Maricarmen Palau became a school psychologist in the San Lorenzo Unified School District 25 years ago, after completing her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at San Francisco State University.
“It was the right fit, and I’m still here,” said Palau, one of eight psychologists in the district. She is assigned to Hesperian and Colonial Acres elementary schools, which have dual-language immersion and bilingual programs. She also works with Spanish-language students at other schools, including newcomer students, some of whom have experienced significant trauma before or during their journey to the United States.
This native San Franciscan said she values the close friendships and strong relationships among staff within SLZUSD’s Special Services team. “I feel like I just know the culture and the vibe of my department and the district at large, and of course that’s fluid, right?” Palau said. “But so am I; I go with the flow.”
That good feeling extends to her partnership with teachers, some of whom started the same year she did and are also still working in San Lorenzo. She typically works with about 100 students over the course of a school year, and it’s not uncommon for her to see students at multiple points during their elementary school years.
“I’m still waiting to have that student come back who I worked with 20 years ago, and now I have their child,” she said.
Rapport with colleagues is especially important in her role as a school psychologist, Palau explained, because addressing students’ emotional, behavioral and cognitive challenges is a team effort. Also involved at different points are counselors, principals, special education resource specialists, teachers on special assignment and, of course, parents or guardians.
Palau and other school psychologists typically are enlisted after routine methods for restoring student progress and classroom function have already been tried without success.
“If those things don’t work, then often they call me in,” she said. “So, it’s OK, let’s troubleshoot, let’s problem-solve, let’s figure out – how do we refine this behavioral support, or what other things can we try that we’re not necessarily seeing? Or, what are we missing, what pieces?”
The next step is to involve a child’s family, and if a student continues to fall behind academically and is unable to function day to day at school, Palau is asked to do a formal assessment, also known as a Tier III intervention.
“I would look at cognitive processes, figuring things out, long-term and short-term memory, behavior, attention, executive function – all those things, trying to determine: what are a student’s strengths, what are their weaknesses, and what could be causing some of these learning or behavioral challenges?”
She added, “All of it goes back to ultimately helping make sure that the student can learn and continue to learn, is able to function within the school environment and not impede the learning of others or their own.”
Root causes may include learning disorders such as dyslexia or auditory-processing deficits, and sometimes the challenge is autism, which may or may not require a transition out of a general education classroom.
Comparing herself to a medical doctor whose prescriptions are inevitably different from one patient to the next, Palau said, “One size does not fit all. You’re constantly tweaking the program and meeting the needs of every student.”
She sees her work through the lens of relationships and says she is determined to go below the surface and reach out for help from many other people in order to achieve success.
“It’s really being able to sit down with a teacher or with a parent and say, ‘Stop. Let’s peel back the onion layers a little bit. Let’s talk a little more,’” Palau said. “Like, with the parent, ‘Tell me about your baby. Tell me about what makes him or her special. And what would you say is the hardest thing?’
“Then I use that thing of, ‘I’m going to take off my psychologist hat and put on my mom hat, and let’s talk mom to mom’ – being able to do that, and still setting boundaries where I need to, but again, making that connection.”
Whether a situation calls for providing or receiving information about a student case, Palau is constantly aware that success depends on everyone who contributes to a student’s well-being, from the superintendent to a school custodian.
“Maybe for the immediate things, it’s your teacher, it’s your principal, it’s your school psychologist, it’s your (special education) specialist,” she said. “But it’s all hands on deck.”