Unseemly IEP Team Member: “The Pseudo-Psychologist”

Published on May 27, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano

“The Pseudo-Psychologist”

The “Pseudo-Psychologist” does not necessarily have to be a school psychologist.  It is any staff member who begins throwing around psychological terms as if they are certain they have all of the answers.  Far worse is when you get the Pseudo-Psychologist who starts opining as to the appropriateness of the medications your child is taking!  Medical decisions should be made by medical doctors, not IEP Team members (in fact, this is prohibited by law in Connecticut)!

Let me start by providing a bit of information that virtually all parents I talk to don’t realize: a “school psychologist” is not the same thing as a “clinical psychologist.”

What does that mean?  Well, in many states it means that the school psychologist is licensed NOT by any mental health agency, but rather by the Department of Education.  This further means that most school psychologists could not “hang out a shingle” and start a private practice as a “psychologist,” because they are only really licensed to provide services within a school environment.

You need to fully understand the qualifications and licensure of the individuals in your school district who are making recommendations about your child.

I can not tell you how many parents of children with disabilities I talk to who, as I am gathering background information, will say something like “that’s what the psychologist told me,” or even, “that’s what the school’s psychiatrist recommended.”  Yet when I probe, I learn that the parent is referring to the school psychologist.  Why does it matter?  Because often the parent relies on the advice of this individual, sometimes even if it contradicts the recommendations and diagnoses of outside mental health professionals whose credentials and training far exceed the traditional path of the school psychologist.  Most parents have no clue that they are taking the advice of an educational professional who in many cases is not even licensed to issue the diagnoses that their outside professional has given!

If you have obtained a diagnosis and recommendations from an outside psychologist or psychiatrist, do not assume that your district’s “school psychologist” has comparable training and background to refute these.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for school psychologists, and it’s an important role.  I have worked with many over the years who are incredibly skilled and helpful.  Moreover, school psychologists often know a great deal about educational testing and how a particular learning style might play out in a school environment.  That is their training.  But when a parent comes into an IEP meeting with a diagnosis of, for example, Tourette Syndrome from a psychiatrist, and the school psychologist discounts the diagnosis, I think parents have a right to understand that one professional is a medical doctor and licensed mental health professional, and the other is in many cases a Bachelors level educational professional.

School psychologists are by no means the only school staff members who can play the role of the “Pseudo-Psychologist.”

At least school psychologists have focused their education and training on the psychological aspect of education, and often special education.  What I find far more frustrating is when you get a guidance counselor or principal who makes statements like “you know, I interned at a psychiatric hospital when I was in college, and this sounds a lot like it might be Bipolar Disorder.”   Heavens.  A college internship does not a doctor make.

This is the worst kind of Pseudo-Psychologist, because this person really thinks they know what they are talking about, and their confidence leads the parents of the child with special education needs to rely upon their conclusions.  Sometimes years pass without the proper intervention being put into place because a family has agreed with assessments made by the school district which they really were not in a position to make.

Most parents believe what the school district staff tell them without questioning the source.

The vast majority of parents of children with special education needs do not even begin to second-guess the recommendations of the school district staff.  They assume that they are the experts, and they follow their advice.  It is often only when a situation has become intolerable that parents begin to challenge the appropriateness of their school’s decisions.  Unfortunately, sometimes it is then too late.

My best advice for countering the Pseudo-Psychologist is to ask specific questions about their background.  Then, if you are not satisfied that this person has the necessary credentials to properly assess your child’s special education needs, it might be time to ask for an Independent Educational Evaluation.

52 Responses to Unseemly IEP Team Member: “The Pseudo-Psychologist”

  1. Parent/Professional
    May 25th, 2013 | 1:56 am

    The article makes a very valid point about knowing the credentials, licenses, specialties and expertise of the various professionals we might work with professionally, make referrals to for services, or actually seek services for ourselves and/or for our family/children. I regularly investigate the credentials and licensures of the colleagues I work with, the providers I seek for myself and my family, and in the records I receive for review and consideration. I check online credential verifications if possible and I look up certification/licensure requirements. I recommend that we all do the same. What I have found in my more than 20+ years of professional experiences and as a parent is that the level of expertise, credentials, education, and experience varies even within professions (whether specific specialties or more broadly) and across states and internationally across countries.

    School psychologists have a minimum of a graduate degree that includes 60 graduate credit hours, a one year supervised internship, and a passing score on a national exam. Those who are better prepared in the field of school psychology come from NASP and/or APA accredited programs, focus their internships within the school setting, and have additional coursework and supervised experiences above the 60 graduate credits. Typical degrees include the master’s, specialist in education (Ed.S. – in between masters and doctorate), and the doctorate (Psy.D., Ed.D., or Ph.D). While the state education board might state that a person with a bachelor’s degree could work in the schools as a school psychologist, typically this would probably be an artifact that in education, it is not uncommon to apply teacher specific rules/regulations to the non-teaching professions even if not applicable or relevant and even if not the actual rules/regulations for that particular profession in that state. Additionally, those with a bachelor’s degree working in the schools probably most likely are those with the 60 graduate credit hours working towards the doctorate but did not earn the masters or Ed.S. degree in route. In the U.S.A., it would be rare to find a school psychologist without 60 graduate credit hours (even for master’s degree holders who often get a Certificate of Advanced Graduate Studies or C.A.G.S. with their degree to recognize the additional credits earned). In at least one state (Texas), the department of education does not regulate the practice of school psychology and this is instead relegated to a separate licensing board. Now, if one were to look internationally at the field of school psychology, particularly in countries where services are nonexistent or in a pioneering state of the development of the profession, it is not uncommon to find school psychologists at the bachelor’s degree level often coming out of the ranks of teachers.

    The specialties of school psychologists vary depending upon the program attended based on coursework and professors, the particular supervised experiences obtained, and whether courses outside the field were taken successfully at the graduate degree level. Additionally, some school psychologists have additional graduate degrees in other professions that add to their expertise and competencies across multiple areas. I have seen a great amount of variation even within the same school district or school (if more than one is assigned to a larger school like a high school). It is hard to generalize across the entire profession. The quality of the services, therefore, can vary from unbelievably outstanding and of the highest quality to unfortunately disappointing services. It is important to do your homework.

    In the field of psychology, note that there are multiple professionals who work with children with some overlap between the specialties. Note also that some professionals have multiple competencies across specialties. Some specialties might include pediatric, school, counseling, neuropsychology, and clinical child and adolescent. It is possible to be competent and credentialed across more than one specialty. Professionals might have more than one graduate degree, minor coursework in other fields, and supervised experiences across different specialties, settings, and populations.

    Credentialing for school psychologists typically occurs through the state department of education except for a few states like Texas where the licensing board is the regulatory agency. School districts commonly use the term psychologist without regard to the adjective of school to modify; therefore, consumers such as teachers and parents could equate school psychologists with licensed psychologists. Instead, licensed psychologist simply refers to a different credential that is obtained through a licensing board. Some are credentialed school psychologists (certification) and licensed psychologists through the state’s licensing board. It is possible to be both.

    How does a school psychologist become licensed? Each state determines their psychologist licensing board requirements. While some states have a “school psychologist” level of license, the typical license is the “licensed psychologist.” A few states might label this “clinical psychologist” whether or not the professional has a doctorate in clinical psychology (e.g., Virginia). A typical requirement for licensure is a doctoral degree in psychology that is APA accredited or meets APA standards, has a dissertation that is psychological in nature for a topic of research, includes two years of supervised experience supervised by a doctoral level licensed psychologist with an internship that is APA accredited or meets APA standards, pass a background check (arrest record), have satisfactory professional references, and a passing score on the national EPPP exam in psychology. The doctoral degree is usually in school, counseling, clinical, clinical child and adolescent, neuropsychology, and industrial and organizational. Pediatric psychology is usually obtained through a child and adolescent psychology doctoral degree with coursework/focus and supervised fieldwork in this specialty.

    Basic questions I ask myself include: “What is the highest degree earned in the specialty/field? What credentials/licenses does this professional hold? Does this professional have any licensing board complaints and what were the outcomes made by the board to these allegations? What supervised experiences did this person have in what settings and with what populations? What additional coursework, graduate degree minors, and supervised experiences did this person obtain? What professional associations is this person a member of? Does this person hold advanced certifications like the board certification or specialty specific certifications like the ABPP and NCSP?”

    In the school, the consumer (parent, student, and/or teacher) might not have a choice but to utilize the school psychologist or other professional assigned to the building/school or program. The professional, though, has an ethical obligation to work within boundaries and limits of competency by making referrals and consulting with related professionals or professionals with specific expertise needed.

    While all information provided by teachers and parents must be considered, the focus of the evaluation for special education eligibility/need purpose for a school-aged child is to determine impact on school functioning and educational performance. If adverse effects are indicated and the student requires specialized instruction and services including related services, then the child, if determined by the team, can receive special education services. The mere fact that a child has a medical condition, disability, or other impairment does not automatically qualify for services as many, including faculty/staff, are able to function without direct services. A small number will require accommodations under ADA and Section 504 and an even fewer number will require direct specialized instruction/services within special education.

    Another note is that even a highly qualified or the most or best qualified professionals might not be able to do the most thorough evaluation and/or provide the most extensive services within the school setting if the time frame is short (e.g., making a referral for a special education evaluation a week before school ends for the year), the workload of the professional is already high, or there are system problems outside the control of the professionals. In these situations, the issue is not with the professional but with other aspects of the system.

    Outside the school, behavioral health professionals come in a variety of levels and specialties so the same argument can be made to investigate their credentials, degrees, licenses, and supervised experiences. Check licensing boards and ask the professional directly. A school-based professional might actually be more highly qualified but then again, the reverse could be true and it all depends upon the reason for seeking the service based on a fit/match with your needs and the expertise and competencies of the professional.

    I want to end my contribution to the discussion with a comment that this concern is noted not just in school psychology but in other profession including teaching, speech-language, and social work. Some have criticized the programs that place college graduates in teaching positions such as inner cities or areas with teacher shortages when these graduates have no teaching coursework, credentials, or supervised student teaching experiences. In Arizona, speech-language pathologists who meet the ASHA standard and are licensed for independent practice bemoan the state department of education that allows bachelor level professionals to obtain certification as speech-language technicians and then work side-by-side with SLP’s who hold the ASHA standard and state licensure. Social workers are often the most confusing profession for consumers because they can be licensed at the bachelor’s in addition to the master’s/doctorate level, yet there are critical differences in what the bachelor level social worker can provide versus the master’s/doctorate level can do.

  2. Jennifer Laviano
    May 26th, 2013 | 6:21 pm

    Thank you for your very thorough and thoughtful reply!