Key Differences Between School Psychology and Marriage & Family Therapy

School psychology and marriage and family therapy are both considered helping professions. That is, professionals in these fields are highly trained to provide psychological services to clients with a range of mental health needs.

However, despite this basic similarity, many differences make school psychology and marriage and family therapy completely different professional pursuits. These professions differ in many ways, including the work environment, the educational pathway, and how they are practiced.

This guide offers insights into these aspects of school psychology and marriage and family therapy. Read on to learn more and decide which field aligns more with your interests or needs.

School Psychology Vs. Marriage and Family Therap

School Psychology Vs. Marriage and Family Therapy

School psychology focuses on students’ academic and emotional well-being within educational settings. Marriage and family therapy centers on improving relationships and mental health in individuals, couples, and families. These professions differ in scope, education, and client focus but share the goal of enhancing mental and emotional health.

One of the most obvious differences between school psychology and marriage and family therapy is the clientele. School psychologists work mostly with school-aged children, whereas marriage and family therapists typically work with children, couples, and families.

Now, school psychologists don’t just work with children. Instead, they also work closely with teachers, school administrators, parents or guardians, and other stakeholders involved in the child’s academic, social, and emotional development. However, as we will explore in a moment, the psychological services provided by school psychologists are almost exclusively for their child clients.

Marriage and family therapists work within an ecosystem of stakeholders, too. But unlike school psychologists, who often focus their work on a single client, marriage and family therapists often focus on the family unit and usually provide services to each family member.

Differences in Duties

Let’s assume you are a school psychologist in a rural K-12 school district. Your day might involve any number of activities, from assessing a child’s intelligence to evaluating a special education student’s progress toward their individual educational plan goals to advising classroom teachers on best practices for addressing the emotional needs of their students.

As another example, school psychologists frequently work with school administrators to develop programs that enhance the learning environment for all students. On the one hand, this might involve creating improved intake procedures for new students that are more effective in identifying possible roadblocks for the student’s development (e.g., a history of family substance abuse or the presence of a potential learning disability).

On the other hand, school psychologists are also instrumental in creating school-wide programs to address common issues like bullying or crisis intervention. Likewise, they help devise school-based programs that enhance learning opportunities for all children in the academic, social, and emotional realms. An example of this might be creating a program that builds bridges between different groups of students by exploring the things they have in common.

Contrast these activities with common duties in a marriage and family setting. Marriage and family therapists work to resolve conflicts and enhance relationships within couples and families through therapeutic interventions. They specialize in helping clients navigate relationship issues, communication problems, and mental health concerns within the context of family dynamics and interpersonal relationships.

A marriage and family therapist’s day might unfold with a session with a married couple contemplating divorce, then proceed with a family session to explore one family member’s struggles with alcohol, and move on from there with a session with siblings who are experiencing intense sibling rivalry.

These activities aren’t just different in their focus from those of school psychologists, but they also differ in their implementation. Where school psychologists often work as part of an educational team, marriage and family therapists most often work on their own in one-on-one or small group settings with their clients.

This isn’t to say that marriage and family therapists always work alone – in some situations, they might invite a colleague to sit in on a session. Marriage and family therapists frequently consult with other professionals on difficult client cases, too.

Differences in Work Environment

Unsurprisingly, school psychologists usually work in school environments like public or private elementary, middle, or high schools. School psychologists often have a dedicated office space where they work, though they are often found in classrooms throughout the school to work with clients or collaborate with classroom teachers.

In some cases, school psychologists have a dedicated classroom space where they work with special education teachers. For example, a school psychologist at a middle school might spend much of their time in a classroom for seriously emotionally disturbed students.

In that context, the school psychologist might collaborate with the special education teacher to develop appropriate lesson plans and activities. They would likely also spend one-on-one time with individual students, working on developing skills necessary for their successful development. An example of this might be devising a psychoeducational treatment that helps a child with anger issues develop appropriate communication skills to let others know they are unhappy.

Though rare, some school psychologists work outside of a school setting. An example of this might be a school psychologist who specializes in working with children with autism. With the proper credentials to practice outside an educational setting, they might have a private practice in which they provide psychological testing and assessments of children to determine if they are on the autism spectrum.

A marriage and family therapist, on the other hand, is not usually employed by a school district but is often self-employed in a private practice setting. Some marriage and family therapists also work in community mental health settings, like for a non-profit mental health agency that provides psychology services to underserved communities.

A clinical work environment is much different from a school environment. While school psychologists might spend a good part of their day in a classroom, marriage and family therapists mostly work in office settings where they meet with individuals, couples, and families.

For example, a marriage and family therapist might first meet with a family, say, a couple and their three kids, to explore the issues that led them to seek family therapy. Family-based sessions like this might proceed for several sessions in the office setting. Then, the therapist might ask to work one-on-one with each member of the family to determine their individual needs and wants and explore their role in the family dynamic.

In some cases, marriage and family therapists might work in highly specialized settings as well. Inpatient psychiatric treatment centers, substance abuse treatment centers, and correctional facilities might employ marriage and family therapists to help build connections between family members in an effort to support a more successful transition of the client back into the community.

Differences in Education

Both school psychologists and marriage and family therapists are required to have at least a master’s degree in their respective fields. In school psychology, several types of graduate degrees are available, including the following:

  • Master of Science (MS)
  • Master of Arts (MA)
  • Master of Education (M.Ed. or EdM)
  • Educational Specialist (Ed.S.)
  • Specialist in Psychology (Psy.S)

Though these programs might differ slightly in their breadth, depth, and scope, they all have the common denominator of focusing on advanced training in core school psychology topics. Usually, this includes studies in psychological assessment, academic testing, and counseling techniques.

Likewise, school psychology students usually take courses in the following:

  • Foundations of education
  • Cognitive and academic development
  • Developmental psychopathology
  • Psychological diagnoses
  • Behavioral assessment

In addition to this and other coursework, school psychology programs require field-based learning like practicum and internship placements. During these experiences, school psychology students work in a supervised setting within a school to gain experience applying their training with schoolchildren.

More specifically, the National Association of School Psychologists requires programs to include at least three years of full-time graduate studies (60 or more semester credits) and a one-year, 1,200-hour internship, of which 600 hours must be in a school setting.

Marriage and family therapists can also pursue a number of different graduate-level degrees, including the following:

  • Master of Science (MS)
  • Master of Arts (MA)
  • Master of Family Therapy (MFT)
  • Master of Social Work (MSW)
  • Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology (Ph.D)
  • Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.)

As with the array of school psychology degrees, these marriage and family programs might differ somewhat in terms of their breadth, depth, and focus. But, again, the overarching theme of the programs listed above is preparing marriage and family students to provide competent services in various clinical settings.

This preparation usually involves coursework in family systems, developmental psychology, and group therapy. Other common marriage and family coursework might include the following:

  • Legal and ethical considerations for psychologists
  • Sex therapy
  • Family therapy treatment models
  • Substance abuse and addiction treatment
  • Family therapy with children and adolescents

Like with school psychology graduate programs, marriage and family graduate programs also have requirements for field-based learning. For example, as a prospective marriage and family therapist, you might complete several hundred hours of practicum experience during which you work directly with couples and families in a supervised clinical setting.

In fact, the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy requires you to complete 300 or more hours of supervised practicum experiences in your graduate program plus two years of supervised postgraduate work experience to qualify for licensure as a marriage and family therapist.

Is a PhD in Marriage and Family Therapy Worth It?

Although a Ph.D. is not required to work as a licensed marriage and family therapist, there are a number of ways that a Ph.D. in marriage and family therapy is a valuable pursuit.

On the one hand, getting a terminal degree like a Ph.D. allows you to advance your career more than if you end your training with a graduate degree. Consequently, with a Ph.D., there is a greater likelihood that you can earn a higher salary, too.

On the other hand, developing knowledge and skills that enable you to help people with their problems can lead to a highly satisfying career. You can take pride in your work, knowing that you have the expertise to assist others in making significant improvements in their lives.

Perhaps the feature that makes a Ph.D. in this field most worth it is simply being equipped to effect change in other people’s lives. Whether it’s a couple or a family that seeks your help, your knowledge, skills, and training could very well make the difference between a family overcoming their issues and moving forward together and the family falling apart.

Which is Better? School Psychology or Marriage and Family Therapy?

Ultimately, neither school psychology nor marriage and family therapy is better than the other in all situations. What makes one better than the other depends on your specific interests as a professional and the needs of the individual clients.

Clearly, school psychology is the better option if you are interested in working with children in an educational setting. Likewise, if you’re drawn to educational psychology, intelligence testing, and behavioral analysis, school psychology is a good option. Then again, if you are interested in family dynamics, developmental psychology, or working in a clinical environment, marriage and family therapy is the clear winner.

What’s important is that you take the time to consider your educational and career interests and goals before enrolling in a school psychology or marriage and family therapy program. Doing so allows you to choose the more appropriate option and, therefore, the better option for your education.

Where Do Marriage and Family Therapists Make the Most Money?

According to ZipRecruiter, as of October 2023, marriage and family therapists earn a median annual salary of $82,926. However, marriage and family therapists working in Texas and California make far more – a median yearly wage of $105,521 and $104,197 respectively. Marriage and family therapists working in Michigan and Washington State also make more on average, to the tune of $102,351 and $98,702 respectively per year.

If you want to maximize your earning potential, it’s best to get a doctoral degree (Ph.D. or PsyD). Your income potential will also increase as you gain more years of job experience.

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