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Advancing Advocacy: Lessons Learned From Advocates in School Psychology

Although school psychologists are called on a daily basis to advocate for the needs of our nations’ schoolchildren, little is known about the factors that contribute to effective school-based advocacy. This study involved face-to-face interviews with 21 award-winning school psychology advocates. They described what led them into advocacy, obstacles faced, successes experienced, mistakes made, strategies used, resources employed, skills needed, and changes observed. The advocates discussed their definitions of advocacy, how they find balance, their advice for newcomers, and how they empower others. Following a qualitative content analysis, their collective input yielded important findings, including indispensable advice for future advocates. Most suggested that beginners’ build relationships with like-minded collaborators and the targets of their advocacy, devote time to building expertise, and be patient and persistent. Common obstacles included intransigence among school psychology colleagues who were reluctant to change their roles to reflect new developments in the field or who feared participating in advocacy would destabilize their positions. To fully embrace an advocacy role, most advised advocacy education and training for both existing school psychologists and newcomers to the field. Limitations and implications that inform a foundation for advancing advocacy within school psychology are discussed.

As a profession, school psychology has long promoted itself as advocating for the needs, rights, and welfare of children and their families, as well as for high-quality educational services designed to maximize children’s potential. Historically, advocacy has been a central and defining feature of the services delivered by school psychologists (Merrell, Ervin, & Gimpel, 2006). In the 2000 iteration of the National Association of School Psychologists’

This article was published Online First March 7, 2019. Margaret R. Rogers, Department of Psychology, University of Rhode Island; Marisa E. Marraccini, School of Education, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Anna G. Lubiner, Department of Psychology, University of Rhode Island; Jennifer A. Dupont-Frechette, Delta Consultants, Providence, Rhode Island; Elisabeth C. O’Bryon, Family Engagement Lab, Oakland, California. A special thank you to the group of esteemed advocates who shared their stories, insights, and personal experiences to help us all learn to become better advocates. The study was funded by a Career Enhancement Grant to the first author from the University of Rhode Island. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Margaret R. Rogers, Department of Psychology, University of Rhode Island, Chafee Hall, 142 Flagg Road, Kingston, Rhode Island 02881. E-mail: mrogers@

NASP) Principles for Professional Ethics (NASP, 2000), the school psychologist’s role as an advocate was identified as one of two considered foundational to the profession (the second being to “do no harm”). Since then, school psychology’s engagement in advocacy has become visible in several ways. For example, the current NASP Principles for Professional Ethics defines advocacy as a voice guided by expertise “for the rights and welfare of students and families” and promoting “changes in schools, systems, and laws that benefit schoolchildren, other students, and families” (NASP, 2010a, p. 3). Advocacy was also one of the three main themes addressed in the most recent School Psychology Futures Conference (in 2012) and is highlighted in a number of ways in the 2010 NASP Model for Comprehensive and Integrated School Psychological Services (NASP, 2010b), which is used by over 200 school psychology programs in the United States as the framework for the education and training of future school psychologists. Yet despite the resurgence of interest in advocacy, when we reflect on what we really know about the science of advocacy, we find the evidence base in school psychology limited. Understanding the science behind advocacy, including what it takes to be an effective advocate, the strategies used to advocate successfully, and the resources advocates need, is especially important at the present time. School psychologists and other mental health professionals are expected to advocate about many different issues, needs, and concerns for a variety of populations and across multiple settings and ecological levels. However, we know little about what successful advocates do when they engage in advocacy work, the best way to start advocating, and the skills found to be particularly useful. We also know little about the obstacles advocates face as well as the kinds of mistakes that seasoned advocates have made that we can all learn from. In addition, given the demanding nature of advocacy work, an important question to ask is, what do advocates do to find and maintain balance in their lives? This information is important for the field as well as for individual school psychologists to achieve and maintain optimal levels of effectiveness. Graduate students, early career, and established practicing school psychologists who do not receive formal training or who are not explicitly taught how to advocate may be overwhelmed when deciding where and how to begin their advocacy work. Lating, Barnett, and Horowitz (2009) found that although the majority of faculty representing psychology doctoral programs agree that advocacy awareness and training is important to students’ development, 60% of the programs that took part in a National Council of Schools and Programs of Professional Psychology’s Self-Study acknowledged not providing advocacy training and activities for students. Graduate preparation programs may not prioritize preparation explicitly about advocacy because they assume that students will acquire advocacy skills informally through their applied training or through incidental observations. Given the central place of advocacy in school psychologists’ professional roles, such a casual approach seems inadequate. Without education and training in how to be the best possible advocate, the wisdom and expertise school psychologists have may not get well represented when important decisions are made about children’s academic and mental well-being. Perhaps part of the reason for the lack of widespread integration of advocacy education within graduate programs may be linked to the importance that faculty members place on preparing their students to be advocates. In a recent survey of school psychologists about their perceptions of the most important competencies for practice, Fenning et al. (2015) found that the largely faculty- and school-based practitioner sample (making up 79% and 11% of participants, respectively) considered advocacy, although still important, among the least highly rated activities. Their sample considered the activities associated with traditional school psychology practice (e.g., assessment, intervention) relatively more important than advocacy. For faculty members who placed less importance on advocacy, the challenge may be in finding space for such coverage within an already crowded curriculum. For practitioners who rated advocacy as less important, advocacy work may seem more ill-defined than other role expectations and service delivery demands. Still, the press to prepare school psychologists as effective advocates has been a long standing one, and one that may be argued is now long overdue.

A review of the literature in school psychology suggests a paucity of data-based scholarship examining advocacy. In a departure from the norm, using grounded theory, Graybill, Varjas, Meyers, and Watson (2009) sought to identify the advocacy strategies that 22 advisors to Gay–Straight Alliances used in the schools on behalf of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender (GLBT) youth. They found that the advisors advocated in varied ways depending on the context, with most approaches involving a verbal in-the-moment response directed at an individual student or school staff member. Other strategies involved attempts to raise awareness by displaying GLBT-friendly signs and by gathering information to share with the school community through outreach to national organizations. At present, no other investigation in school psychology has gone beyond the findings of Graybill et al. to identify additional advocacy strategies that may be used to promote the emotional, social, and academic well-being of youth and their families.

To provide a full array of psychological services, school psychologists need to be equipped to work at multiple levels within their work settings. Implementing developmentally appropriate, culturally informed, empirically based mental health services, whether one-to-one, in groups, or systemically, involves working to change ecosystems within schools. In their study of facilitative factors and barriers to providing integrated and comprehensive school psychological services, Castillo, Arroyo-Plaza, Tan, Sabnis, and Mattison (2017) called for graduate program faculty to devote time in the curriculum to help students learn about systems change. This call is not new within professional circles, having been repeatedly voiced by those who wish to expand the roles of school psychologists as the way to provide comprehensive mental health services in the schools (Meyers, Meyers, Graybill, Proctor, & Huddleston, 2012; Ringeisen, Henderson, & Hoagwood, 2003; Schaughency & Ervin, 2006). Castillo et al. (2017) and others have stressed the importance of school psychologists knowing not only how to engage in systems change but also how to advocate for such changes within their professional work settings. For those who have advocated for such changes but not achieved the desired effects, it would be helpful to know how successful advocates have gone about their advocacy activities to realize change. Tips, insights, and advice from seasoned advocates may help to expand school psychologists’ advocacy activities, erase uncertainties, and provide the knowledge needed to gain a foothold as a successful advocate.

The present study was designed to explore the experiences and tools of award-winning school psychology advocates. The awards, described more fully in the Procedures subsection, recognized each participant’s achievements in advocacy. The study aimed to create a detailed understanding of their work as advocates, including what led them into advocacy, the resources they employed, the strategies used, the obstacles faced, the successes experienced, the mistakes made, the skills most important, and the advances witnessed in issues they have advocated about. Also, we sought to learn how they define advocacy, find balance in their lives, and empower others through their work, as well as to identify what advice they have for newcomers to advocacy. Implicitly, we hoped to demystify the work of advocates in school psychology and begin to build a scientific base about best practices in school psychology advocacy.

  • Margaret R. Rogers, University of Rhode Island
  • Marisa E. Marraccini, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Anna G. Lubiner, University of Rhode Island
  • Jennifer A. Dupont-Frechette Delta Consultants, Providence, Rhode Island
  • Elisabeth C. O’Bryon, Family Engagement Lab, Oakland, California


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