Special Education Services

The Role of Psychology in Special Education

Psychology is the scientific study of the human mind and behaviors. The practice emphasizes social, environmental, and biological factors that can influence how we think, behave, and learn. When it comes to the “learning” aspect of psychology, there have been significant breakthroughs over the years for teaching children with behavioral disorders and disabilities. 

This is encouraging news for parents, teachers, and therapeutic specialists alike. I love psychology, and I find the concepts fascinating. It’s a discipline that I frequently studied while obtaining my Master’s degree and completing my BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst) coursework. I’ve also seen the principles of psychology applied successfully in the classroom—specifically with special education.  

I wrote this article to shed some light on psychology’s importance and influence in special education. This post is perfect for parents, teachers, and even those of you who might be considering a career in psychology. I’ve included background information on educational psychology and how it improves the learning experience for different students. You’ll also learn more about the psychologist’s role in the school system. 

Everything You Need to Know About Psychology in Special Education

If you have questions about psychology and how it integrates with education, this guide has the answers.

  • Background of Educational Psychology
  • What Does a School Psychologist Do?
  • The Importance of Psychology in Special Education
  • How Psychology Improves Learning For Students Who Need Special Attention

Background of Educational Psychology

Before we dive into the specifics, I want to give you some background information on where these principles came from. “Educational psychology” is a subcategory within the umbrella of “psychology.” 

It focuses primarily on how people learn, as well as the problems and processes that influence education. If we can understand how different people think, absorb, and retain information, we can adjust the general teaching process and improve the educational system. 

This ensures that all students, regardless of ability or environment, can be taught in a way that accommodates the way they learn. For students with disorders, disabilities, or developmental challenges, the concepts of educational psychology can improve their overall learning experience. 

As a result, educational psychology has played a key role in some of the most significant advances in special education. This includes the idea of integrating students with different abilities into the general education classroom environment.  

The roots of educational psychology date back to the days of Plato and Aristotle. But it was Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist, who founded some of the most important principles for psychology and education. 

Piaget’s best-known work on child development and education began in the 1920s. In short, he theorized that knowledge can’t be simply taught. Even if teachers and educators present the information in a way that’s relevant and engaging, it’s still up to the student to retain what they’re being told.

Why is this background information so important?

It’s because Piaget’s theories shaped the way we approach special education in the modern era. He pioneered concepts like the constructivist theory and cognitive learning theory. 

The constructivist theory says that children can learn only by building on prior knowledge. A key principle of this theory is “cooperative learning,” a concept that says students will have an easier time understanding information and overcoming problems if they can work in groups. That’s why it’s so important for students of all learning abilities to be placed in general education classrooms. Without educational psychology, we wouldn’t know this. 

What Does a School Psychologist Do?

Now that you understand where all of these concepts came from, let’s talk about who will be applying them. In the majority of cases, the school psychologist will be responsible for taking educational psychology principles and finding ways to implement them in different learning environments. 

So if you’re interested in pursuing a career in psychology, becoming a school psychologist can put you in a role where you’ll directly impact students with different learning abilities. 

School psychologists are professionals trained to work directly with teachers, families, students, and children of all ages. They can work with preschool kids through adolescent ages and everything in between. Essentially, a school psychologist can be put in a position to work with all personnel in the school system to ensure every student has a positive educational experience. 

Becoming a school psychologist isn’t easy. A master’s degree is usually the minimum requirement to enter this field. In many cases, a Ph.D. may be required to work in a school system. You’ll also need to obtain your credentials from the NASP—National Association of School Psychologists. This is the only credentialing organization in the country for school psychologists, and applicants must pass rigorous standards to get their NCSP (Nationally Certified School Psychologist) credentials.  

As a parent, you should find comfort in knowing that your school psychologist is an expert in the field. Anyone who has gone through such extensive schooling and training will have a firm grasp of educational psychology concepts. 

So your children will be in good hands if recommendations are coming from the school psychologist’s office. 

The exact duties and day-to-day tasks of a psychologist will depend on the school setting. But here are some of the most common key roles and responsibilities of a school psychologist:

Consultation

It’s common for school psychologists to work collaboratively with parents, teachers, and school administrators. They can provide insights into learning concepts, student behavior, and potential social problems that need to be addressed. 

A psychologist will help other people understand childhood development and how those concepts translate to learning, behavior, and education. 

These consultations may extend to formal education sessions. Some psychologists will provide seminars or lessons related to parenting skills, working with gifted students, and even classroom management strategies for teachers. 

Assessments

Some school districts may only have a single school psychologist for the entire district. So it may be the responsibility of just one psychologist to assess students of all ages across each school.

They will work closely with both teachers and parents to evaluate student behavior, academic skills, learning abilities, and more. A school psychologist may be the first person who recommends or determines a child’s eligibility for a special education program

This role goes beyond a basic assessment and typically extends to counseling, behavior management, social skills training, and more. 

School psychologists can help students and families dealing with powerful emotions and tough times. For example, a student might meet with a school psychologist if their parents are separating or they just experienced the loss of a loved one.

Research

A significant part of a psychologist’s job is research. In addition to recommending different programs or strategies for students, they’ll also monitor and reflect on how effective those recommendations are. 

They may also conduct independent research to develop new theories about the way children behave and learn in school environments. 

The Importance of Psychology in Special Education

The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has revolutionized the way children with special needs are treated in the school systems. It guarantees every child with disabilities access to a free and appropriate public education. 

When the act was revised in 2004, it forced educators to shift their focus on the student as opposed to the disorder. As a result, more students in special education programs are spending the majority of their time in the general classroom setting. 

While this presents some challenges for teachers, psychological concepts can be applied to reach students of all learning abilities. With the help of school psychologists, educators can apply what they’ve learned in the classroom setting and help ensure that every child in the room is retaining information. 

For example, refer back to what we discussed earlier with cooperative learning. This principle of psychology says that students will have an easier time learning, solving problems, and retaining information if they work in groups. So all students, regardless of their abilities, can work collaboratively in the classroom. This drives engagement and empowers students to take control over their own learning experience. 

How Psychology Improves Learning For Students Who Need Special Attention

Thanks to psychology, teachers and educators now understand that most students with disabilities can still achieve high academic standards. 

In fact, they can be held to the same standards as their peers, as long as their specific needs and circumstances are accounted for. 

In the simplest possible terms, students who need extra attention aren’t getting a “short-changed” education. By following the guidance of psychologists, both teachers and parents can adjust instructions to ensure every child has an equal chance of learning—regardless of that child’s ability. 

Teachers can plan specific lessons and teaching styles that address the strengths and weaknesses of different students in the classroom. 

Students who need a little extra attention can still work in small groups and sit through lessons with the rest of the class. While some one-on-one time, accommodations, or modifications may still be required, an inclusive learning experience should always be a top priority.  

Conclusion

Psychology concepts have led to major breakthroughs in the world of special education. Thanks to studies on child development, behavior, and learning, we now know so much more than we did in the past about how different people absorb information. 

There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all plan to educate students with different learning needs. But a school psychologist can help parents and teachers come up with a unique way to reach specific children based on their individual needs. The role of psychology in special education is still evolving. Psychologists are continuing to conduct research and coming up with new theories to improve the educational experience for everyone. 

I’d love to hear from you! Feel free to comment below or send me an email! I’m here to help!

About the author

Emily Cummings

I am a mom of two crazy, amazing, independent, little feminists. They bring so much light to my life and a lot less sleep. Since becoming a mother and increasingly in the last year, I have witnessed parents struggling to connect with their child's special education team with no success. I have become more aware of the gaps in our public school system and how parents may benefit from empowerment and advocacy tools.

My work experiences range from a juvenile detention center to an autism specialist in the Issaquah School District and a special education teacher in a self-contained program in the Lake Washington School District. My master's in teaching focused on special education and behavioral disorders from Seattle Pacific University. I completed my BCBA coursework from Montana State University.

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