Posted 3:50 a.m. Friday, Sept. 29, 2023
Capstone projects explore diverse experiences in school psychology
UW-La Crosse is preparing the next generation of school psychologists to meet the needs of all students, including those from diverse and historically underserved backgrounds.
Students in their third and final year in UWL’s School Psychology program recently completed their capstone research projects, with topics ranging from loss and healing, to teacher burnout, to culturally responsive mental health practices.
Those who complete the program will earn a Master of Science in education degree and an Education Specialist degree, the foundation for a successful career in school psychology.
For Katie Gilbert, who’s working as an elementary school psychologist in the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District, the capstone research project was a chance to explore how schools are responsive to students’ various cultures.
“After having some experience in the schools and in coursework, I found that oftentimes, culturally responsive practices and mental health practices were discussed and researched separately,” says Gilbert, whose presentation was titled, “Building the Capacity to Deliver Culturally Responsive Mental Health Practices.”
“With school populations becoming more diverse and a growing mental health crisis,” she says, “I wanted to find out more about where schools are at in regard to culturally responsive mental health practices and if professionals in the field felt prepared to utilize such practices with their students, staff, and families and what they may need in order to feel confident in being culturally responsive while doing mental health work, especially with racially and ethnically minoritized (REM) populations.”
Gilbert surveyed 77 school psychologists in the Midwest, collecting information about their work with REM students, their level of formal and informal training in school psychology, and more.
She found that a school psychologist’s level of training has a significant impact on their competence in culturally responsive health practices.
She also found that school psychologists in the Midwest tend to have fewer opportunities to apply their training and knowledge of culturally responsiveness while working with students.
But there is a solution.
“Two main ways for other school psychologists and myself to apply this research are to continuously seek out opportunities to increase our knowledge and skills in culturally responsive mental health through formal and informal training to meet the current needs of our students,” Gilbert says. “(They can also) advocate for opportunities to use these skills to support REM students and families and continue to grow in our applied understanding and practice and to have mental health support be a part of our role in schools.”
Kylie Rieder, another student in the program, is a school psychologist in the Pulaski Community School District.
For her project — “LGBTQIA+ Perspectives: Creating Affirming Schools for Sexual and Gender Minorities” — Rieder surveyed members of the LGBTQIA+ community, ranging from 18 to 64 years old.
The responses indicate that improving the mental health of LGBTQIA+ youth will increase their access to academic achievement, as well as protective factors that will positively impact long-term outcomes.
School psychologists, Rieder says, should work to ensure that LGBTQIA+ students in their schools have access to affirming practices, such as inclusive curricula highlighting LGBTQIA+ and the use of preferred names and pronouns when safe and appropriate.
“I enjoyed getting to share information about a community that I hold so near and dear to my heart with members of my program as well as other professionals who were interested in my research,” says Rieder, who identifies as queer herself. “I wanted to use this research project as an opportunity to hear directly from the queer and trans community about how we as educators and advocates can improve outcomes for LGBTQIA+ students and adults. As a school psychologist, I want to always elevate student voices and encourage them to speak up when they see changes that need to be made.”
Dan Hyson, director of the on-campus School Psychology program, says there’s a workforce shortage of school psychologists, particularly those who are trained to serve a diverse student population, or who come from a diverse background themselves.
“There’s not only an overall shortage of school psychologists — there’s a lack of a match between the identities of school psychologists and the students they serve,” Hyson says. “The diversification of school psychologists has not kept pace with the diversification of students.”
That’s a gap UWL hopes to help close by training aspiring school psychologists to serve not just certain students, but all students.
In this regard, Katie Gilbert and Kylie Rieder are already on their way.
“I firmly believe every student who Katie works with will know they are valued by her and that all of the parts of who they are matter,” says Assistant Professor of Psychology Ruth Schumacher-Martinez, the faculty advisor for both students. “And Kylie is a rare gem and an incredible difference-maker for youth. She is truly a joy and someone kids, families and educators love to work with each day.”