The topic of educational psychology, or psychology as it is practiced within a school system, has become increasingly important in recent years as the number of special education demands on school systems and especially public school systems has increased. While educational psychologists tend to work in universities and other research settings rather than in the school system per se, they are continually affected by what is happening in schools as they seek to respond to the changing needs of student bodies. Thus the needs of school psychologists tend to be reflected at least in some measure in the research of educational psychologists, who in turn affect the practice of school psychologists. Thus one area of research that is becoming increasingly important to educational psychologists is one that is among the most pressing demands made on the school psychologist today. This topic is how to help autistic students benefit from the public education system without their needs diverting too many resources from general education classrooms and students. This paper examines current research on this topic while outlining a research methodology for a proposed future project in the area.
Educational psychology is an interdisciplinary field, for in addition to interacting with the practical concerns of school psychology (a field that is now developed within and maintained by school certification programs and so is attuned to the needs of school districts rather than research). It is based primarily in psychology, of course, but also draws on research from education, neurology, counseling, and organizational studies, among others. The research that educational psychologists perform, in turn, influences the work performed by many of the disciplines that provide direct support services in the school system. The research that educational psychologists perform is used to help design curricula, especially for special education programs; to help create new educational technology, especially assistive technology for students with a range of disabilities; and even classroom management strategies.
Educational psychologists are primarily concerned with the development of young people from young childhood through adolescence, although there are those who focus on adult education as well. They are generally concerned with stages of development, including social, emotional, and cognitive stages of maturation (Furth & Wachs, 1975). Educational psychologists also examine the ways in which moral development occurs as children age. All of these factors of development are inter-related and iterative, so that no one aspect of development can be understood without attending to the other aspects of development.
Before focusing on the specifics of this topic, it is important to limn the scope of the profession, which has expanded dramatically in recent years. A generation ago, and even a decade ago, the major task for the educational psychologist was to provide standard tests for schoolchildren and provide feedback on the results of these tests to administrators, teachers, and caregivers. This remains a central task for the school psychologist, but the scope of the job has changed because of the recent influx of a much larger special education student population. Of course, educational psychologists work with general education students as well and address far more broad-ranging concerns than simply testing and placement.
It is important to note that, while the job of the educational psychologist is in the process of adding new concerns and duties, it has also discarded tasks that were once assigned to this office. For example, Kraft (1970) discusses how it is vital that the educational psychologist help each student selected her or his course of study and then follow up with each student to ensure that such a study is the one that is most suited to that student.
It is hard to imagine that any educational psychologist today would be concerned with such a task. Not only do educational psychologists generally not interact with individual students today, but they are focused on more sophisticated areas of research rather than a more practical set of concerns such as career counseling. This is not to say that the tasks previously performed by educational psychologists were not valuable; rather, it is merely to comment on the fact that the role and function of the profession have shifted dramatically over time.
Just as educational psychologists have shed some of their previous foci, they have taken on others. For example, one area that educational psychologists have recently moved into, for example, is that of social justice. This might seem far afield from the traditional practice of the educational psychologist, but as Speight & Vera (2009) note, issues of access to appropriate education is in fact central to the concept of social justice, for education remains an essential aspect of long-term economic and emotional well-being in the United States as well as the possibility of class mobility. Specific issues such as the differential ways in which certain diagnoses are applied (such as the fact that the cohort that is most frequently diagnosed with ADHD is African-American boys) also touch on the core concepts of social justice. Consideration of such issues is an important aspect of educational praxis.
Theoretical Models for Educational Psychology
There are a number of different major theoretical schools within educational psychology. These, it should be noted, are not unique to this field but are used throughout the social and human sciences. This paper examines three of the primary theoretical models in this field that are most relevant to the writer. The first of these is applied behavior analysis. While this set of techniques is based on one of the first principles of psychology -- the kind of behavioral conditioning that was developed well over a century ago -- this particular version of behavioral analysis is an updated version that borrows significantly from the practice of cognitive behavioral therapy (commonly used as a form of therapy) and the current emphasis on evidence-based therapies.
Applied behavioral analysis is favored by a number of school psychologists, teachers, and school administrators because it often promises -- and sometimes delivers -- relatively quick results. This form of analysis is really more a technique than it is a theory since. It is based on the same kind of guidance that many teachers and parents already use on a consistent basis with children: Good behavior is rewarded while problematic behavior is not. (Note that problematic behavior is not punished but rather simply not rewarded.) There are theoretical elements to such a model, but the theory that there is quite thin on the ground. The psychologists who developed the models of operant conditioning were focused almost entirely on behavior. Modeling their own work on the hard sciences of biology and chemistry, they shied away from everything that could not be measured.
The result of such a model -- whether it be conceived of theoretically or in terms of praxis -- is that the focus must be on behavior. What goes on outside of the realm of observable, measurable behavior certainly existed (emotion, for example, as well as essential human attributes such as motivation and cognition), it was deemed peripheral and even irrelevant. Such a model has a real appeal for a teacher faced with a child whose behavior not only prevents him from benefiting from the classroom experience, but also prevents the other children in the classroom from gaining an education.
Thus many school programs, based in part on the work of educational psychologists, use various forms of applied behavioral analysis. Among the areas in which such programs are highly prevalent are the special education programs in which children with autism are enrolled. Because autism is -- for those around the person with autism -- defined primarily by out-of-control behavior, a program that limits such behavior is highly attractive.
However, there are distinct limitations to such an approach, and these derive from the same facet of applied behavioral analysis that makes its theoretical grounding so skeletal (Cameron, Pierce, Banko, & Gear, 2005). While human behavior is, of course, important, and especially so in the classroom environment, it is arguably much less important to understanding and re-directing human behavior than a deeper understanding of human cognition, motivation, and emotion. In other words, much of human life is subjective, and a method that focuses only on those aspects of human nature that can be easily objectified will be an extremely limited one, as this early advocate of applied behavioral analysis notes. That these concerns were already present in the earliest years of the popularity of applied behavioral analysis is striking. In fact, such a sensitivity may have been more present then than it is now (Alberto & Troutman, 2003, p. 29).
It is clear that a number of the most important concepts of our culture are subjective, perhaps even the most important. Martin Luther, as the story goes, was severely criticized for setting Protestant hymns to the popular melodies of songs and dances of the time. He replied, "Why should we let the devil have all the best tunes?" Well, why should we let the others have all of the best human goals and social problems? (Wolf,…