The School Savvy Therapist

Mary M. Eno

What Therapists Need to Know About Schools

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When I ask educators and student support staff, “What should outside therapists know in order to work more effectively with your school?” one of the most common responses I hear is that therapists need to know more about schools in general—how they work, what makes one school different from another, and so on.
What exactly does it mean to heed this advice? We all went to school for at least 12 years, and more if you include pre-K or nursery school, kindergarten, and higher education. Doesn’t this fact afford us the knowledge and credentials we need to work with schools in our role as therapists? Aren’t our personal experiences and the bits and pieces we glean from the news, our colleagues, or our own children’s experiences enough?

While it’s true that we all know something about what it means to go to school, every school has its own unique culture and cast of characters, from the teachers, principal, and guidance counselor, to the social worker, psychologist, occupational therapist, and other support staff. School type and socioeconomic context also matter a great deal; school quality and culture vary enormously by differences in demographics, district funding, personnel, resources, maintenance, parental involvement, organizational structure, and more. Therapists who take the time to learn about these differences in culture and pedagogy will have a distinct advantage in making recommendations for kids, enlisting school-based support, strengthening the relationship between the family and school, and knowing how to participate effectively in collaborative relationships. In turn, these relationships help us provide more comprehensive and effective care to children and families.


Discovering Your Own Biases

Part of learning more about schools requires reflecting on some of the things you already believe to be true about them based upon your own experiences. Most of us can remember something of what it was like to walk down a school hallway, facing a crowd of peers and teachers. We know what it’s like to sit at a desk, to dreamily stare out the window, to grapple with a devious math problem. We can call to mind what it felt like to admire or dislike a teacher or to have heart-pounding moments as we waited for important test results. In addition to what we learned in school academically, we are deeply imprinted psychologically by our own experiences as students.

For better or worse, we judge schools partly or primarily on the basis of this imprinting. As therapists, we are also at least intellectually aware that our own singular experiences do not tell the whole story. We are trained to see that ours is not an objective perspective but rather a quite narrow and individualistic one. We hope we come to know ourselves well enough to wrangle with those moments in sessions when we recognize that we’re speaking from the confines of a bias or belief, failing to see a wider world.

However rigorous our course work and clinical training, most likely it didn’t include a comparably hard look at our biases and beliefs about schools. As a result, most therapists have not stopped to ask what backpack of beliefs and biases they carry with them when working with children and families in this context. Sometimes, we might notice that we react with negative or positive biases toward schools that are very different from our own experiences, based on their size, resources, and other factors. We may see things that make us uncomfortable, as well as qualities of schools that suit us well. Kahneman (2013) termed this the “availability heuristic,” referring to the mental shortcut we take when we evaluate an issue based on the immediate examples that come quickly to mind in comparable situations. As a way to begin to reflect on this further, consider some questions that are designed to help you understand your underlying beliefs and biases about schools. (See Box 1.1)

Box 1.1:  Questions to consider concerning your experience and biases about schools

  • How did you emerge from your educational experience: feeling affirmed, nurtured, injured, ignored, taught effectively, or some combination of the above and more?
  • When you think about your education, what were the most important things you learned over the years about the subjects, the world, yourself, or others?
  • Picture yourself in your elementary, middle, and secondary schools. Describe the first images that come to mind. What do they represent about your schooling?
  • Your family of origin? Your current beliefs about school today?
  • If you are thinking about your own children, what aspects of your school experience would you like them to experience? Not experience?
  • Think of a teacher who influenced you positively or negatively. What stands out about those experiences? What would you want to say to those teachers at this point in your life and why?
  • Reflect on the last case you had with a child who had problems at school. What do you remember thinking about the school the child was attending? Did your thoughts about the school precede the child’s or family’s experience, derive from it, or both? Given what you thought about the school, how might that influence whether you would reach out to the school or talk to the family about the school? How might that influence the interventions you recommend?
This is an excerpt from The School-Savvy Therapist, © 2019 Mary M. Eno. Used with with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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