At A Glance
Brigham Young University: Education Specialist, School Psychology; 2018-2021 (expected)
California State University at Northridge: Graduate Certificate, Assistive Technology Applications; 2017
University of Idaho: Master of Education, Special Education; 2015-2016
Brigham Young University: Bachelor of Science, Communication Disorders; 2011-2013
Research Assistant: 2018-Present
Special Education Teacher (mild-moderate; literature support and functional literacy; grades 7-8): 2017-2018
Case Manager (SSI; DIB): 2014-2015
Direct Support Professional: 2014
Alex W. Wheatley is a native of Tennessee and a resident of Utah since 2011. He grew up loving sports, theatre, and film. Having participated in theatre in high school and community productions (actor, director, tech director, lighting and sound), he decided to make the arts a career. He worked as a master control and production operator for a news station in Kentucky, with aspirations of working on larger film and television productions. However, he left the station to devote two years of service to impoverished families. Upon returning from service, his desires and focus changed. He wanted to help individuals and families that traditionally did not get the help they needed. He settled on helping those with disabilities after doing extensive research into many fields. He earned his Bachelor of Science in Communication Disorders from Brigham Young University in 2013. After working with adults with developmental disabilities in day program settings, Alex decided to make a slight career shift. He went on to work as a case manager for those applying for social security disability, and earned a Master of Education in Special Education from the University of Idaho in 2016. Alex then worked as a substitute teacher before being hired as a literature support and functional literacy teacher for students in grades 7 & 8. Teaching did not fulfill him, as he thought it would. Working with school psychologists every week, including one that would become friend and mentor, he decided to take one more fork in the road. Currently, Alex is a full time graduate student in School Psychology at Brigham Young University and a research assistant. His professional and research interests include assistive technology, video modeling, transition skills and outcomes, and professional practices.
Theory of Change as a School Psychologist
*Note: I am not a currently practicing school psychologist. This reflects my philosophy as future practicing professional.
Jack, an eighth grader who receives special education services, is known for being a difficult student. Punishments, rewards, and goals have not had lasting impact on Jack in the classroom. Coming from a poor family, he labels himself as dumb and lists sleeping as his number one hobby. Jack’s special education teachers begin to show him success. He sees an increase in quiz grades and other assessments. One day, as the class prepares for a new group project, Jack hopes to be paired with the other boy in the class—known as smart, good student. The other boy doesn’t want to be paired with the bad kid; the slacker. However, today the teacher decides to make the two boys work together, calling attention to Jack’s extraordinary work over the last several weeks. “Yea, I do do good work!” Jack exclaims. He takes charge of the group activity and amazes the other boy with his knowledge and commitment to get a good grade. Jack feels a sense of accomplishment. He continues to do well in class and earns the Most Improved award at the end of the school, receiving the award in front of the rest of the school.
Every student wants to feel accomplished and accepted. They want to belong; to have a place among friends, family, and peers. Therefore, my theory of change as a school psychologist is Individual Psychology, or Adlerian Psychology.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a mainstay theory of change in the public-school system. The goal of therapy services in the schools to get the student functioning in the classroom—both behaviorally and academically—as soon as possible. I believe schools like the theoretical approach of CBT because (1) it technically does not require a firm therapist-client relationship (thereby allowing greater flexibility in assigning school psychologists to students) and (2) it requires less psychoanalytic exploration of students, which decreases the element of time. However, I believe Adlerian Psychology can be just as effective—if not more—in the public-school system.
Adlerian psychology is rooted in social interest. “When we observe people, we find that the nature, character and actions of an individual are determined by the experiences he encounters in the community within which he grows up” (Dreikurs, 1989). Schools are steeped in social interest for students. A student belongs—or seeks to belong—to peer groups, teacher-student relationships and roles, good grades versus bad grades (i.e., what type of academic role someone fits into), clubs, athletics, and so on. No student develops in a bubble.
A basic core concept of Adlerian psychology is that everyone has a place—in families, in schools, in social groups, etc. Students become discouraged when their place is not known or clearly defined, and they become encouraged when they do have a place, or a sense of belonging or identity. Students seek a place among friends and teachers at school. Their place can be established over time through academics or athletics, or through a single event. Teachers can inadvertently establish roles for students (e.g., the smart kid, the helper, the “dumb” kid). Special education—as well intentioned as it may be—often groups students in ways which may or may not be beneficial or preferred. Since Adlerian therapy is goal oriented, therapists work with students to make changes that reinforce or create insights (i.e., how the student views situations and roles, or developing new roles) that result in better relationships.
Birth order is an important part of Adlerian psychology. The idea is that one’s birth order influences personality and relationships. However, this does not mean that the theory is completely retrospective (it future and goal driven). Personally, I see the value in birth order, but I would not focus too much of my time on this aspect since time is limited in the schools.
Integration of Other Theories
I believe Adlerian psychology allows for the integration of other theories. This does not mean that I eclectically take parts of every theory and throw them in my theory of change on a whim. Rather, this means that I carefully integrate some parts of other theories and extensively learn how to practice under this integrated model.
My theory of change integrates parts of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and Feminist therapy. In ACT, I seek to do many of the same things a traditional behaviorist might do. I functionally analyze the antecedents, behavior, and consequences, and develop a plan of action. The difference is that I do not teach the child to eliminate anger, or that an increase in energy is bad; rather, I work with the student to come to an understanding that he/she does not have to give in to every urge. My goal with ACT, therefore, is to teach appropriate ways to respond and not what is or isn’t appropriate to feel.
Feminist therapy can be viewed as controversial, especially in schools. My take on Feminist therapy is not in the strict adherence of the model, but in adapting a core concept in my work with students. Feminist therapy challenges social roles and expectations. It seeks to empower women—and men—in equality of gender and race. Students with disabilities can feel marginalized, or out of place in society. My integration of Feminist therapy seeks to empower students with disabilities so they can find a place of belonging in society and have the self-determination and self-advocacy skills to fight for their equal standing in the world around them.
Techniques are hard to nail down in Adlerian psychology. This does not mean that there are no techniques for Adlerian therapy; rather, this means that Adlerian psychologists are able to pull from a myriad of techniques to best suit the client. Some of the techniques I find useful include scaling, miracle question, I-Messages, and mutual storytelling.
Scaling can help a client realize the gravity of a situation or point of view. After using the skill, the client may corroborate the severity of the problem or acknowledge that it isn’t as bad as he/she originally thought. This may be difficult for certain school-age children to use reliably; however, for some, it may be a good starting point to then show change over time.
The miracle question can be used in a variety of settings and is used effectively by other Adlerian psychologists. This skill helps students identify better scenarios and develop goals to succeed in and out of the classroom. I have seen this skill demonstrated enough times in various situations and people that I have become convinced that it can help me understand and work better with adolescents.
The I-Message technique is traditionally used by Adlerian psychologists (Erford, 2015). It can follow the conventional structure of “I feel __ when you __ because __,” or therapists can adapt it as needed. The great thing with using I-messages with students is that it can help them open up more and tap into their feels instead of being closed off or defensive. This technique can be used with a single student, two students or in a group setting, or with a parent and student. This versatility makes it a great option in also helping parents and students step out of egocentric mentalities and see how behavior effects other people as well as themselves.
Mutual storytelling is another technique commonly used by Adlerian psychologists (Erford, 2015). Erford describes this technique as being a good fit for students who are resistant to traditional talk therapy and has roots in play therapy. I have used this technique in the classroom as a special education teacher when doing narrative writing. It helped me gain insight on how a student viewed himself and some of the struggles he faced. After the experience, I began to understand why certain classroom activities were difficult for him and I was able to change my approach.
Case for My Theory of Change
While I value other theories, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, I question how useful they are in the school system. I have seen students spend years in school psychological services getting the same type of service every year. I realize that a snapshot in time does not always show significant progress. I also admit that not every student can “graduate” out of counseling services in three years or less. However, I do believe that progress can be increased with a more integrative model of therapy, which my theory of change provides.
Many books have been written by Adlerian psychologists on the use of Adlerian psychotherapy in the classroom. Books by Driekurs have been in print for over half a century and many principles he taught are still valued by educators in one form or another. Therefore, I feel justified in the use of Adlerian psychology in a sea of CBT.
Ultimately, Adlerian resonates with me in ways other theories do not. I have seen how social roles and student’s perceptions within those roles have affected belief systems. These negative belief systems often lead to poor educational outcomes. I have worked with students who viewed their roles as “mental,” dumb, “the bad kid,” or not good at reading/writing, and so they chose to act the part. After showing them their strengths and roles in other areas or showing them progress in academics that could break them out of particular roles, change began to take place. I wish I could say that the opening vignette was complete make-believe. I changed some identifying information; however, this was a student of mine. I did not know Adlerian psychology at the time, and this probably isn’t the perfect example of the use of Adlerian psychology in the classroom, but I think of this example—my most proud moment as a teacher—as fitting within the theoretical framework. That example is the main reason why I choose Adlerian psychology—with an integration of ACT and Feminist theory—as my theory of change.