School Psychology too stressful. What careers can be transitioned into?
September 30, 2019 10:53 AM   Subscribe

My girlfriend is having a hard time with her school psychology career. This is her third year on the job. She just started at a wealthy district after leaving a poor unorganized one. She can do each individual aspect of the job without too much difficulty, but it’s the volume of the work that is making her miserable. There is virtually no work life balance and if she’s lucky, she may be able to relax on Saturday. But she’s getting very little sleep and she regularly works from 6am to 9pm six days of the week.

She loves kids and helping people, and she is extremely smart, hard working, and adaptable. We talk about her dream of having a more balanced life, and she comes to me (which I am grateful for) with all the ups and mostly downs of her job. She says that if she knew that this was what her life would look like in this career back when choosing which master’s degree to pursue, she would have not gone down this path. But she can’t go back to college (lack of funds) … the only way she could is if I start making enough money to pay for it, but I’m just getting started in my own career.

We want to have children one day when we get financially secure, but with her workload, we feel that we’d just be bringing in a child into an environment where they won’t be able to be paid attention to. I may be able to be more available than her and perhaps play more of the role of a part-time stay at home dad, and if that turns out to be a possibility, I’d be completely open to it, but I just really don’t know. Regardless, it pains her that she it seems that she just won’t have much time for our child. We just don’t want to have a child just to put them in daycare during their formative years.

We hear that there is a large dropout rate in this career, but if so, what careers do people transition into? What other routes are there for her to take? I believe that there is never a dead end if you think outside the box, but this sometimes feels like one.

Does this job get easier over time, or do people just become numb to the lack of a balanced life?
posted by ggp88 to Work & Money (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Can she take her 2+ years of experience and hang out a shingle as a private therapist in the wealthy community, specializing in the same kinds of issues she has been counseling on at the school? I live in a wealthy community where there are several such private therapists.
posted by The World Famous at 11:01 AM on September 30, 2019 [11 favorites]

> She can do each individual aspect of the job without too much difficulty, but it’s the volume of the work that is making her miserable

Please take this in the right spirit. Is it possible she's striving for perfection in the individual aspects rather than being just good enough? If there's more hours of work to do than hours she feels comfortable dedicating to work (which seems to be the case) than you *have* to find a way to bring the amount of work hours down.
posted by dgeiser13 at 11:02 AM on September 30, 2019 [16 favorites]

(I’m not sure they hold themselves out as “therapists” using that terminology - There are licensure issues that I understand mean that some people do “counseling” rather than “therapy” or other distinctions.)
posted by The World Famous at 11:02 AM on September 30, 2019

Has she looked at private schools? Ours definitely doesn't work weekends and is usually done by 5.
posted by snickerdoodle at 11:19 AM on September 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm a special education lawyer and we regularly hire school psychologists to be advocates at the firm or testify as experts at hearing. If she's not somewhere where there are a ton of special ed lawyers, she could hang out a shingle as a special education advocate. In wealthier districts parents hire people to interpret test scores, conduct evaluations, make recommendations, and argue for what the parents want at IEP meetings. Maybe see if COPAA has anyone in your area she could talk to about the practice.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 11:27 AM on September 30, 2019 [5 favorites]

dgeiser13, you may be on to something. She is very dedicated to making sure things are done to the best of her ability, and she has a very hard time saying no and deferring any sort of duty, no matter how big or small. I myself don't know much about the intricacies of the profession (I'm going to show her this post after she gets off of work if she has time to read and discuss it). But what are some ways that she can she lower her work/energy output without getting in trouble?

The World Famous is that the route you have taken, becoming a private therapist? How does that work... it sounds essentially like starting a new business which may be tricky and risky. If you have done this, how did you do it and what are some lessons that you learned the hard way?

And snickerdoodle she doesn't technically work weekends, and technically she gets home from work around 5pm. But in reality, she's constantly in meetings and has virtually no time to do things such as write reports, and so the only time she can do this is when she's off of work and at home. Is that the case with you working at a private school?

Bulgaroktonos, that's interesting. I've never heard of that route, and I'm not sure she has. What is the work load compared to what she is doing now? Is it more reasonable?
posted by ggp88 at 11:27 AM on September 30, 2019

I would highly suggest looking for union jobs. I don't really understand how a school-based job has the hours you're describing. My wife is a therapist for a county-level body, but works within a school. She works from 7-3:30 every weekday, never works weekends, and those hours are very, very strictly set (by her union). If she has to stay late on any occasion, she gets to flex that time within the same pay period, or gets overtime. Her caseload is capped at the hours she can accommodate students not on the need by the student body.

Aside from just straight up not going in on weekends, identifying in greater detail what part of the job is taking so much time is important; just saying 'the volume of the work' isn't specific enough. Is her caseload too numerous? Does she go over-time regularly with students? My wife has seen other therapists struggle specifically with paperwork being the backlog that keeps them at work; she's given trainings specifically to get through paperwork faster and more efficiently because it's one thing that her (very well respected) master's program did not prepare her, or many others for. It's very hard for therapists (I've known several socially, and as mentioned, married to one) to not help people. It's why they're good at their jobs, but this needs boundaries that her employer is just not going to enforce (again, unless she's part of a union).

Identifying what aspects of the job are too much, can help her negotiate these aspects of her job with her superiors, or herself.
posted by furnace.heart at 11:29 AM on September 30, 2019 [10 favorites]

She may also find that it just gets easier with time. Almost everyone who works in schools approaches burnout during their first couple of years -- the hours and workload are brutal, especially if you have perfectionist tendencies; you could always be doing more; the emotional weight of the work can make it hard to disengage and even sleep once you do get home. This stuff never totally goes away, but you do learn to manage it better. The mid-career teachers and support professionals I know are definitely not working 90 hours a week. (We're mostly working 50 or so, but hey we also get 13 weeks off so IMO it works out in the end.)

I don't know what your timeline is for kids, but if it's not in the next year or two, it might be worth her sticking it out for a while longer. Once she's settled in a little bit more and figured out her workload, she might find that the hours and time off are actually great for kid-having. And at least where I live, teacher salaries and benefits are good and reliable in a way that striking out on your own is never going to be.

(Also, I know this is hard for you to watch. Working in schools has a ridiculously steep learning curve, and the stakes feel/are so high.)
posted by goodbyewaffles at 11:40 AM on September 30, 2019 [9 favorites]

goodbyewaffles That is encouraging. We aren’t going to be having kids for probably another 5 years. But yeah, it is very hard for me to watch her go through this. I love her so much and I know my role isn’t to be her savior and rescue her as if she’s some helpless damsel in distress, but it’s hard not to feel like you want to help when you see someone you love being held down and repeatedly kicked (metaphorically).
posted by ggp88 at 11:57 AM on September 30, 2019

I know of a few people who became school psychologists thinking that they'd be helping troubled children, and then it's turned into an endless stream of assessments and more assessments which are required for kids getting access to various specialized programs or services. So rather than helping kids it feels like all you're doing is documenting how screwed up they are.

One of them that I know of actually started a private consulting practice to help parents identify their kids' needs and help the parents advocate for services within the school system. For the most part, he worked with wealthy parents, but reserved some sliding scale slots.

He's was a lot more satisfied and his clients (the parents) are immensely grateful to have someone so knowledgeable in their corner.
posted by jasper411 at 12:26 PM on September 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

Has she considered some therapy or professional coaching so that she can push back a bit? It sounds like she's not saying no and is quite overburdened. Saying no when you're a people pleaser or think that it's easier to say yes than have a possible confrontation. Learning how to delegate and say no is critical for professional success. Perfectionists who never say no just get taken advantage of until they burn out completely.

She should stop saying yes to anything beyond her personal job load. If she can't get her reports and other responsibilities done in the work day, she doesn't have extra time to devote to elective things. She should schedule report writing time into her day and consider it the same level of business as a meeting. If people need her for a meeting and she's already booked herself for report writing time, etc, can she offer to reschedule the meeting for time she has open? If she's being asked to attend too many meetings that have not much to do with her responsibilities, can she start saying no or only attend every other meeting? If she can't get her reports done during formal work time, she should speak with her supervisor about what to prioritize. It's not in their best interest to have her burn out.
posted by quince at 12:35 PM on September 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

There is always more work than can be done. Always. In any job. This is very different from school, where you have a finite amount of assignments, specific things/times to study, and tests that mark the completion of one thing. It can take some time to make the shift mentally from school (where one has spent nearly two decades approaching things this way) to creating a work-life balance in an environment where things will never be done. And to be clear - this is something she will have to create for herself; it's not something that her job or her boss will provide for her. It is in her employer's interest to have her working until the work is done (which will never happen), she needs to learn how to draw boundaries around her time. If she has these problems in this field, she will have them in whatever field she moves to next.

I have gone through phases in my own job where I am working before work and after work and in the middle of the night to try to "catch up" or "get ahead" and it's just not possible. So it's not so much that it becomes easier with time as that people develop boundary-setting skills, time management skills, they tone down their perfectionist tendencies and learn when done is better than perfect. Sometimes that corresponds with becoming a parent (which makes you way, way busier than you ever thought possible, and helps you hone your focus, eliminate nonsense, and learn to prioritize really well) but it's also possible to do that before having kids. It is reasonable to point out to her boss that the meetings are preventing her from doing the work (but it might be that the meetings ARE the work) and ask for help prioritizing so that she's not trying to do it all. It can't all be done. She shouldn't try.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 12:37 PM on September 30, 2019 [8 favorites]

Is she the only person doing this job in the school? I wonder if she could reach out to colleagues doing similar jobs at other schools and discover what the therapist/student ratio is in various schools. It may be that she is being asked to perform the work alone in her school which would be shared in others. It would not be unusual for your girlfriend's job to be much more demanding than it should be because of a reluctance to hire sufficient support personnel.

When districts are strapped they cut support staff much more often than they cut teachers - in my district school nurses and counselors were laid off, while teachers were much less impacted. Of course, student needs continued, which pushed secretaries into testing blood glucose for diabetic students and even administering insulin; clearly this is less than ideal. The nurses were rehired after that bad year, probably because the death of one medically fragile child was partially blamed on there being no nurse on site. (I don't know what they did for behavioral issues, but it may be significant that this year the district has hired social workers for a number of the most economically needy schools. It seems they may have learned something.)
posted by citygirl at 12:38 PM on September 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

Maybe she could look into a nonprofit that provides mental health support in the schools? I worked such a job once upon a time and the pay wasn't great but you didn't have to bring any work home with you. Actually the school psychologists in the other program in my schools also did not have to work outside normal school hours, but they were contractors. I wonder if it's a glitch with her particular program. If she is placed through the department of education maybe she should pursue something that contracts within the schools as the workload is a bit more forgiving even if it is fee for service in my understanding.
posted by crunchy potato at 2:24 PM on September 30, 2019

If she’s only been in the workforce for a few years, it wouldn’t surprise me if this is a case of her needing to learn how to manage her workload and have boundaries. There will always be work to be done but if she burns out she won’t be useful to anyone.

So your girlfriend needs to learn how to take on what must be done today, what can be put off until tomorrow, what isn’t her job to take on at all or can be delegated elsewhere, when to move a client on to outside services etc and how to refuse a meeting outside work hours. Everyone who works eventually needs to learn these skills or you’ll never have a life. As long as she keeps accepting the workload, they’ll keep giving it to her. It’s up to her to push back.
posted by Jubey at 2:31 PM on September 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

I don’t know... I asked if she can pushback on her workload and she said that that’s not how it works in this profession. The meetings she is being invited to can’t be skipped and the reports she has have due dates that can’t be delayed. And the amount of work is coming down on her like an avalanche due to the high case load of children. If it’s any help, she’s working an Elementary school and a Middle school in the Austin, Texas area, and the parents are wealthy and thus way more demanding and, to put it bluntly, entitled and cutthroat.

I wish I knew more about the intricacies of this job to give more information. There are other LSSPs there, but it seems they are all in the same boat.
posted by ggp88 at 4:47 PM on September 30, 2019

The World Famous is that the route you have taken, becoming a private therapist?

I’m just a parent of kids in a community that has several such folks. It does involve setting up a new business, but the hurdles to setting up a sole proprietorship business are pretty low, and it doesn’t seem particularly tricky for the folks I know who have done it to navigate the legal end of that specific type of counseling.
posted by The World Famous at 5:39 PM on September 30, 2019

She should look into a private practice or a "group private practice" that allows her to make her own schedule and define her own caseload (this is not the same as an "agency" that requires her to be on site 40 hrs a week...your state may vary on how they define "group practice" vs "agency"). I work at a group private practice in Arkansas...our therapists are paid a certain percentage of what their hourly rate is (or the reimbursement rate of insurance they bill) and the other percentage is used to pay for the admin team who does their billing, scheduling, marketing, credentialing, and all that other behind the scenes stuff that comes with running a private practice. They get to set their own availability times...we have some therapists in the office 8am to 5pm, and we have some who only see people in the evenings and on weekends. Basically we operate like a private practice for therapists who don't want to to do the business side of running their own practice...they just want to focus on seeing clients. We've just added therapists who will be doing school based therapy with children...mainly those are Medicaid clients in rural areas, but it serves a need so we're trying it out. We also have some psych examiners that can do testing for ADD/ADHD, IQ stuff, etc but that's highly dependent on what insurances will cover. We do a pretty solid amount of ADD/ADHD evals, which the schools and parents like because we can usually get them done quicker than what the schools can due to a heavy caseload.

That being said, I think she should explore exactly what kind of services she is allowed to provide in her state with her level of education and license (or if she qualifies to test for a different license). If she could do some networking with other providers in her area (maybe join some Facebook groups of therapists or the state Counseling Association, etc) and just see what other options might be out there. There may be practices in her area that contract with schools to do their evals, and it's possible she can better control her caseload that way. She will need to think a little outside the box and don't stay focused on using the keywords "school psychologist" because that may be limiting her search. Think about what else is possible with her license.
posted by MultiFaceted at 6:56 PM on September 30, 2019

Not all schools will have the same caseload/ parent and admin population.

While it is true that pretty much everyone in education struggles with work life balance, not all schools are the same with how well they support their staff.
posted by aetg at 8:26 PM on September 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

So here’s the thing. If she continues to make up the slack, nothing will change. She HAS to make it obvious that this isn’t sustainable and that she isn’t the one who can carry the repercussions. That means - bring paperwork to those unskippable meetings. That means those due dates that “can’t” be delayed are negotiated. I have used a sentence like this to great effect “This will not be done by that date unless other things are taken off my plate. I currently have a backlog out to X date. That is the earliest this will happen unless other things are reassigned or bumped.”

If she is working at a school that has a caseload high enough for two positions, she needs to be making that felt by the administration. If she needs a secretary, she needs to be making that felt by the administration. Nothing will change if no one else is being impacted.

Blocking off nonnegotiable chunks of time in her calendar for paperwork is a good starting step. Communicate clearly that if a meeting is mandatory it cannot be held between 2 and 4 (or whatever) or she will not be able to attend.

If she’s the only one holding this position at the school she actually has more power than they’re making her feel like she does. They’re making it feel like she’s at the whim of everyone else, when in fact, her time is a limited resource.

Sit down and make a spreadsheet that outlines how long her actual mandatory duties take each month, each week and each day. Don’t include meetings in this. However many hours are left over is her meeting budget. She needs to make this very clear with administration.

If these meetings are things like IEPs, she needs to be doing the paperwork (charting) for the student in the meeting. Don’t save it for later.

Most of what I’m saying is that she really has to be more assertive about her time. What’s being asked is pretty clearly unreasonable and she is right to push back against unreasonable demands. If enough cranky entitled parents get told “my next meeting is in three months” it’s quite likely that money will be found for a second person. And if not? So what. Her next meeting availability is still in three months.
posted by stoneweaver at 9:49 AM on October 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

"Boss, there is X, Y, and Z that needs doing but I have only N hours; which task do you want me to focus on?" Repeat often. Concurrently, or instead of saying that, go directly to searching for other jobs that would be a better fit.
posted by dancing leaves at 7:23 PM on October 1, 2019

Hi! I’m a practicing school psychologist in CA, starting my 5th year on the job. Oh boy do I get where your girlfriend is coming from, and the burnout is definitely real in our field (and many helping professions). I don’t feel like school psych programs adequately prepare you for the reality of what it’s like on the job.

In my opinion, it gets easier to manage all of the different aspects of the job together and develop a better work-life balance as you get more experience. I remember being nervous and unsure of how to advocate for the level of support or protected time that I needed in my first few years. The self-advocacy piece has gotten a lot easier for me as time has gone on, and as I’ve really figured out what I actually need to be most successful. I’ve taken steps to carve out protected time to complete more of the report writing/paperwork aspect of my job during school hours, as those have historically been the things that I’ve brought home and stayed up until all hours working on.

I also want to say (and your girlfriend probably recognizes this too, having served different districts) that the job can look different in different districts/educational settings. For example, in the previous district where I worked, the majority of what I did was assessment and behavior support. In my current district, I do a TON of mental health counseling as well as some other administrative duties related to special education, in addition to assessment and behavior support. There are going to be some places where the roles/expectations for the psych are a lot better developed and more reasonable than others.

In terms of other routes for school psychs outside of an educational setting, she could look into getting an educational psychology license or something similar if available in your state. In CA, for example, you can become a Licensed Educational Psychologist by completing paperwork and passing a licensing exam. Once you do that, you can provide independent educational evaluations (IEEs) and other assessments and services outside of the school setting. That’s what I did this year in preparation for potentially branching out of working within the school system when I feel the desire to. School psychs don’t normally have the same licensing as someone like an MFT or a Clinical Psychologist, and are typically limited to working within a school setting. So without an additional license, she likely would not be able to utilize her degree/credential to do things like assessment, counseling, or consultation outside of a school setting (though she could potentially do advocacy work as mentioned above).

If your girlfriend is willing, I would be totally open to chatting with her about what her specific frustrations are, and trying to provide some guidance/support/feedback. I’ll send you a message with my email address, and she can reach out if she’s interested.
posted by yeahyeahrealcute at 5:16 PM on October 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

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