Jack is in grade 2 and can't read simple three-letter words, but he seems quite smart. His teacher is puzzled because the boy doesn't remember the sounds of letters from one day to the next.
Mary is in grade 5; she used to be a cheerful friend but now is withdrawn and sullen.
Bill is a new teacher in a secondary school and is having real troubles with managing the behaviour of some of his classes – they talk all the time and usually don't listen to him.
Fiona is concerned about her son, who is in kinder. He doesn't play well with other children and is easily upset and angered.
Ed is the principal of a school that has experienced the death of a popular student, and he is not certain how to support his staff and students.
These are some of the people a school psychologist may be asked to help. I have worked in schools – primary, secondary and pre-school – for nearly 30 years and have often been involved with issues such as these. It is a wonderfully varied role
Many parents (and some teachers) do not know their school has the services of a psychologist. The amount of service may vary, but nearly all schools – government and private – have access to psychological services.
In some schools the psychologist is called a guidance officer, from the days when we had teaching backgrounds as well as psychological qualifications, and sometimes they are known as educational psychologists.
So what might a psychologist do to help the people mentioned? In the case of Jack, who still can't read, a psychologist would carry out a range of investigations. They would check that there are no sensory issues such as poor vision or hearing that might contribute to the difficulties.
They would also check that Jack has received a fairly standard education and not missed substantial times at school because of illness or not attending. At some stage a cognitive assessment, such as an IQ test, would be done to check that he has sufficient intelligence to understand about reading, and to discover any strengths or weaknesses in his thinking. There would also be a diagnostic reading assessment to see where he is having difficulties; for example, can he not remember the sounds of letters, or is he unable to combine them to make words?
If none of these factors seem to account for his situation, it may be concluded that he has a reading disability sometimes called dyslexia. There would be an interview with his parents to see if there is a family history of reading problems, because often these are inherited. The psychologist would usually write a report, which would include recommendations to help Jack both at school and home. If he was found to have low intelligence, the psychologist would write a report so the school could apply for extra disability funding for him.
For Mary, the girl who had become sullen and withdrawn the psychologist would interview her teacher and parents to get a history of what has been happening in her life. They would also meet Mary to try to find out what is troubling her. This could be any of a wide range of issues, such as being bullied or ostracized by her peers; a death in the family; a parent being ill or on drugs; or being abused at home. In the latter case she would be referred to the Child Protection Service. There would be counselling with Mary and her family.
Often it is an advantage that the psychologist is in the school on a regular basis, as Mary might be more willing to talk to someone she is familiar with rather than go to an agency.
To help Bill, the new teacher, the psychologist would discuss his difficulties and work through possible classroom management strategies. In most schools, inexperienced teachers now have support from older teachers as mentors who can help, but sometimes a teacher feels more free to talk about difficulties in a confidential way with someone who is not part of the school hierarchy, such as the psychologist.