are not familiar with the discrepancy model of learning disability diagnosis, here's a quick crash course: The idea is that your level of achievement should be predicted by your cognitive ability.  The reason we know this, is that we've done significant amounts of research that shows if you have average ability, you generally have average achievement, above average ability above average achievement, below average ability, below average achievement, etc...  When there is a significant difference between ability and achievement therefore, (e.g. you have average cognitive ability and below average achievement), this stands out. This gap between ability and achievement has been one of the hallmarks of diagnosing learning disabilities for over 40 years of school psychology practice.  Those that have below average ability and achievement (low average, or slow learners), generally then don't get diagnosed with a learning disability, despite the fact that they often have significant learning deficits as well.

What has become clear however, is that knowledge of someone's cognitive ability does not have much of an impact on what we prescribe as treatment for learning problems.  We know what works to remediate reading difficulties.  If the reading difficulty is one of decoding or fluency, generally a scientifically based sequential reading decoding problem works to remediate this area of weakness.  It generally doesn't solve all reading difficulties for a student, but we have scientific proof that these programs improve this area of deficit.  If the problem is one of reading comprehension, we prescribe scientifically based reading comprehension programs that focus on predicting, inferencing, vocabulary development, describing text features such as identification of setting, attributes of characters, etc...  These programs work regardless of what a student's cognitive ability is; we also have scientific proof of that. The question then becomes, if we know these things, for what purpose are we administering intelligence tests?  Two answers are often postulated related to this question:  1) That we can learn about what abilities and strengths a child has other than a student’s deficits; and 2) If a child has a deficit in a specific area on a cognitive ability test (language, memory, visual processing etc.), we can develop plans to accommodate those weaknesses or even attempt to remediate them.  

The answer to the first question generally does not hold much weight, in that, we can also learn a great deal about a child by simply interviewing the people that know them and looking at their performance in all aspects of their lives, both in and out of school.  Good interviews and rating scales, and targeted assessments can get at a much more vast pool of strengths than a cognitive ability test, which is limited by how you define intelligence, and what is assessed.   Thus, it is a waste of resources to spend that much time on a cognitive ability assessment, when we can use that time to examine a student in a much broader fashion using other methods.  The answer to the second question is currently being investigated by research, but results have been mixed. There is evidence that if a student is poor at memory tasks, that we can develop good accommodation plans to help manage this weakness and work around it.  There is very little strong scientific evidence that we can significantly improve our memory capacity, however. The evidence is not strong on improving visual/perceptual reasoning skills either, and there is no evidence related to how this impacts reading achievement in any way (although there may be some with impact on math/science achievement). There is good evidence, however, that we can remediate language weaknesses such as receptive and expressive language, verbal reasoning and vocabulary skills.  Improvement in these areas can therefore improve performance on reading comprehension tasks later. However, there is also evidence that there are better ways to assess these skills directly other than through a cognitive ability test.

This is not to suggest that tests of cognitive ability hold no value.  We know this not to be true, as they are the best predictors of achievement that we have on the market, and they are good long term predictors.  Also, different cognitive ability tests do provide a profile of strengths and weaknesses that can be helpful to get to know a student's individualized abilities.  What I am suggesting is that the amount of time we spend on administering these types of tests does not pay off in active increases in student achievement.  We can use our resources in a better way.  When we conduct assessments, we can get more information from comprehensive reading and math assessments, progress monitoring, structured observations, performance assessment, and interviews.  As psychologists, we should be spending time on these things, rather than testing for the sake of testing, because of antiquated district policies or supposed legal requirements.  If we really want to make a difference in student achievement, we should be asking better and more specific questions, closer to what a student actually does every day, and rely less on supposed inferences of the relation between cognitive abilities and achievement, with very weak ties to research support.  The time is now to start addressing what it is we really are doing as school psychologists every day. In order for you to feel comfortable about your contributions to improving a student's achievement, where should you be spending a majority of your time?

Monday, May 13, 2013

School Investment

When I think about the school I want to send my daughter to, I envision a place where teachers and staff are invested in the school.  Our public school is part of our town, our community.  Went I sent my daughter off to Kindergarten this year, I made sure, like every parent makes sure, that the school would be the right place for her to learn and grow.  I get that feeling from her school, which makes me feel comfortable, that the staff there is invested in the kids, in the community, and in my daughter's education.

Investment in a school is the most important tell-tale sign of a safe and nurturing environment.  In thinking about investment in a school, what are the most important aspects?  The first would be that there are bonds that are created between each individual member of the community.  This starts at the top with the school's leadership.  Does the principal make building relationships a priority?  How does it feel when you walk into the school, do you get a good feeling, with a warm greeting, and a smile, or no eye contact and handed a sign in form?  The leadership of a building sets the tone for the community and relationship building.  At the beginning of the day, are staff greeting kids off the bus, and as they come into their classrooms?  Next, when I walk around the school, do I see interactions? Are parents volunteering?  Are support staff working with kids in the hallways, and interacting with them in a positive manner?  Is student work on the wall and shown off in a proud fashion, with everyone included?  These are all small signs that build to a bigger picture.  A community, and in particular a school community, is only as strong as the bonds it holds between its members.  If these bonds are being properly built, they are a protective factor for any negative situations that may come down the pike. 

The bonds that are built in a classroom may be the most important of all.  Without a good student / teacher relationship, there will be limits on how much learning can take place.   Good teachers should get to know their students well, and know their particular strengths and challenges.  The teacher should get to know the student and their family, and interact with them as much as possible.  When a student feels comfortable in a classroom, they are then comfortable taking academic risks, volunteering, trying something challenging, going a step further.  This can happen because the student trusts the teacher, and knows the teacher will be supportive and cares about the student's success. 

The very good news is I get this feeling at my child's school, which makes me very comfortable as a parent.  I want to get this feeling at every school I visit, for when I do, I know the basic building blocks are in place for student achievement.  An invested community, where all the staff cares about all the kids, and there is a small town family culture that is actively cultivated, is a strong learning environment.  If we are going to spend our time on creating the best schools we can, let's start there.