Inside the Mind of a Child

illustration of heart and mind
June 30, 2022
Dale Goodwin ('86 M.A.T.) | Gonzaga Magazine Summer '22

One young student has a fight or flight mentality. He is breaking all the school rules, even threatening his teachers.

Another likes it when his teacher is angry at him and sends him out into the hall to get away from his classroom ritual. In these cases school psychologist Sandi Douville (’21) is examining ways to give both the students and the teachers a better way to work together.

Finding calm amid the chaos is what school psychologists do, all with the education of each student at the heart of the effort.

In 2018, Gonzaga’s School of Education created the education specialist degree in school psychology (Ed.S.). Spearheaded by then-Dean Vincent Alfonso and longtime special education faculty member Mark Derby, the three-year program has now graduated two classes of school psychologists, including Douville. Graduates are more in demand now than perhaps ever before.

With the increased mental and behavioral stresses placed on school personnel, students and teachers by the devastation of COVID-19, it is nothing short of a serendipitous blessing that Gonzaga saw a need for these support structures before the pandemic struck, and now is equipping Ed.S. candidates with tools to deal with the pandemic’s aftermath.

Associate Professor Joe Engler directs the program and Professors Alfonso and Derby, along with Assistant Professor Dennis SiscoTaylor, impart their wisdom to about three dozen candidates every year, while helping candidates find practicum and internship placements that help prepare them for the rigors of their profession.

The National Association of School Psychologists sets a standard for every school to have one school psychologist for every 500 students.

For the Common Good

“Gonzaga saw the importance of meeting a need in our community and nationwide, often working with kids with suspected disabilities and those who are on the margins,” says Engler. In the end, “School psychologists advocate for the well-being of students, their families, teachers and administrators in a way that is aligned with Gonzaga’s mission.”

School psychologists collaborate with, but are different from school counselors. Psychologists may use a variety of assessment tools and techniques to evaluate whether a student has a potential learning disability, emotional and/ or behavioral disorder, autism or other disability as defined by federal and state regulations. They use evaluation data to determine the best approach to re-engage students in their educational process.

“I spend my days with students, families, staff and community partners,” says Medical Lake (Wash.) school psychologist Jenna Finnerty (’21 Ed.S.). “Working with such a range of people keeps my job interesting and purposeful, and no two days are the same! My role includes psychoeducational evaluation, individual and group counseling, crisis response/ intervention, behavioral/academic support, consultation and collaboration, threat assessment, and system-level initiatives addressing equity, inclusion, wellness and mental health.”

“I enjoy thinking outside the box, as something that works for one student may not work for another. We’re always looking for the best ways to motivate them,” says Calley Ekberg (’05), president of the Oregon School Psychologists Association who works for Portland Public Schools. She received her bachelor’s degree from Gonzaga in sociology and criminal justice and her Ed.S. from Lewis and Clark College in Portland. “I’m jealous of those students going through the Gonzaga program now. I love Gonzaga, and I’m excited to see the University developing such a needed program.”

“School psychology is growing in response to the unique challenges kids are facing today at their schools, and there is a critical shortage nationwide,” Engler says.

“To be able to walk alongside other people and facilitate them finding their own strength, identifying their own solutions and witnessing their own resilience is a gift I do not take for granted,” Finnerty adds.

Following graduation in spring 2021 — at a time when the impact of COVID-19 contributed to a skyrocketing need for mental health professionals in the schools — Douville landed a job in a Tucson, Arizona, elementary school.

“When stretched, the quality and accuracy of the evaluation can suffer,” she notes.

Ekberg is finding many more parents are speaking out in support of their children because they were able to observe them more closely during recent periods of remote learning. “Parents have developed more concerns, and now that students have returned to school buildings, providing resources and support for their students is part of what we do,” Ekberg says.

This showcases another aspect of a school psychologist’s work, Douville adds. “Communication is a critical part of our job. It is very important to be clear and technical when speaking to parents, using terms they know so that they understand the results of our evaluation, as well as being available later to answer additional questions,” she says.

And sometimes the issues are not with the students. Evaluations could lead to a conversation with teachers about how they might approach a student in a different way, Douville reminds.

Nuts and Bolts

1 - The first year of Gonzaga’s program includes foundational classroom instruction.

2 - The second year also includes class instruction and introduces a one-day practicum in a school each week for candidates to observe, support and provide services under the supervision of a certified school psychologist.

3 - The third year is devoted to a 1,200-hour internship, most of them paid, completed in a school system anywhere across the country.

“We support candidates in finding those placements,” Engler says. “It begins with a process of identifying a list of goals and priorities for each candidate. Some may need a geographical location to accommodate a family situation. Some might be looking for an experience in a state that does things differently.”
One recent internship focused on family-school partnerships. The GU intern identified a gap in communications between school and families and created a monthly newsletter to help families understand typical reactions the school might find in students due to COVID-19 fears, or how the school might support students who feel anxious about being back in a school building, or help build bridges between the school and families to work on common initiatives.

In another example, a GU intern’s work centered on identifying different levels of need and support in each student. Those who had less need would receive less support; those students with greater need, more support.

Engler says as society changes, so too does the preparation of school psychology candidates. “We need to prepare candidates to be adaptable and flexible because the challenges students experience change over time.”

The cadre of school psychology candidates is quite diverse, both ethnically and socially. Currently, Gonzaga has five continents and several countries represented within the program. Additionally, it serves several nontraditional candidates. The range of backgrounds is quite large. Some have families, some are on their second or third careers. Some were educators, special education teachers, behavioral technicians.

Engler says, “What this community of candidates has in common is their genuine interest in working with and serving children.”

Douville is especially grateful that these four educators who have created and sustain this school psychology program are always available to answer questions that may arise during the graduates’ professional encounters.

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