Kristina L. Pillmeier, school psychologist

Kristina L. Pillmeier
Pat Arnow

As a school psychologist, Kristina L. Pillmeier assesses and evaluates students and, when needed, refers them for support services. 

What does a school psychologist do? 

My primary role is to evaluate students’ needs with a whole-child perspective, from looking at their academic needs to their social, emotional and physical development needs and how those affect their performance in the classroom and their overall experience as a student in the school environment. 

Do you work in one school? 

For 12 years, I have worked at PS/IS 217 on Roosevelt Island, but I’ve never been there full time. It’s always been a split between that school and another. The second school has been another elementary school, a middle school, a high school, a District 75 school. That’s been great in terms of my growth and development as a school psychologist. 

How has your job changed with remote learning? 

Before the pandemic, I was in the classroom observing the child, speaking with teachers and meeting with parents. Now, I rely more on conversations with teachers, paperwork and skills assessment forms parents and teachers fill out. The amount of face-to-face time has significantly decreased. 

Does that limit your effectiveness? 

I look at school psychology as the “Law & Order” of education. You have a case, and you have this mystery that needs to be solved. You have to gather evidence by going to different places, seeing different people, speaking to multiple parties and having it all come together. How you get that information might be very different now, but you still have a case to solve. No matter how I get information, I can still be effective in determining a child’s needs. 

What is the evaluation process? 

A referral could come from a teacher or parent. It could say, for instance, a child has difficulty reading. One of the first things I do is observe the student in class. Then I interview them to find out who they are within their school and home environments, what they feel they’re good at, what they feel their needs are, their interests, their goals. Something may seem to be a reading issue, but it may be a language processing issue or the child just can’t attend to the material. 

We try to provide interventions before jumping to an evaluation. We have to see if there is something different a teacher can do in the classroom, in the way they present information or how they expect the student to relay what they know. If interventions don’t help, you have to ask: Is there an underlying disability getting in the way of the student making progress? 

The next aspect is testing. We look into cognitive functioning, academic functioning, language, social-emotional needs. There are things that may overlap with other disciplines, but our assessment process looks at everything all together. 

Do you have guidelines? 

School psychologists follow IDEA — the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — and we must never violate a student’s and parents’ rights. We must make sure we’re doing what we’re meant to do: allowing a child to get access and make progress within the school setting and their curriculum. 

What issues do you deal with? 

In elementary school, you see more learning disabilities, speech and language impairments and social-emotional concerns such as needing coping skills or frustration-tolerance training. In middle and high school, it’s more social-emotional and mental health needs that come with adolescence. 

What’s your goal? 

To get the best picture of who my students are, not just for the referral issue, but who they are as a person all around with their academics, who they are as a social being with their friends and in their school environment so I can understand who that child is as a learner and how we can best help them. 

What’s the most rewarding part of your job? 

It’s rewarding at both ends of the process: when you evaluate a child and have that moment, “Aha, I can help this child. I figured out their underlying needs.” But it’s also incredibly rewarding to sit down with a family and a child’s teachers and related service providers and say they no longer qualify for special education services and they can be declassified. Their entire time of receiving services and evaluations is now part of their educational history. That’s something to celebrate!
  — As told to reporter Suzanne Popadin

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