Penn State Mobile Clinic trains students, helps local schools

Linda Lim, a fourth-year doctoral student studying school psychology, administers an assessment to a mock client as part of Mobile Clinic. Credit: Jessica Buterbaugh / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — After working in the public school system for 19 years, including time as a school psychologist, Shirley Woika was excited for her new career as the director of clinical and field training for the Penn State College of Education’s school psychology program. But, she no sooner started her new position when her former colleagues were asking for her help.

“I started getting a lot of calls from people I knew, saying ‘We are really swamped with referrals. Could you come out and do some evaluations for us?’” Woika said. “So I thought it would be great to get my graduate students involved with that.”

And with that, the Penn State Mobile Clinic began.

“When I initially started doing Mobile Clinic, it was literally me putting grad students in my van and driving them out to a school district,” she said. Woika, who also is an associate professor of school psychology, and her graduate students would conduct intelligence testing, achievement testing, assessments of social emotional functioning and classroom observations in one day, and then travel back to campus where they would score the assessments and write evaluation reports. If they needed to participate in team meetings with a school district, they would do so via phone.

Fast forward nine years and the Mobile Clinic has developed into an integral part of the school psychology program, providing graduate assistantships and essential hands-on experience for fourth-year doctoral students while also serving local and regional school districts.

“It is by far the most rewarding part of graduate school,” doctoral candidate Linda Lim said of Mobile Clinic. “We develop a lot of skills and acquire a lot of our knowledge through our coursework and practicum in years one through three, but I think we also sometimes underestimate how much we really know until we get out there and have to handle a situation.”

Lim, who jokes that she is a “true mobile clinician,” has worked for three different schools through Mobile Clinic during the past year. She first assisted at Sugar Valley Rural Charter School in Loganton before being assigned to a three-month contract with Milton Area School District in Milton to fill a vacancy left by a school psychologist on maternity leave. She is finishing the school year with Juniata County School District in Mifflintown.

“Mobile Clinic is really helpful because you are actually in the schools and you have to juggle a number of cases, whereas, in the clinic, you usually only work on one case at a time,” she said, referring to cases that come to the college’s CEDAR Clinic. “It’s easy to handle one or two different cases. But when you’re out there and you have seven kids on your caseload, you have to be able to manage everything and keep things organized.”

Before students can join Mobile Clinic, they must first successfully complete a “solo case” during their third year. They must work with a client who comes to CEDAR Clinic and complete the case independently, from start to finish, Woika said.

“They must demonstrate all the skills in case planning, test administration, interviewing, scoring, report writing and sharing results,” she said. “Once they’ve reached that benchmark then they’re eligible for Mobile Clinic cases.”

Once a student becomes part of Mobile Clinic, he or she works with school district staff to fill the role of a school psychologist on either a long-term or as-needed basis.

“In some cases, we have somebody contracted for a year or half-year as a grad assistant,” Woika said. “But in other circumstances we’ll have a district call and say, ‘We’re swamped. We just got 42 referrals and we need some help.’ So we might agree to take a given number of those and divide them up among our mobile clinicians.”

Working on individual cases is an opportunity that students jump on, Woika said, explaining that the cases from school districts tend to be different than the cases that are seen in CEDAR Clinic.

It is that different type of experience that attracts Lim to Mobile Clinic.

“The students that we get in CEDAR Clinic, they’re a different population of students,’’ she said. “We tend to get a lot of referrals for specific learning disabilities and ADHD. Whereas in the field, I feel like I’ve received many more intellectual disability cases, a lot more emotional disturbance cases with kids who might have a conduct disorder or oppositional defiance disorder, and kids with a history of trauma or other risk factors.”

The clinicians working with Mobile Clinic also get the opportunity to work with children who are English Language Learners (ELL).

“One of the things that we have been getting more interest in is that we have a number of students who speak other languages fluently,” Woika said, adding that she currently has doctoral students who speak Russian, Chinese, Greek and Spanish. “We went to Cameron County, which is about a two-hour drive from State College, to do evaluations of Spanish-speaking students.”

Working with ELL students is an added benefit of the program because clinicians must determine if students are struggling because they don’t know the language or because they have some kind of learning disability, Woika said.

“There are a lot of cultural variables that need to be considered,” she said.

Being able to work in the different schools and with diverse students is an invaluable experience that prepares school psychologists-in-training for their internship year better than traditional practicums, Lim said. Mobile Clinic allows students to build primary skills required of school psychologists that many others don’t learn until they are at an internship location.

“One of the biggest learning curves or the hardest part about the beginning of an internship is getting those reports done,” Lim said, adding that school psychologists write, on average, 15- to 25-page reports for each case.

“Just getting used to the speed and fluency of that writing was definitely a learning curve at the beginning of this year. But now, I feel like I am in the groove of things and when I go on my internship, I can focus on building consultation skills or other kinds of systems-level roles I might have, as opposed to worrying about the report writing and other fundamental pieces of the job.”

Being a part of Mobile Clinic also helped Lim with the internship application process. She said the pressure to get an internship can be very stressful but being able to showcase independent skills as a school psychologist was helpful.

“A lot of internship placements were really surprised to hear about Mobile Clinic because I think it is a unique program,” Lim said. “I don’t think many other graduate students who are interviewing have as much experience in the role of a school psych really, but this program gives you that. It’s nice for me to say in an interview that I’ve handled a caseload, written this many reports and completed this many assessments.”

Lim will be able to continue building her skills and abilities as a school psychologist next year when she completes her internship — and her final year of the doctoral program — in Portland, Oregon.

“I feel very prepared to go out into internship and beyond,” she said. “I think that this program has a really strong practical piece that really focuses on evidence-based practices, which drives what we do in Mobile Clinic and what we do as school psychologists.’’

Doctoral students Lyndsey Gianella and Linda Lim help Shirley Woika, associate professor of school psychology, load her vehicle with test kits before taking the Mobile Clinic to a local school district to conduct observations and administer assessments. Credit: Jessica Buterbaugh / Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated April 12, 2016