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North Carolina’s school psychologist shortage leaves many students without mental health resources

Matthew was struggling to keep up with his 2nd grade classmates in reading, was sleeping in class, missing school, and getting into conflicts with peers. Matthew had some unique behaviors that his teachers had difficulty managing, and repeating second grade was becoming a possibility. He even talked of hurting himself. Matthew’s school psychologist reached out to his parents, and then attended a parent conference with his teacher. After a thorough review and assessment, the school psychologist recognized that Matthew had symptoms of a genetic condition known as Tourette Syndrome.  A parent interview also revealed that his family was experiencing some challenging life events that were further affecting him.

The school psychologist collaborated with a student support team at Matthew’s school, connected him with a psychologist to address the social impact of Tourette Syndrome, worked with his mother to link her to resources, and helped Matthew learn some better ways to deal with stress and conflict. Years later in high school, Matthew once again met with his school psychologist and worked on building his leadership skills while learning about colleges. Matthew now attends a community college where he is completing a certificate program with plans to transfer to NC State. His future goal is to start his own business. His school psychologist made a difference in Matthew’s life at some crucial times.

Just 740 school psychologists serve the NC public school child population of about 1.6 million children across the state. That’s a school psychologist to student ratio of one psychologist for every 2,162 students. While the traditional role of school psychologists has been that of evaluators, they provide students with comprehensive psychological services in school. They play other important roles too: School psychologists are educators who are deeply knowledgeable about public policy surrounding the rights for students with disabilities. School psychologists provide interventions for students who are struggling academically, emotionally, or behaviorally. They can help to identify students with thoughts of harm to self or others. School psychologists also play a critical role in our schools with prevention, response and recovery from traumatic events by providing emotional support and connecting students and families with resources for psychological and physical safety.

While there is consensus among parents, school administrators, school boards, and lawmakers that mental health issues in NC in 2018 are growing, as well as a rising student population and rising poverty rate, the number of school psychologists per student in NC is actually shrinking. There are currently 65 vacancies across the state for qualified school psychologists. Unfortunately, in 12 NC public school districts, struggling children do not have even one full-time employed school psychologist to reach out to.

Further, the current pay scale makes it even harder for the profession to recruit highly qualified and trained school psychologists at a time when NC children need us more than ever. While the licensing requirements for school psychologists are the highest for any employee licensed by the NC Department of Public Instruction, the current pay scale for school psychologists doesn’t reflect this licensing requirement, making it a challenge for NC to recruit.  Stepping over the state line can yield a significant boost in pay, and NC school districts near state lines have lost highly trained professionals who can make a higher salary in SC and VA.

The recent announcement of a new House Select Committee on School Safety is a hopeful sign that the NC General Assembly recognizes the need for safety in schools. Fortunately in NC, school psychologists have the skills to help prevent traumatic events at school. In NC, just 740 dedicated school psychologists are helping 1.6 million children overcome stress, trauma, grief, mental illness and other challenges to stay focused in school and become productive members of society.

When the next child in Matthew’s school needs support, let’s work together to make sure there’s a school psychologist ready to help.

Editor’s note: This article was first posted by NC Child and has been published with the author’s permission.

North Carolina School Psychology Association

 The North Carolina School Psychology Association (NCSPA) is a professional organization of over 400 North Carolina school psychologists. NCSPA supports and advocates for school psychologists across North Carolina to provide comprehensive services that reflect best practices in the field of school psychology. NCSPA serves its members and society by promoting the rights, welfare, education and mental health of children and youth; and advancing the profession of school psychology.