Psychology is a vast field with a dizzying number of specialties, so it’s easy to get lost when trying to figure out the differences between specialties. Whether you’re a student trying to determine which specialty to study, a parent trying to decide the best type of specialist for a child or just someone with a general interest in psychology, it’s important to understand the basic differences among the various specialties.
Two of the most common specialties are school psychology and clinical psychology. These specialties are similar because school psychologists use many of the basic principles of clinical psychology when they’re evaluating and treating school children. School psychology can be considered a sub-specialty of clinical psychology.
Clinical psychology deals with the assessment, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of psychological problems and mental disorders.
Clinical is the largest sub-field in psychology, containing a wide assortment of specialties within it, such as sport psychology, forensic psychology, business psychology, medical psychology, family psychology, child psychology, school psychology, etc.
Some clinical psychologists don’t choose a specialty, preferring to treat a wider variety of patients. Like general practitioner medical doctors, these non-specialist psychologists offer generalized psychological help for their clients, often referring clients who suffer from serious disorders to the proper specialist psychologists.
Steps in Clinical Psychology
Generally, there are four steps in a client’s therapy.
Assessment refers to the initial evaluation of a client’s mental health. Assessment methods can include intelligence tests, achievement tests, personality tests, neuropsychological tests, clinical interviews, behavioral observations and the review of past records.
Diagnosis is the classification of a client’s psychological problems into any of various disorders, such as panic disorder, anorexia, schizophrenia, etc. This pigeon-holing helps a psychologist pick a treatment method that has been shown to work for this particular disorder in other patients, though psychologists are also trained to adjust these standardized treatment methods to the individualized needs of particular patients.
Treatment methods can include any of several dozen techniques of psychotherapy, but these can be broken down into four basic groups: insight, action, in-session and out-session. Insight focuses upon gaining a greater understanding of the underlying motivations behind a client’s thoughts and feelings, while action focuses upon making changes in the way the client thinks and acts. In-session refers to here-and-now interactions between a client and a therapist, while out-session refers to therapeutic work that happens outside of a session, like bibliotherapy or rational emotive behavior therapy.
Prevention refers to steps a psychologist and client can take in order to prevent a recurrence of a disorder in a recovering patient. This can include further psychotherapy sessions, the fostering of good habits, the avoidance of exposure to harmful situations, etc.
Approaches to Clinical Psychology
There are probably as many individual approaches to psychology as there are psychologists, but these approaches can be broken down into four broad perspectives that basically encompass the field: the psychodynamic approach, the cognitive-behavioral approach, the humanistic approach and the systems approach.
The psychodynamic approach was initiated by Sigmund Freud and stresses the importance of the unconscious mind. This approach emphasizes techniques like free association that can help investigate the client’s underlying motivations.
The cognitive-behavioral approach grew from the combining of the behavioral and cognitive approaches, two approaches that are in some ways complementary opposites. This combined approach features an examination of the manner in which the client’s thoughts, behavior and feelings interact in order to determine how best to change the thoughts and behaviors that contribute to psychological problems.
The humanistic approach grew from the works of humanists like Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow. This is a holistic approach that focuses upon self-actualization in order to help clients achieve their fullest potential.
The systems approach stresses the importance of a client’s social environment. This approach features group therapy sessions (including family therapy) that focus upon minimizing the problems that stem from all types of social interactions by changing the way a client responds to environmental stresses.
School psychology is the use of any of the basic techniques of clinical psychology in order to better the lives of school children (normally from grades K-12). Most of what we wrote above concerning clinical psychology is also applicable to school psychology. But because children are different from adults and have different problems than adults, school psychology adjusts the techniques of clinical psychology to better serve the needs of school children.
School psychology isn’t the same as child psychology. School psychology uses the principles of child psychology but confines those principles to matters pertaining to a child’s school life. School psychologists concern themselves with everything that pertains to school life, including learning disorders, speech impediments, physical disabilities, peer pressure, student-teacher relationships, parent-teacher relationships, behavioral problems in school, racial tensions, issues with bullies, etc.
School psychologists not only hold therapy sessions with students, but also counsel parents, students, guidance counselors and law enforcement officials. School psychologists sometimes work with educators in re-designing their educational programs to better serve the needs of students, and some school psychologists also serve as child advocates in the court system or within the community. School psychologists help motivate students to improve their academic achievement, manage their anger and cope with stresses in school.