St. George school psychologist recognized as best in the state

In this photo taken before the Covid-19 pandemic, Washington County school psychologists pose with their colleagues outside the district building. Sterling Stauffer is fifth from the right on the front row, St. George, Utah, August 2019 | Photo courtesy of Sterling Stauffer, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Sterling Stauffer has been selected as Utah’s School Psychologist of the Year, according to a press release from the state professional society. A born and bred St. George native, Stauffer currently serves four schools in the Washington County School District: three of which he attended as a student.

Sterling Stauffer poses with his wife, Michelle, during Spring Break of 2020, location unspecified, March 2020 | Photo courtesy of Michelle Stauffer, St. George News

Growing up, Stauffer graduated from Sunset Elementary School, Snow Canyon Middle School and Snow Canyon High School. Stauffer serves Paradise Canyon Elementary School in addition to his grade school alma maters. Though Stauffer told St. George News he was honored to be recognized, he preferred to shine the spotlight on his peers.

“Honestly, this whole thing is not my preference – I just want to do good for the kids,” Stauffer said. “But I’m grateful for it because when you think about schools, you often don’t think about the psychologists, counselors, therapists, custodians and other staff that help students be successful.”

The Washington County School District currently employs 14 school psychologists, with each psychologist supporting two to five schools. The National Association of School Psychologists recommends a ratio of at least one school psychologist for every 700 students. In Washington County, the ratio is around 2,400 students for every school psychologist.

“We have those those really high ratios, and the thing is the field of school psychology is a very intimidating field,” Stauffer said. “Schools have a hard time hiring all the positions. Washington County has made a big push to hire more school psychologists. There’s just not enough people, I think, who even know about the field.”

Stauffer, UASP’s School Psychologist of the Year, poses with his commemorative plaque, St. George, Utah, March 18, 2021 | Photo courtesy of Michelle Stauffer, St. George News

The duties and responsibilities of a school psychologist vary from school to school and from district to district throughout the United States. According to the association, the primary role of a school psychologist is to help students learn and teachers teach.

Stauffer said school psychologists are commonly confused with school counselors, in part because their roles overlap in significant ways. Each school will generally have one or more school counselors to help guide students plan for their future studies and address concerns on a more short-term or immediate basis. 

School psychologists, on the other hand, have specialized training to identify learning needs and make evaluations for learning disabilities. They focus more on creative problem-solving and usually serve multiple schools, Stauffer said.

He recalled a recent experience with a young girl that was struggling academically. He said that the nature of their evaluations reflected poorly on this student’s success, but that the raw evaluation failed to capture all of this student’s potential. 

“I knew where she was as a reader. I knew where she was at math,” Stauffer said. “Nothing in my evaluation had looked at her artistic abilities; yet, there was something that we could highlight with the parents and teachers to emphasize that this student – beyond the difficulties that they have – has some really unique and amazing talent.”

In addition to counselors and psychologists, the school district employs licensed social workers to address social and emotional needs. If a student’s academic performance or wellbeing can’t be addressed by the teachers and staff at the school, they may involve an intervention group composed of district professionals including psychologists and social workers.

Social Emotional Learning Coordinator Tami Curtis said when it comes to resources, schools take a tiered approach.

Sterling Stauffer poses with his wife, Michelle, and their three children at the Red Hills Desert Garden, St. George, Utah, January 2020 | Photo courtesy of Sterling Stauffer

“A wellness room is very tier one, meaning it’s available for all students when they need it, to help them self-regulate,” she said. “Students that need a little more support would be considered tier two, whether it’s making friends, learning to accept a ‘no’ or taking turns. We’ve taken a community approach with our tier three students, giving them access to free therapy either online or in-person.”

Whatever the concern, schools try to involve as many professionals as necessary to meet students’ needs, Curtis said. Students’ cases aren’t passed from person to person: new individuals are brought on as part of a consulting team unique to each case.

For Stauffer, it’s about more than improving grades and raising test scores.

“Certainly academics are important, and you might even say they’re the primary purpose of education, but I do think that education has a broader mission,” Stauffer said. “My goal for educational success is students that have a happy and productive place within society. Helping out a child who’s having a tough time is just inherently rewarding.”

Stauffer lives in St. George with his wife and three children. As an avid rock climber, he enjoys the abundance of climbing areas in the region, especially Shotgun Alley outside of Ivins.

For more information on school district’s resources, visit the Social Emotional Learning website or Special Education homepage.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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