Differences among helping school professionals

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Going further, doing more

Mental Health Services in the Schools:

School Psychology, School Counseling and School Social Work

Dr. R.J. Dixon, 2004  

Between the professions, there are a lot of similarities and a few subtle differences:

  • Training standards for all professions include assessment, consultation, counseling, and delivering comprehensive services in a school setting within a team concept. All are mental health specialists in the schools.


  •  School Counselors: small group counseling, large group developmental interventions, and vocational and career development.
  •  School Psychologists: individual behavior/personality and ability assessment, organizational consultation.
  •  School Social Workers: identification of students at risk, early interventions, problem solving services to students, parents, school personnel, and community agencies.
Education for all professions requires graduate school including practica and internships. The time spent in graduate school residency is about the same (2 years).


  • School Counselors work for a Master's Degree that can be around 45 credit hours.
  • School Psychologists receive an Education Specialist that is 60+ credits and generally get credited with "Master's plus 30" on teacher's salary scale.
  • School Social Workers work for a Master’s Degree in social work. Although not generally required by school districts, there is also a School Social Work Specialist credential that requires a master’s and at least two years of post-masters supervised school social work experience as well as a passing score on the social work component of the National Teaching Exam. 
  • Administrative functions for all professions include a school site, a principal, and a pupil service director. All professions strive to serve the entire student body, but school psychologists traditionally focus their efforts on the identification, programming, and provision of counseling and consulting services to students with special needs. School social workers traditionally collaborate with education and social service professionals to develop appropriate agency services for students and their families.


  • Can be housed in different areas, attend different meetings, and have little day-to-day contact. "Two ships that pass in the night with similar agenda."
  •  Special education has federal dollars and reimbursement attached to it that appears to "mandate" and "subsidize" the school psychologist salary.
  • Professional boundary or "turf wars" over what each profession can and cannot do may be part of each professional's identity. Leads to power struggles when resources are scarce. Confuses teachers and the public. Bottom line: children lose.

Additional Information

  • Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction
    • School Counseling
      • www.dpi.state.wi.us/dpi/dlsea/sspw/counsI1.html
    • School Psychology
      • www.dpi.state.wi.us/dpi/dlsea/sspw/schpsych.html
    •  School Social Work
      •  www.dpi.state.wi.us/dpi/dlsea/sspw/socialwork.html
  • School Psychologists
    • National Association of School Psychologists
      • www.nasponline.org
    • Wisconsin School Psychologists Association
      • www.wspaweb.org
    • University of Wisconsin-La Crosse School Psychology Program
      • www.uwlax.edu/graduate/psychology
      • Dr. Rob Dixon- 785-6893; dixon.robe@uwlax.edu
    • National Clearinghouse for Professions in Special Education
      • www.special-ed-careers.org/career_choices/profiles/professions/psychologist.html
  • School Counselors
    • American School Counselor Association
      • www.schoolcounselor.org
    • Wisconsin School Counselors Association
      • www.wscaweb.com
    • National Clearinghouse for Professions in Special Education
      • www.special-ed-careers.org/career_choices/profiles/professions/sch_coun.html
  • School Social Workers
    • School Social Work Association of America
      • www.sswaa.org/
    • National Association of Social Workers
      • www.naswdc.org/
    • National Clearinghouse for Professions in Special Education
      • www.special-ed-careers.org/career_choices/profiles/professions/social.html
    • Wisconsin School Social Workers Association
      • www.wsswa.org/

Final ThoughtDr. Seymour Sarason wrote that professional psychology (i.e., clinical and counseling psychology) missed a golden opportunity in 1954 to get in the schools and could regret it in the future. Today, Clinical Psychologists are trying to get into the schools by insisting that there are no mental health services in the schools and are being blocked by educational agencies from working in the schools.

    • The reality is that School Psychologists, School Social Workers, and School Counselors have the mental health training and expertise to effect changes in children and youth.