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Counseling Kids: A Guide to School Psychology


Imagine a child who is overweight and being cruelly and relentlessly teased in school about their weight. Who can the child turn to in school to help them deal with the problem? Assisting teens and children to succeed in life in every way possible (emotionally, socially, academically and behaviorally) is the goal of the school psychologist. School psychologists are well-versed in both the fields of education and psychology. Their position involves truly getting to know students and helping them to work through any problems that they may encounter in their lives. School psychologists work not only with students but also with their families, teachers, administrators and community providers. Some examples of how school psychologists make a difference in children’s lives include: helping students with learning problems such as dyslexia; helping student’s to cope with family and life stressors such as divorce; and helping students with behavior problems such as bullying.

ADD: Attention Deficit DisorderDaydreaming, fidgeting at the dinner table and forgetting homework can all be normal behavior for children when they only occur occasionally. When these behaviors occur on a frequent basis and consistently interfere with normal activity, there could be a problem. Attention Deficit Disorder, also referred to as ADD, is not strictly based on psychological factors but also on physiological factors as well. Basically the disorder encompasses an inability to concentrate, to complete tasks and to live a “normal” life. Difficulty concentrating is the most prevalent symptom of ADD. People with ADD may also suffer from: multiple learning disabilities such as Autism; impulsive behavior; and suffer from low self-esteem and anxiety. Frequently people with ADD will also have problems with their family and getting along with others (social relationships). There are three characteristics that are considered primary for youth with ADD: inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity. The most common form of ADD/ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) in children has them exhibiting inattention, hyperactivity and impulsiveness. Children with ADD/ADHD can also be inattentive but not impulsive or hyperactive, or hyperactive and impulsive but be able to pay attention. If your child has or you suspect they have ADD/ADHD, there are several things you can do to help them to be more successful in life. Behavioral therapy, improving their diet and exercise routine, and lessening distractions at home will all help your child to succeed. At school, provisions can be made to such as always having them sit in the front of the classroom by the teacher to help with their attention. If your child is diagnosed with ADD/ADHD, medication can be quite helpful, but it should never be the only treatment. There are always new ideas and suggestions on how to help people with ADD/ADHD such as utilizing essential fatty acids and omega oils which help with brain function. Finding the right method of treatment for your child is a matter of trying the various suggestions and seeing what works best for them.

Anxiety DisordersAnxiety is a normal part of life. Every person in the world experiences anxiety at times. Yet when fear, nervousness and shyness cause a person to begin to avoid places and activities, it can become a problem or a disorder. If anxiety becomes excessive for a person, the person may actually realize that it is excessive but have problems controlling it. This can have a very negative affect on a person’s daily life. There are many anxiety disorders in the world today. The most common anxiety disorders among Americans include: post-traumatic stress disorder, specific phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Several anxiety disorders are common among children including: Generalized Anxiety Disorder-GAD (excessive worry about many subjects such as grades, sport performance and peer relationships); Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder-OCD (using obsessions and compulsions to try to relieve anxiety); Panic Disorder (experiencing at least one panic attack followed by at least one month of concern that another attack will occur or they will lose control); Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event or traumatic event the child becomes emotionally numb, suffers from intense fear and anxiety and may avoid places, people or activities); Separation Anxiety Disorder (experiencing excessive anxiety when away from home or parents/caregivers); Social Anxiety Disorders (intense fear of performance and social activities and situations); Selective Mutism (when a child refuses to speak in situations where speaking is expected or necessary and it interferes with school and making friends); and Specific Phobia (irrational fears of specific situations such as flying or specific objects such as dogs). If you suspect your child has an anxiety disorder, there is help. A combined treatment program of behavioral therapy, family intervention and/or medication (depending on the child’s needs) will help to improve their quality of life. School psychologists are available to help students learn to deal with their anxiety.

AutismAutism is defined as: a disturbance in psychological development in which use of language, reaction to stimuli, interpretation of the world, and the formation of relationships are not fully established and follow unusual patterns.” Autism is a severe developmental disorder that begins at birth or within the first two and one-half years of life. Children with autism may appear normal in appearance, yet they spend their time engaged in puzzling and disturbing behaviors which are very different than those of typical kids. Treatment for autism is both intensive and comprehensive. The entire family and a team of professionals are all involved in the treatment process. Programs can take place in the child’s home with professionals and trained therapists and sometimes includes Parent Training for the child under a professional’s supervision. Treatment programs can take place in specialized center, preschool or a classroom.

Behavioral DisordersOccasional misbehaving is part of being a kid. How do you know when a child’s misbehaving is not normal? Behavioral disorders are more extreme than average rebellion and mischief. A child or teen with a behavioral disorder will display a pattern of hostile, disruptive or aggressive behavior for more than six months. If a child has a behavior disorder they are at a greater risk for failing in school, mental health problems and possibly even suicide. The most common behavior disorder is ADHD. Another common behavior disorder is Conduct Disorder, which is characterized by antisocial behavior disrupting daily life. Examples of this antisocial behavior include: lying, arson, theft, overt aggression and unmanageability. For children with behavioral disorders, an IEP (Individual Education Plan) at school can be useful to help them learn. They can get specific services that will help them to succeed in learning. Medications, therapy and outpatient or inpatient services are all possible treatments for behavior disorders. The school psychologist would have an important role in helping the student control their behavior disorder.

Deaf and Hearing LossLearning can be impaired when a child suffers from deafness or hearing loss. It is harder for them to learn grammar, vocabulary, word order and other parts of verbal communication. Hearing loss can be considered slight, mild, moderate, severe, or pronounced depending on the ability to hear frequency intensities strongly associated with speech. Hearing loss can be in one or both ears, and is best detected as early as possible. Even infants are tested for hearing loss. The sooner the hearing loss is determined, the sooner treatments can begin help them develop communication and language skills for life. In general, a child is only considered deaf if their hearing loss is greater than 90 decibels. There are three basic types of hearing loss that are categorized according to which part of the auditory system is damaged. There are possible treatment options such as hearing aids or cochlear implants depending on the individual circumstances of the hearing loss. An IEP (Individual Education Program) can be created for children with hearing loss at school so they can receive special services to help them learn.

Eating DisordersEating disorders absolutely require medical attention. The two best known eating disorders are bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa. Eating disorders, though most often affecting girls, can also affect boys. Not only skinny people have eating disorders. Eating disorders can damage vital body functions. Anorexia is characterized by an extreme fear of weight gain. The anorexic has a distorted view or their body size and shape. They consistently try to maintain a very low body weight. Some people fast, diet or excessively exercise to keep from gaining weight. Every tiny bit of food eaten becomes an obsession. Bulimia is characterized by binge eating and purging, which can be self-induced vomiting or laxative use. People with bulimia rarely experience the low body weight that anorexic people do. Eating disorders can be very serious, and there are many treatments to help people recover. Treatment possibilities include: family-based therapy; cognitive behavioral therapy; nutrition education and counseling; psychotherapy; medical care and supervision; and psychiatric medication management. A high quality recovery program will include all of the mentioned treatment options.

Learning DisabilitiesLearning disabilities are neurological disorders. The disorder is a result of the way the person’s brain is “wired.” Children with learning disabilities are just as smart as their peers, but may have problems reading, writing, reasoning, spelling, recalling and/or organizing information when left to figure things out on their own or when taught conventionally. Learning disabilities cannot be cured, but with support and intervention if necessary, they can achieve success. There are different types of learning disabilities dependent upon the specific processing problem. The types include: Input (submitting information into the brain), Organization (making sense of the information), Memory (storing and later accessing the information) and Output (getting the information back out.) The most common treatment for students with learning disabilities is special education. An evaluation of the student is conducted by specially trained educators who develop a plan of action. The educators teach the student special learning skills. Speech and language therapists, some attention medications and psychological therapy may also be treatment options.

Mental RetardationMental retardation has to do with a person’s level of functioning. Two primary features of mental retardation include: limitations in intelligence and limitations in adaptive behavior. The adaptive behavior includes conceptual, social and practical adaptive skills. There are three required parts of an accurate diagnosis: an IQ of approximately 70 or below; a determination of deficits in adaptive behavior; and origins of the disability prior to 18 years of age. IQ scores largely determine the level of severity which includes: mild, moderate, severe or profound. Special education and training can help someone with mental retardation to develop their potential to the fullest.

Mood DisordersMood disorders are a group of mental disorders best known by depression and mania. Mood disorders rank among the top 10 causes of worldwide disability. Examples of mood disorders include major depressive disorder (also known as unipolar major depression) and bipolar disorder (also known as manic depressive illness). Bipolar disorder involves extreme changes in behavior, mood and levels of energy. Major depression can be very debilitating and can include feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and sadness. Treatment for mood disorders can include: medication, cognitive therapy, behavioral therapy and lifestyle modification.

Speech ImpairedAccording to the NAPCSE (National Association of Parents with Children in Special Education) a speech or language impairment is defined as “a common disorder such as stuttering, impaired articulation or voice impairment that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.” Speech impairments affect spoken language. Stuttering is an example of speech impairment. The two most common speech impairments are articulation disorders and phonological disorders. Sound mispronunciation is the basis of articulation disorders. Speech becomes unintelligible to unfamiliar listeners with phonological disorders. Speech pathologists who work in schools are available to help students with their speech impairments while the school psychologist can help with the mental aspects.

Substance AbuseIn 2007, an estimated 19.9 million Americans 12 years of age and older, were current users of an illicit drug. Marijuana was the most widely used illicit drug in the United States in 2007. Alcohol and drug abuse can affect a child’s academic performance. Alcohol kills brain cells among other negative things such as damaging the liver. Mood changes, irritability, defensiveness, poor attendance at school, bad grades, and disciplinary problems can be some of the warning signs of possible substance abuse. School psychologists can help with the decision on how to treat a child’s substance abuse problem. If the abuse is severe enough, it could require an inpatient treatment center.

SuicideSuicide is more prevalent in today’s world, particularly among teens. In the United States, suicide is the third leading cause of death among 15 to 19 year olds. Thankfully suicide attempts that do not result in death are more common than those resulting in death. During any given year, 2-6 percent of children will attempt to kill themselves. Thoughts of suicide occur in 12-25% of adolescents and children. For every suicide, there are about 100 attempts at suicide. The three most prevalent risk factors involving youth suicide include: depression, substance abuse and aggressive or disruptive behavior. Suicidal thoughts, statements and behaviors must always be taken very seriously. Schools can provide programs that will help with suicide prevention. Examples of these programs include: a comprehensive school crisis plan which helps school to respond to disasters or school violence; or a gatekeeping program that trains people such as teachers to look for warning signs.

Tourette’s DisorderWhat is Tourette’s syndrome? Tourette’s syndrome is considered a neurological disorder characterized by multiple, repeated “tics.” A “tic” is defined as muscular jerks or involuntary, purposeless vocal sounds. Children with Tourette’s commonly have difficulties learning. Medication can be used to help Tourette’s disorder, but various other disorders may also be present. ADHD and OCD often accompany children with Tourette’s. Behavioral therapy can also be used to treat TD. School psychologists can help students with Tourette’s to be successful in life and in learning.