Native American School Psychologists: Helping Children Succeed in School and in Life

Jul 21st, 2016 | By | Category: Tribal College News Roundup

Inside My Head by Andrew Mason

Ann is a Native school psychologist at an elementary school in a rural community with a high percentage of Native students. As she walked into school one day, the fourth grade teacher pulled Ann aside and shared her concerns about one of her students. Janelle, who is Native, is now being raised by her grandmother and feels responsible for the care of her three younger siblings since their mother’s death. She was quiet in class and was struggling in reading fourth grade books. Last week, she was sitting alone during recess, crying. Ann met with Janelle and let her talk. Janelle told Ann that she is feeling lonely and hasn’t made friends with other kids in her class. Ann knows that there is strength in community and invites other Native students in the school to join a group called Friendship Circle. Ann visited with Janelle’s grandmother at her home and got permission for Janelle to join the Friendship Circle. For the first time since she started at school, Janelle smiles.

Almost all children face academic or social-emotional difficulties at some point during their schooling. School psychologists have an important role in supporting children who experience these challenges. The National Association of School Psychology (NASP) describes the position of school psychologist as a multi-faceted job that includes 1.) assessing academic and social-emotional skills, 2.) leading individual and group counseling sessions, 3.) consulting with parents and school staff such as counselors and the principal, and 4.) advocating for lawful and ethical services for all students. School psychologists also develop programs to address a variety of issues such as bullying, and are involved in multidisciplinary teams to support children with disabilities. Overall, school psychologists are able to use the problem-solving process to help a child who is struggling with his or her schoolwork due to a learning disability, having mental health or behavioral problems such as depression, or experiencing a variety of other issues.

School psychologists work in nearly every school in the country and in different settings such as community clinics or hospitals. And school psychologists serve Native youth as well. Unfortunately, less than 1% of practicing school psychologists identify as American Indian (Curtis, Castillo, & Gelley, 2012). Thus, there needs to be more school psychologists who identify as Native to serve Native youth. In particular, American Indian youth experience a number of academic and social-emotional challenges that affect their ability to be successful in school. For example, in kindergarten, Native Americans perform similarly in mathematics and reading to other children, but by the fourth grade they perform substantially lower than their classmates (National Assessment of Educational Process, 2011). The reasons for this underperformance are not entirely clear, but it may be associated with a cultural mismatch between their home and school (Romero-Little, 2011).

Further, the social-emotional needs of Native students need to be better understood, assessed, and treated. American Indians are at the highest risk for mental health problems compared to other ethnic and racial minority groups in the United States. For example, over a year-long period, 22.8% of Native children met diagnostic criteria for at least one mental disorder, and 9% met criteria for diagnosis of two or more disorders (Whitbeck, Johnson, Hoyt, & Walls, 2006). Factors such as minimal education, few employment opportunities, and high rates of poverty can explain some of the increase in school-related issues for Native students (Gone & Trimble, 2012).

As such, NASP has recognized a great need for Native school psychologists who will bring their knowledge and understanding of the cultural strengths and honored traditions that connect with, and guide, the positive growth of children. Native school psychologists understand how Native children may learn best when provided with support and resources that are culturally relevant to them, building on their strengths, appropriately identifying which students may need extra support or special education services, and increasing opportunities for Native students to achieve in academics and beyond (NASP, 2015). As illustrated in the introductory anecdote, Janelle got the help she needed from Ann, a Native school psychologist, who understands her heritage, culture, and the history of her community, enabling her to best meet Janelle’s academic and social-emotional needs.

Students in the school psychology training program have the opportunity to present research findings at university-sponsored conferences.

Students in the school psychology training program have the opportunity to present research findings at university-sponsored conferences.

Tribal college students who are interested in becoming school psychologists can start by getting involved with the children in their community through volunteer work, shadowing, or employment. Perhaps there is an after-school tutoring position available at a local elementary or middle school, or a volunteer opportunity at a nonprofit that revolves around youth engagement such as a program like Big Brothers Big Sisters. Tribal college students may also organize their undergraduate courses to aid in learning about topics important to school psychology. Tribal colleges offer many psychology courses like developmental psychology and psychopathology that will help students gain entry to graduate programs. Other tribal college courses in education, child development, and early childhood education will also be helpful in training to become a school psychologist. Finally, those interested in pursuing school psychology should consider contacting a local school psychologist who is working at a nearby public school or university. Undoubtedly, the school psychologist would be able to provide students with information about resources and perhaps connect them to a graduate student or faculty member in a school psychology program of interest.

Graduate students in school psychology get hands-on training and work close with their advisors.

Graduate students in school psychology get hands-on training and work close with their advisors.

There are also a number of things that tribal college educators can do to facilitate interest in students and bolster recruitment into school psychology. Educators may want to consider starting recruitment for school psychology programs at the high school and undergraduate levels. They can contact the school psychologists in the local community and invite them to come speak to students about the profession, or they can set up a shadowing and observation day where interested students might be able to go visit the schools and observe the school psychologist (Goforth, Brown, Machek & Swaney, in press). Faculty members at nearby universities may also be available to come speak to classes and consult with tribal college students about school psychology and graduate studies. Ultimately, building these relationships with universities may have broader benefits for recruitment and financial support for students. At some universities, there are already existing resources to aid American Indian undergraduates, like a student services office that might offer Native students academic support and community services.

All in all, recruiting American Indian students into the field of school psychology is important for numerous reasons. Native children are at a high risk for developing academic or mental health problems as they go through their schooling. There is a need to recruit school psychologists who are knowledgeable about and honor the rich cultural history, beliefs, and traditions of their tribes, and who are able to integrate their training into building a strong and positive educational environment for children within the tribal community.

Erin R. Yosai, M.S. is doctoral candidate in school psychology. Anisa N. Goforth, Ph.D., NCSP is the Director of Clinical Training at the University of Montana-Missoula.

Editor’s Note:  To learn more about the profession of school psychology, visit Tribal college educators and students may also contact Dr. Anisa Goforth at for more information about graduate school in school psychology.


Curtis, M.J., Castillo, J.M., & Gelley, C. (2012). School Psychology 2010: Demographics, Employment, and the Context for Professional Practice–Part 1. Communiqué, 40(7), 1-28.

Goforth, A.N., Brown, J., Machek, G., & Swaney, G. (in press). Recruitment and Retention of Native American Graduate Students. School Psychology Quarterly.

Gone, J.P., & Trimble, J.E. (2012). American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health: Diverse Perspectives on Enduring Disparities. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology8, 131-160.

National Assessment of Educational Progress. (2011). National Indian Education Study.

National Association of School Psychologists (2015). School Psychology: The Role of a Native American School Psychologist [Brochure]. Bethesda, MD: NASP

Romero-Little, M.E. (2011). Learning the Community’s Curriculum: The Linguistic, Social, and Cultural Resources of American Indian and Alaska Native Children. In M.C. Sarche, P. Spicer, P. Farrell & H.E. Fitzgerald (Eds.), American Indian and Alaska Native Children and Mental Health: Development, Context, Prevention, and Treatment. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Whitbeck, L.B., Johnson, K.D., Hoyt, D.R., & Walls, M.L. (2006). Prevalence and Comorbidity of Mental Disorders among American Indian Children in the Northern Midwest. Journal of Adolescent Health39(3), 427-434.

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