What Is a School “Psychologist?”

A school “psychologist” has a “pupil personnel services” credential issued by the CA Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC), and not through any state licensing board (ironically, they are not overseen by any actual psychologist or board containing actual psychologists).

School psychologists are probably the only master’s level practitioner (MAs) who are not required to be supervised by a doctor, even during their internship (they are typically “supervised” by another MA).

Additionally, many, if not most, school psychologists do not hold an undergraduate degree in psychology (they are typically teachers).  I’m not sure why this is the case; probably because the CTC is the state policymaking body for educators, not for psychologists.  This provides a valuable clue as to why the requirements for “school psychologist” are so completely different from those of bonafide licensed psychologists.   “Pupil personnel service providers, parents, students, and administrators” make recommendations on changes to the “pupil personnel services” credential.  Ironically, you won’t find an actual psychologist on the board at the CTC!

In California, nearly all school districts and other K-12 educational entities mis-identify their school psychologists as “psychologists,” both on their websites and on their legal IEP paperwork. Until the myriad cases of mis-identification are rectified (presumably through legal action), it is safe for the consumer to assume that anyone not identifying themselves as a doctor (Ph.D. or Psy.D. after their name) is not a psychologist.

It is important to note that a doctoral degree in itself does not imply licensure, as only very specific doctoral degrees are accepted by the Board of Psychology (BOP) as the preliminary requirement for licensure. Given that the applicant has earned the proper doctorate, licensure through the BOP typically takes another 2 postdoctoral years.

It is the epitome of irony that unlicensed doctors outside of the educational system are required to call themselves “Psychological Assistant,” while master’s level school “psychologists” mis-identify themselves on legal paperwork, on websites, and on their own reports as “psychologists.”

Discovering that their child has in fact not been assessed by a doctor (after signing assessment plans and IEPs, and receiving psychoeducational reports whereby the educational entity as well as the master’s level practitioner mis-identify their qualifications) angers parents and understandably results in mistrust of the educational system.  Whereas other governmental agencies may also be guilty of self-made titles such as “program specialist,” at least the consumer has a good idea that these are in fact “made up” titles that are idiocyncratic to that agency.

The title “psychologist,” however, is a professional title (like “physician” and “attorney”) and not an agency-specific one, and most consumers are aware that this title implies “doctor.”  It remains to be seen whether consumers who have been subjected to this kind of misrepresentation will attempt to remedy the situation.

Consider the following 3 factors when buying services or accepting services for your child:

Level of training: The minimal level of training for practitioners in mental health is a master’s degree in psychology. Weekend courses and training camps are called “continuing education” for those of us who hold professional degrees and licenses, and do not constitute professional training in and of themselves.  Beware of those who pump themselves up with meaningless letters after their names.  “Ph.D. or Psy.D.” (doctor) and “M.A. or M.S.” (master’s degree) are the letters you are looking for.  The rest is fluff. 

Licenses: For yours and your child’s protection, be sure that the person holds a license through the California Board of Psychology (doctors) or the California Board of Behavioral Sciences (all others).  Mental health licenses in the state of CA are the following: Psychologist, educational psychologist (LEP), social workers (LCSW), marriage and family therapists (MFT).

Specialty area: You should make sure that the person holds a master’s degree or doctorate in psychology, and that the main emphasis of their formal training was with children and adolescents.

If you wish to obtain a diagnosis, choose a doctor (licensed psychologist).  Even if subdoctoral-level specialists claim to “diagnose,” be aware that most governmental agencies won’t accept “diagnosis” from sub-doctoral level specialists (e.g. licensed educational psychologists, school psychologists, MFTs, etc.).

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Further Reading:   What Is a “Coach” or “Behavioral Consultant?”
Special education questions 
What is the difference between a Psychologist, a Neuropsychologist, a Licensed Educational “Psychologist,” and a School “Psychologist?”
The What & Why of Psychological Assessment
Neuropsychology questions
 What Is Psychotherapy?