Though a school's main function is to teach academic skills, the reality is that kids don't turn off their emotions when they get to school. Sometimes issues come up in the classroom and on the playground that affect a child's ability to learn. As a result, schools need highly trained and educated staff members to help students excel. Enter the school psychologist.

“We’re here,” explains Stacy Skalski, PhD., Director of Public Policy for the National Association of School Psychologists, to help every child “engage in classrooms, engage socially, engage in the central mission and purpose of the schools, which is student achievement and success.”

John Desrochers, Connecticut school psychologist and NASP School Psychologist of the Year in 2007, puts it this way: “I’ve always thought that as a school psychologist I wanted to help kids enjoy and do well in school, and help teachers and administrators create schools that encouraged students to grow and reach their full potential.”

As a matter of fact, school psychologists are considered so important that every public school has one on call, if not on the premises at all times. Your teacher may invite you to speak with one about your child, or you may have a friend working with one. At a minimum, they hold a master’s degree and a special state credential; often, they may also have a PhD. As Desrochers explains, “School psychologists are generally the most well-trained mental health professionals in the school.”

So what, exactly, do they do all day? If you’re worried, explains Skalski, that “we probe every little conversation or developmental nuance,” think again. “It’s not really like that at all.” Instead, she explains, school psychologists focus on “solution-focused counseling”, which is very brief and practical. “We want all kids to be engaged in learning,” she says, “We know, though, that they can’t do that if there’s an emotional issue right in front, in the way.”

Because of their extensive training in child development, school psychologists will also be called in when a child does not seem to be thriving academically in a particular classroom. School psychologists are able to conduct expert observations, as well as to administer tests to determine if a child may need special services. They are key leaders in the development of all Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) on campus, and they often help both parents and staff understand how to sequence these plans, gather data for them, and analyze it effectively.

Of course, school psychologists are not the only people on campus looking out for all kids’ success. Education is always a team effort. Along with caring teachers, aides, and administrators, your school may also have guidance counselors and sometimes even a social worker as well. What’s the difference? All three, explains Skalski, may address issues such as bullying, character education, or social skills training, but each will play a slightly different role.

If your child runs into difficulty, for example, the very first person you see may be a guidance counselor. In middle and high schools, every student is usually assigned to one of these professionals, and both kids and parents are encouraged to stay in close touch. Guidance counselors may then refer a kid to a social worker, especially if a problem can be addressed with community resources. A social worker may provide some counseling as well as practical help. For example, says Skalski, “If a kid comes to school without glasses or shoes, social workers know exactly where to go.”

A school psychologist, on the other hand, has received advanced training that can provide yet another level of expertise. A child with any chronic condition, for example, will need careful ongoing attention to the classroom environment as well as teaching methods. A school faced with a crisis such as a teacher death or an environmental catastrophe will also need expert advice. These are the jobs of school psychologists.

Over a long and successful career, Desrochers looks back with satisfaction at many times when he was able to reach out to help kids and families. In addition to conducting hundreds of very technical special education evaluations, “I’ve helped organize a school’s response to a student’s death, intervened for teachers with a principal who was alienating his staff, helped coordinate school fundraising for Hurricane Katrina—you name it, I’ve probably done it! I like to get involved in all aspects of a school community.”

So if your child is not thriving—whether because school seems too hard or too easy, a school psychologist can be an invaluable ally. “Really,” says Skalski, “We can be very helpful!” For Desrochers, as for others with many years in the field, extensive technical training is a source of great pride. In the end, however, the most enduring satisfaction comes in those small moments that can change the course of a life.