The School Psychologist: Necessity or Novelty

The following article is a condensation of a speech given to the Mother’s Circle for Protestant Reformed Secondary Education, a few months ago. I have been asked to write this as another in a series of the speeches being printed by the “Beacon Lights”. The general topic of the speech dealt with the role of a school psychologist or counselor in the elementary and secondary schools of today and what role he could play in our Christian schools.

A discussion of psychology must of necessity begin with the distinction between psychiatry and psychology, or with the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who has specialized. In the same way that a podiatrist is a medical doctor who has specialized in the treatment of feet or a pediatrician, a doctor specializing in treatment of children, so the psychiatrist is a medical doctor who has specialized in the treatment of mental problems. They have very little formal training and acquire their abilities “on the job”. They are trained in classical analysis during the three years that they are serving their internship. Classical analysis was, as you may or may not know, initially set forth by Sigmund Freud. The psychiatrist was the one to give psychology its bad name due to the claims and assumptions they made for their “theory”. They have explanations for all behavior which tended to frighten people because they had the unfounded feeling that the psychiatrist was able to “see into their soul”. I guess everyone realizes how wretched they really are and become extremely threatened by the prospect of someone seeing through and behind their façade. In any case, psychiatry was and still is the object of many vicious jokes and stories. This results in a loss of the realization that they do have a value in addition to their shortcomings. The primary value is the prescription writing. Because they are licensed medical doctors they have the power to prescribe drugs which can often clear up symptoms immediately. Enough of the psychiatrist.

The psychologist is quite different from the psychiatrist. He attempts to look at the student more objectively than the psychiatrist. Any opinions or conclusions that he may form are based on objectively standardized and scored tests. In the same way that an arithmetic teacher knows that the student does not know arithmetic when on his test he says that 2+2=5, a psychologist can know why that child will never be able to learn arithmetic. On the basis of tests that were constructed in the same way as the arithmetic test he is able to draw valid conclusions about the students.

The above refers to a particular type of psychologist. There are many different types of psychologist including consulting, clinical, experimental and counseling. Here we are concerned with the latter because it is the counseling psychologist that most frequently is found in the school situation. The school psychologist is a very special type of person in the school situation. He is a professional educator specializing in psychology just as the principal is a profession educator specializing in administration or the teacher a professional specializing in teaching. He is specifically concerned with the educational process of the students. When something blocks or hinders that process he is trained to assist in its restoration.

This brings us to the question of what a psychologist does specifically. As mentioned above, he gives many tests. With any individual student he may give ability tests, which tell simply what a student is interested in, intelligence tests, which will give the range of a person’s potential, and personality tests. I feel compelled to elaborate more on the last one than the others because of ht eyebrows it raises. A personality test reveals to the trained tester how a person acts and reacts in a controlled situation and from the results can project how he will act and react in a general situation. If a child is very passive and gives up easily when faced with a task in a controlled situation then one can draw reasonably accurate conclusions that he reacts to his school tasks in the same way. If this was cleared up he would be better able to fulfill the function of school attendance, namely, learning.

Now that the counselor has given these tests and has the results, what does he do with them? Tests are never given for the sake of results alone. They must be used to serve some useful purpose. On the basis of these results the psychologist counsels. Counseling can be divided into three basic types. First is vocational counseling. This is done to help the student get his goals and his abilities to coincide. Many students, especially in junior and senior high, have very unrealistic ideas of what they would like to do in life. It is not necessary to make specific choices but general fields or areas can and should be decided. This type of counseling can prevent people from attempting the impossible. Too often students’ goals and their abilities are too far apart to ever meet.

Academic counseling is closely connected with vocational counseling. This involves the scheduling of courses and perhaps the extracurricular activities. If a person has limited abilities he should be taking only four subjects instead of five or six. With fewer subjects he will learn more than if he just skimmed a large number.

The third type of counseling may be termed personal-social counseling. This only means that there are certain personal problems that affect the student’s ability to function up to his capacity at school, and that when these personal problems are cleared up so are his academic problems. As long as the parents hire the teachers to educate their children they must also give them the power to alleviate anything that stands in the way of that education. This does not mean that the psychologist is delving into the inner recesses of the person’s mind or soul. He is only concerned with the immediate cause of the breakdown of educational functioning and in repairing the break as rapidly as possible.

The final question to be considered is rather obvious. It involves the advantages to be gained from having a psychologist in our Christian schools. The most obvious advantage is that local norms could be developed that would provide an objective standard of achievement for students at any particular grade level in all of the schools. The students in the Christian schools are not “average” but above average and should therefore be expected to function and perform at a better than average level. Just what the new “average” for our students is, is not know n because there has never been a centrally organized testing program established.

The other advantages are less general but just as important. If a psychologist can aid in improving the educational process of the student surely the advantage of that is self evident. Truly Christian education for our students obviously means that we must do everything in our power to see that each student is enabled to work up to his potential and capacity. A Christian School Psychologist can certainly play an important part in that work.