School Psychology in STL Schools with Dr. Donald Gouwens

“There’s a growing recognition that kids have more needs than what we’ve been able to provide, and that’s what gives hope.”

Dr. Donald Gouwens

Welcome to Navigate STL Schools, a podcast.  

Today’s guest is Dr. Donald Gouwens, Associate Clinical Professor and School Psychology Program Director at UMSL. In his work at the UMSL College of Education, Don developed a school psychology program that trains hundreds of students who work in schools across the country. In this episode, Don sits down with Staci to discuss the current status of school psychology in St. Louis public schools, the importance of prevention and early intervention, and how parents and administrators can work together to improve students’ well being. 

Don’s Educational Experience

  • Don attended Weber School in the Parkway School District for Elementary School. He then Parkway East and Parkway North. 
  • He went to UMSL (University of Missouri-St.Louis) and got a Bachelor’s in Psychology.
  • Don then got his doctorate of psychology from Central Michigan University.

What inspires you about the work that you do?

  • Everyone who goes into the education or psychology field wants to help people.
  • Don developed a school psychology delivery program for a school system in Arkansas, which launched him into his career at UMSL, where he got the opportunity to create their school psych system.
  • When Don trains students, they, in turn, impact thousands of kids, and he appreciates this broad impact he has.

Prior to 2001, there weren’t a lot of school psychologists in the state of Missouri. In the city of St. Louis, there are over 150 schools. How many schools in the city have a school psychologist, and what is their main role?

  • When Don first started this work in 2001, there were about 30 school psychologists in St. Louis, which was pretty good at the time. 
  • There are currently two major issues regarding access to school psychologists in St. Louis public schools.
    • Schools haven’t been able to replace people who have left. There is a national shortage of school psychologists right now. 
    • Since there is a shortage of school psychologists, schools have been assigning way too many schools to their psychologists. School psychologists may be juggling seven schools instead of two. 

What is Trauma-Informed Learning and why is it important in our current climate?

  • We’re recognizing that we need to do more in the way of mental behavioral health.
  • There’s a huge percentage of kids who have experienced trauma and secondary trauma. Teachers are also experiencing secondary trauma. 
  • Trauma-informed schools train people on the front line working with kids and recognizing signs of trauma. It’s the same model used for suicide prevention and bullying prevention.

How can parents, educators and administrators work together to help young people process what’s happening in their lives, especially in relation to the pandemic?

  • Kids are very resilient. They’re not going to be as concerned about some difficult situations as we’re going to be concerned for them. 
  • Prevention and early intervention are the keys.
  • Kids have been without structure for a couple of years due to COVID-19, which has led to severe behavioral difficulties. 
  • Students who were already behind will undoubtedly be behind during COVID, especially if the families lack internet access. 
  • One of the most important things we can do is have effective social-emotional learning curriculums in school. 

Do you recommend resources to help parents navigate this space?

  • One theory to study or consider is Abraham Maslow’s theory which is essentially a hierarchy of needs. Physiological needs and safety needs must be met for a child to thrive.
  • Parents can spend time with their kids and provide them with a safe environment. When people feel safe and secure and have a predictable environment, they’re going to thrive. 
  • Ross Green has a number of books that help parents be proactive for kids who are struggling. 

What should parents look for when determining if a school has what their kids need to thrive? 

  • When you walk into the building, get an idea of what the school climate is. Does it feel warm and welcoming? 
  • Talk to the principal and get an idea of the longevity is how long the principal and teachers have been there.
  • If you have a place that teachers are staying, that’s a good sign. Quick turnover is a sign of concern. 

What do you think is one of the greatest challenges facing education in St. Louis?

  • The limited internet access. There is a stark difference between North St. Louis and the rest of the city in regards to access to the internet.
  • St. Louis needs to expand home, school, and community collaboration and engagement. There is too much working in silos. 

How can parents and administrators help young people process and cope with their realities and create a more positive practice around discipline? 

  • Prevention and early intervention, ideally with some parent involvement. 
  • Don’s motto regarding parent interaction is, whatever it takes to get them involved.
  • The practice of having conjoint behavioral consultation, which means working conjointly with the parent and the teacher so there is a unified plan that encompasses both environments, is the best approach.
  • Kids are at the mercy of their environment so the school and parents need to communicate.
  • The pandemic might improve parent involvement because of the growing popularity of Zoom. It might make it easier for parents to meet with teachers and other school staff. 

How do we work together to help parents feel more comfortable interacting with school staff?

  • To have some workshops or meetings so there is an advocate to help guide families.  
  • School psychologists are there for the student, first and foremost. . 
  • It’s really important that parents have an advocate of some sort, especially for families who have children with special needs.