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Educational Psychology: More Than Just Testing

The roles of an educational or school psychologist have changed over the years. The Ohio Department of Education states that “School psychologists provide direct support and interventions to students, families and other school professionals; work with school administrators to improve schoolwide practices and policies; and collaborate with community providers to coordinate needed services.” ( Many people, including parents and teachers, see the role of the school psychologist primarily as working with students and teachers to help individual students overcome barriers to education, primarily in the area of learning disabilities.

A helpful image to understand the role of the educational psychologist is the Pair of ACEs (Ellis & Dietz, 2017). The behaviours seen in classrooms and playgrounds are associated with the Adverse Childhood Experiences first identified through the Adverse Childhood Experiences study (Bethel et al, 2014). Addressing the behaviors that result from ACEs is certainly one of the roles of the educational psychologist.

After at least 15 years of knowledge and study about trauma informed services, though, we do not seem to have made a significant impact on improving the quality of educational experiences for students and teachers. Understanding the effect of the other ACEs – Adverse Community Environments – is an important element in the role of the educational psychologist.

Collaborating with community providers to coordinate needed services is the third role of the educational psychologist as explained by the Ohio Department of Education. It would seem, though, that this should be a major and perhaps the primary role of the educational psychologist, as without improvements in the community environments in which children spend 168 hours per week, the 30 hours per week or so spent in schools will have minimal impact on the overall success of schoolwide practices and programs.

One model that has been used to identify the points at which community wide services and supports can be organized is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The advocacy group Defending the Early Years has identified how Maslow’s hierarchy can be operationalized to improve the ability of schools to educate the whole child. Maslow’s model has been in use since 1943, and while it has undergone some revisions and additions, the basic concepts are still intact.

The Matrix of Needs (Bowen, 2020) is an alternative way of identifying what children need in order to maximize their potential in growing into their full potential as human beings.

The significant differences between the Matrix of Needs and the Hierarchy of Needs are:

  • Safety is necessary throughout the lifespan and in each of the need areas. For example, a child whose needs for subsistence are met in unsafe conditions such as abuse and neglect may develop eating disorders. A child whose need for attachment is met in unsafe conditions may develop attachment related disorder, a child who is bullied in school may experience impairments in academic achievement, etc. Safety in physical, emotional, and psychological interactions are necessary for any need to be met fully. When people do not feel safe, one of the phrases used is that they fall apart, as safety is literally the glue that holds human beings together. (Alberts et al, 2002)

  • Attaching Relationships are one of 3 Core Needs, along with Subsistence and Communication. While all 3 are important, and all three, even communication, start being met in the womb (Partanen et al, 2013), Attaching Relationships are pivotal to the ongoing development of a child. A child with poor Attaching Relationships may use Achievement as a way of meeting esteem needs that were not met through important attaching relationships. This child may seek out attention and praise daily, and may also have a grandiose perception of their own achievements, with a need to always be seen as the biggest or the best. Conversely, Social Relationships can be used to meet unmet relational needs by stressing how many relationships this child has, how many people liked them on social media, or how many groups they are in. When Attaching Relationships are unstable, that instability flows through the rest of the person’s life.

  • Communication is presented as a need in this model, rather than a way of meeting other needs. Human beings need to communicate in order to survive. Without the social communication that empower early humans to function as a group, humanity would not have survived. (Fay et al, 2010) The human communication system is highly complex and unlike any other known communication system. “. . . language production always occurs with the involvement of not only the vocal tract and lungs, but also the trunk, the head, the face, the eyes and, normally, the hands.” (Levinson & Holler, 2014, p1) When children are unable to communicate, there is a high degree of frustration as that child feels they need to communicate. (McCormack et al, 2010)

The Core Needs are Attaching Relationships, Subsistence and Communication. Growth Needs are Achievement and Social Relationships. The need to be seen as having done something special is innate in young children, with many 2 and 3 year old children pushing a caregiver’s hand away while saying “I do it!!” The pride of Achievement is self-reinforcing, and if not met, the individual will struggle throughout adolescence and adulthood.

Social Relationships are built on the success, or lack thereof, on Attaching Relationships. Children thrive when interacting with peers as young as 2. (Kington et al, 2013). Social Relationships form within the natural settings families take their children, and are necessary for the child to develop relationships outside the family, in which they choose the people with whom they will affiliate.

Along with the need for safety, these 5 needs – Attaching Relationships, Subsistence, Communication, Social Relationships, and Achievement – are the primary focus of early childhood education. For people with histories of complex trauma, and/or co-occurring disorders, or significant needs on the Autism Disorder Spectrum, meeting these needs can be a struggle for a variety of reasons.

As can be seen in the visual below, when Safety has been established, and the Core and Growth Needs met, the person will have a strong foundation upon which to begin to meet the remaining needs identified in the Matrix of Needs model.

This work cannot be done solely in the context of the educational system. Wrap-Around services through the Department of Children and Family Services must be integrated with the educational services in order to meet the needs of the whole child, not just the child in the role of student. The Department of Children and Family Services, the school system, and the natural family must develop collaborative and cooperative relationships which continue to support the growth of not only the identified student, but also other family members. The Family Finding Model, developed by Kevin Campbell, utilizes many of these concepts in the work of maintaining family relationships for children in an effort to provide stability and growth opportunities and has demonstrated success in achieving stability for many children in the foster care system. (Garwood Williams, 2015)

Elizabeth Wendell, an innovator in child welfare, family engagement and social change writes that “A child cannot learn, nor heal their trauma, nor evolve developmentally, while they are experiencing trauma. The Family Finding approach utilizes natural networks to become healing architects for their own families, including engaging in a child’s learning process and whole child needs. This developmental catch up is essential for our most vulnerable children.” (Wendell, 2021) Within school systems, educational psychologists can and should take the lead in creating the support systems to engage the learning processes of each child and address the needs of the whole child, including recovery from trauma, as they fulfill their roles to provide direct supports and interventions to students, work with school administrators to improve school wide practices, and collaborate with community leaders to coordinate services and supports for all children, one child at a time.


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