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A one-armed or two-armed school psychologist, that is the question?

post by Eva Billstedt 4th July 2017


A few years ago an acquaintance jokingly told me the following story. The principal of a school was looking for a school psychologist, and the wanted ad for the job included a requirement that any applicants would need to have only one arm. This of course prompted the principal to be asked why it was necessary for the school psychologist to only have one arm. To which the principal replied, as he motioned and gestured with his hands, “Well, you know how psychologists are, they’ll say on the one hand (the principal motioning with one hand) this, on the other hand (the principal motioning with his other hand) that, but they never take a firm stance on anything”. Getting clear, unambiguous information about the way things are is something sought across many different contexts in our society. Not hesitating, not including any ifs or buts while reasoning about something – this kind of delivery is one that many people appreciate. Media interviews tend to demand clear and direct opinions from politicians and other people in positions of power in society.

In order to be an effective psychologist, one must understand that a given behaviour is not a single causal occurrence, that event A does not necessarily lead to event B, but instead, that there are several different factors that are significant for e.g. a child’s development and learning. As a neuropsychologist I examine the child’s cognitive resources using tests. The basis for this is the knowledge that the child’s cognition is significant for e.g. school performance. But, anyone who has ever been in a learning situation knows that learning occurs in interaction with the learning environment, the expectations you bring into the given context, and the support, both educational and emotional, that you get in the learning situation as well as in your interaction with others in the learning context. Learning cannot be explained solely in terms of identifying individual resources (or shortcomings). Likewise, exclusively applying a social and societal perspective to learning – that the students are part of a system/interaction with others, and that any problems should thus not be sought among individual students, but in the overall operation of schools – is also inadequate. This line of reasoning might prompt strong feelings among people in both healthcare settings (who focus on individuals) and school settings (where they apply a more social/societal focus), and risks being viewed as a failure to commit to any consistent stance. However, I would argue that this approach is a necessary one. What it means is that when assessing a child’s abilities and potential challenges, you need more than just a test score in order to truly understand the learning situation that they face in school. You also need knowledge and clinical experience of psychology, as well as the courage to describe things exactly as you see them. Sometimes you can be clear and direct in communicating about the child’s behaviour, and explain their behaviour with only one hand. But sometimes there is no clear single explanation, and then we have to use both our hands to describe the child’s learning situation.

Eva Billstedt (who would probably not be the school psychologist that the principal was looking for).

Photo: Fotograf Cecilia

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