What Is School Psychology? Job Description & Brief History

What is school psychologyThe United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, signed by almost 200 countries, states that every child has the right to a good education.

Education should develop each child’s personality, talents, and abilities to the fullest while respecting their culture, family, and environment, the Convention continues.

School psychologists, working directly with children, their families, and schools, support mental health and wellbeing to make learning and development possible (D’Amato, Zafiris, McConnell, & Dean, 2011).

This article introduces the fascinating discipline of school psychology, defines the role, and explores several real-world interventions.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download three Positive Psychology Exercises for free. These science-based exercises explore fundamental aspects of positive psychology, including strengths, values, and self-compassion, and will give you the tools to enhance the wellbeing of your students.

What Is School Psychology?

The American Psychological Association (APA; 2005) describes school psychology as “a general practice of Health Service Psychology, concerned with children, youth, families, and the schooling process.”

Ultimately, school psychology, both as a field and for each individual practitioner, promotes a positive learning environment and equal access to services to ensure healthy development for all children.

In the United States and beyond, a school psychologist assesses and addresses both children’s and families’ needs across multiple settings, including schools, hospitals, private practices, and mental health agencies (Lee, 2005). Such a broad scope facilitates engagement with families and other social systems across multiple cultures and languages.

Often, school psychologists work with children and young adults with learning and behavioral problems, disabilities, and mental health issues. Sometimes they are engaged at the family’s request, working alongside teachers to ensure the learning environment encourages healthy development (APA, 2005).

It is important to note that other factors outside the practitioner’s direct control typically influence school psychology’s success, such as the state of public education, culture, languages used, and even the nation’s needs and gross national product (Jimerson, 2014).

The APA and the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), the two largest professional associations for school psychology, have encouraged a move away from assessment and toward “interventions that address the academic needs of children” while engaging the family at each phase of delivery (Lee, 2005).

Both bodies guide training and practice and offer school psychologists a link to the broader field of psychology. They also provide a much-needed voice to individual practitioners, along with certification including the Nationally Certified School Psychologist credential, to improve and standardize the school psychological services offered (Lee, 2005).

School Psychologist: A Job Description

school psychology historySchool psychologists must have both in-depth and broad knowledge of their fields and related areas.

They should be equipped to “conceptualize children’s development and translate scientific findings to alleviate cognitive, behavioral, social and emotional problems” (APA, 2005).

While the role of the school psychologist varies between countries, it typically includes the following (Jimerson, 2014):

  • Assessing children that exhibit emotional, cognitive, social, and behavioral difficulties
  • Creating and rolling out primary and secondary intervention programs
  • Consulting with other professionals including teachers
  • Engaging in the evaluation and development of educational programs
  • Participating in research in school psychology
  • Supervising, encouraging, and educating those who wish to enter the field

Beyond these core skills, they also need to be aware of and engage with experts in federal law, case law, state statutes, and a wealth of school regulations. And while less defined but equally important, the role also requires awareness of historical influences (cultural, community, state, and federal) and their impact on emotional functioning.

Equally challenging, the school psychologist must gain practical skills to understand, interpret, and deliver developmental strategies and learning to adults engaged in promoting children’s healthy development and growth (APA, 2005).

In doing so, they provide support to children with issues that directly impact their education, such as

  • Developmental and educational problems that harm learning
  • Social or health-related problems that affect the child’s education
  • Personal and school issues including substance abuse, delinquency, etc.

The effectiveness of the professional associations that provide support is crucial to balancing the many demands of school psychology (Jimerson, 2014).

The APA and NASP promote and develop qualities essential to the job, such as professionalism and maintaining a strong relationship with the education authority and other relevant groups. They also encourage research into the field and develop practical approaches by “codifying the scope and practice of service” (Jimerson, 2014).

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A Brief History of the Field

The early years of school psychology stretch as far back as 1896, when Lightner Witmer set up his psychological clinic at the University of Pennsylvania (Lee, 2005). Created out of a need to help children, he applied the new science of psychology to their school-related problems.

Elsewhere and around the same time, Francis Galton, James Catell, and Alfred Binet developed intelligence measures to understand individual differences.

In 1904, the French government tasked Binet with identifying children who would most benefit from special classes. His work resulted in classifying children’s intelligence in comparison to the average score for their age. He proposed that any child with scores two years lower than their age would benefit from special lessons (Lee, 2005).

With many social changes between the 1890s and 1920s, including the introduction of child labor laws, juvenile courts, and, crucially, compulsory education, the establishment’s view of education began to change. Following the increase in students attending school, children needed to be sorted by academic ability to receive the education they required (Lee, 2005).

And while the term was not used until 1911, school psychology as a recognized discipline gained momentum into the mid-20th century. During the 1960s, governing bodies formed and defined school psychologists’ roles and outlined training and certification programs.

By 2000, popularity in becoming a school psychologist had soared, with over 200 programs in the United States alone.

Today, the role and accompanying legislation have expanded to ensure that “free and appropriate” education is available to all, irrespective of religion, culture, ethnic background, or disability (Lee, 2005).

School psychology is recognized internationally, and published research confirms its importance in improving education and development in school-age children (Begeny, Wang, Hida, Oluokun, & Jones, 2019).

4 Real-Life Examples

Educational PsychologyOver recent years, school psychology has teamed up with positive psychology to create several interventions with some exciting results (Chodkiewicz & Boyle, 2016).

  • Penn Resiliency Program for Children and Adolescents (PRP-CA)
    The PRP-CA program encompasses a school-based curriculum that uses techniques from Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to promote resilience.

Students receiving 18 hours of instruction in groups of around 15 have significantly lower levels of depression, with further improvements over 12 months.

    The FRIENDS program promotes students’ social and emotional skills while encouraging emotional resilience and reducing anxiety and depression.

The acronym is a useful reminder of the stages involved:

    • Feelings
    • Remember to relax
    • I can try my best
    • Explore situations and coping step plan
    • Now reward yourself
    • Do it every day
    • Smile

When trialed in the United Kingdom with over 13,000 students (some allocated to control groups) aged 9–10, those who received training reported lower social and generalized anxiety. The benefits were still visible 12 months later.

  • Believing You Can Is the First Step to Achieving Program
    In 2015, an Australian intervention trained students aged 10–12 in CBT techniques to promote a more positive learning experience and improve achievement outcomes.

While it has a smaller study size than the previous two interventions, results showed significant reading time improvements, though no change in mathematics or self-esteem. Larger studies may show more significant effects.

  • JES Youth Prevention Program
    The JES program taught German students about the connections between emotions, stress, and the body to improve their learning behaviors, cognition, and grades.

Ten sessions of 45 minutes were given to each student, including warm-up exercises (such as deep breathing) followed by a discussion on emotional regulation and coping. While only modest academic improvements were found, there was a significant decrease in absenteeism.

Clearly, the results from positive psychology school-based interventions are mixed; however, that may be explained by varying study sizes and the degree of support provided.

Overall, psychological interventions led to significant improvements in wellbeing and a reduction in depressive symptoms (Chodkiewicz & Boyle, 2016).

4 Fascinating Facts & Experiments

The following research offers some fascinating insights into the learning and development of school-age children. While not focusing solely on school psychology, these recent findings highlight the range of factors that can affect education.

  • Among students in China, while ethnic identity is a strong predictor of self-esteem, a belief in a just world can improve self-image and self-value and help balance negative factors.

These findings suggest the importance of student beliefs beyond education and highlight the value of integrating them into education programs (Wang & Zheng, 2020).

  • Literacy can vary depending on type and degree of disability.

However, among visually impaired children, braille readers showed no difference in the ability to recall detailed aspects of the text from those who access print by auditory means (Wang, Qais Al Said, & Ye, 2017).

Educators must be led by their students, taking into consideration their preferred means of learning and their disabilities, using the technology available.

  • Napping might be as effective as last-minute cramming.

While it is widely reported that a good night’s sleep is essential for consolidating daytime learning, even a brief rest during the day may help with exam performance.

Napping may be particularly important when performance dips in the afternoon (Hamzelou, 2016).

  • Intellectual confidence may be inherited.

Children aged 7–10 who rated themselves most confident in their academic abilities performed better in exams. While it’s not clear whether positive self-perceptions influenced performance or the other way around, findings suggest genetic inheritance may be more crucial to children’s early success in school than everyday environmental factors.

In the future, genetic analysis might predict a child’s potential for success in school and enable targeted support interventions (Greven, Harlaar, Kovas, Chamorro-Premuzic, & Plomin, 2009).

This small collection of diverse research into school-age groups reflects the wide-ranging impact on education and learning from various environmental and biological factors. School psychologists must consider all of the research to ensure students’ best and most productive learning experience.

School Psychology vs School Counseling

Chinese studentsWhile both school psychologists and school counselors support students – and there are inevitable overlaps in their roles – the former work with students struggling with their mental health needs.

They are also engaged in setting and administering psychoeducational tests, researching educational issues and questions, and working with parents to assist their child’s development (APA, 2005).

School counselors offer a more general service within schools than school psychologists, helping students pursue change and enhance their general wellbeing.

School counseling typically involves relatively short interventions, taking place over several sessions and aiming to educate the student by focusing on problem solving. Counseling “enhances personal and interpersonal functioning across the lifespan and addresses emotional, social, vocational, educational, health-related, developmental, and organizational concerns” (Lee, 2005).


Versus: school psychologist vs. school counselor

What About Educational Psychology?

Educational psychologists rarely work directly with children. Instead, they focus on a higher level, macro view of education. While they may perform assessments, they typically engage with students’ educational needs at a group rather than an individual level.

According to the APA (2014), educational psychologists are “focused on identifying and studying learning methods to better understand how people absorb and keep new information” rather than dealing with individual mental health issues.

Multiple areas of psychology are engaged with young people and their mental health at school age. Educational psychologists play a vital role at the strategic and policy-making level to promote education, learning, and development (Greig, MacKay, & Ginter, 2019).

Best Practices: Ethical Considerations

Positive educationThe APA and NASP provide school psychologists with a comprehensive set of ethical guidelines.

They are reviewed and updated regularly, and while extensive, they are not exhaustive.

Membership in the APA and NASP requires school psychologists to comply and maintain good ethical conduct, such as ensuring they:

  • Get informed consent from parents or guardians for school psychological services
  • Only practice within their area of competency
  • Maintain confidentiality according to local and national guidance and laws
  • Keep and update mental health records (often required for insurance companies and governing bodies)
  • Avoid multiple relationships (such as working with the student and then using information gained while coaching their teacher)

It is also crucial that school psychologists maintain awareness of legal and ethical requirements associated with their role, ensuring they protect the children, themselves, and the school.

A Look Into Positive Education

Positive education combines the success and value of the traditional approach to education with the study of happiness and wellbeing, typically relying on the PERMA Model for support.

The following articles provide an excellent place to begin to understand the potential and value of positive education:

  • What Is Positive Education, and How Can We Apply It? (+PDF) – This is a great starting point for anyone wanting to know more about the application of positive education.
  • Positive Psychology in Schools and Positive Education for Happy Students – This article provides some background into positive education along with 26 activities and exercises to use with kids.
  • 13 Best Positive Education Books and Positive Discipline Practices – An informative article providing a rich selection of resources and lists of positive education networks and associations.
  • Europass Teacher Academy offers a valuable and straightforward introduction to the field, including an excellent video about applying positive education for individual and group learning.
  • Positive Education – This superb introduction to global positive education is provided by Martin Seligman (often seen as the father of positive psychology).
  • Introducing ‘positive education’ in the curriculum – A real-world example of introducing positive education into schools using the Geelong positive education model.
  • International Positive Education Network – A practical set of resources for anyone learning how to use positive education while encouraging collaboration between teachers, parents, schools, universities, and governments.

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PositivePsychology.com’s Helpful Resources

We have a valuable set of tools and worksheets to support students in creating the optimal mindset for development and education.

  • Adopt a Growth Mindset – Guides to replace fixed mindset thinking with growth statements and aid in adopting a growth mindset.
  • Self-Awareness Worksheet for Older Children – Self-awareness in children is essential in recognizing positive and negative thinking and behavior.
  • Showing Responsibility – It is valuable for children to recognize the meaning of being responsible and its effect on themselves, others, and their school.
  • The PERMA Model – A template for this hugely impactful tool for understanding happiness and how to apply it in life.
  • Inside and Outside – The years spent learning can often be emotionally turbulent. Understanding their struggles with emotions can help students develop a more positive outlook.

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others enhance their wellbeing, this signature collection contains 17 validated positive psychology tools for practitioners. Use them to help others flourish and thrive.

A Take-Home Message

School psychology is deeply rooted in the combined fields of psychology and education, and requires specialist knowledge of psychoeducational assessment and diagnosis, intervention, health promotion, and program development (APA, 2005).

School psychologists must be able to translate research findings into actionable strategies and engage with children, parents, teachers, and other relevant individuals to ensure the most appropriate educational environment.

After all, education is a fundamental human right. When circumstances including mental health or psychological problems get in the way, help is needed. School psychologists can use science-led learnings and their understanding of culture and relevant legislation to support wellbeing throughout learning and development (D’Amato et al., 2011).

While further research is required, studies are overwhelmingly positive regarding the benefits of school psychology and school-based interventions to support the child through their education (Chodkiewicz & Boyle, 2016).

Along with this article, review some research referred to and the positive education articles included to familiarize yourself with this complex but essential field of psychology.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.


  • American Psychological Association. (2005). School psychology. Retrieved January 28, 2021, from https://www.apa.org/ed/graduate/specialize/school
  • American Psychological Association. (2014). Educational psychology promotes teaching and learning. Psychology: Science in Action. Retrieved January 28, 2021, from https://www.apa.org/action/science/teaching-learning
  • Begeny, J. C., Wang, J., Hida, R. M., Oluokun, H. O., & Jones, R. A. (2019). A global examination of peer-reviewed, scholarly journal outlets devoted to school and educational psychology. School Psychology International, 40(6), 547–580.
  • Chodkiewicz, A. R., & Boyle, C. (2016). Positive psychology school-based interventions: A reflection on current success and future directions. Review of Education, 5(1), 60–86.
  • D’Amato, R. C., Zafiris, C., McConnell, E., & Dean, R. S. (2011). The history of school psychology: Understanding the past to not repeat it. In M. A. Bray & T. J. Kehle (Eds.), Oxford library of psychology. The Oxford handbook of school psychology (pp. 9–46). Oxford University Press.
  • Greig, A., MacKay, T., & Ginter, L. (2019). Supporting the mental health of children and young people: A survey of Scottish educational psychology services. Educational Psychology in Practice, 35(3), 257–270.
  • Greven, C. U., Harlaar, N., Kovas, Y., Chamorro-Premuzic, T., & Plomin, R. (2009). More than just IQ. Psychological Science, 20(6), 753–762.
  • Hamzelou, J. (2016, November 16). Napping before an exam is as good for your memory as cramming. New Scientist. Retrieved January 28, 2021, from https://www.newscientist.com/article/2112972-napping-before-an-exam-is-as-good-for-your-memory-as-cramming/
  • Jimerson, S. R. (2014). The roles of school psychology associations in promoting the profession, professionals, and student success. International Journal of School & Educational Psychology, 2(3), 214–222.
  • Lee, S. W. (2005). Encyclopedia of school psychology. Sage Publications.
  • Wang, E., & Zheng, Y. (2020). Exploring the relationship between ethnic identity, belief in a just world and self-esteem among ethnic minority students in Guangxi, China. International Journal of School and Cognitive Psychology7(2), 222.
  • Wang, Y., Qais Al Said, S. K., & Ye, F. (2017). Multiple literacies for individuals who are blind or with visual impairment: A quantitative comparison on print, braille, and auditory literacies. International Journal of School and Cognitive Psychology, 4(2) 1–7.


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  1. Beverley Scott

    Extremely helpful and information very relevant for today’s education system


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