If you have questions about the practice of psychology, you are not alone. Licensed psychologists are among the most highly educated folks in the land, but our profession sometimes seems shrouded in mystery, tainted with misperceptions, and infringed upon by individuals with dubious credentials. I believe that this is partially due to the fact that what we assess, diagnose, and/or treat cannot be palpated. And that is exactly why it requires such intensive and extensive training as both a scientist and a practitioner to become a licensed psychologist.

Some people visualize lying down on a couch to have their every word “analyzed” when they think of psychology. Although licensed psychologists are trained in psychotherapy (but most do not practice the “Freudian analysis” that many people visualize), for some of us this function is secondary to assessment and diagnosis. Most of us have extensive training in research methods, test design, and statistics, some of us have extensive training in neuroscience and brain-behavior relationships, and all of us have extensive training in the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral problems.

I hope that the following information is beneficial in understanding the differences between some of the various service providers who may interface with you and your child. There is also information about psychological evaluation further down the page. If you scroll down to the bottom of this page, you’ll find links to questions and answers specific to neuropsychology and to special education.

I receive numerous questions from parents, school administrators, physicians, attorneys, and others about the differences in qualifications between psychologists, school psychologists, and licensed educational psychologists. There is a lot of confusion, and many people think that these titles all mean generally the same thing, and don’t understand that there are vast differences in educational level and qualifications between them.  The similarity in titles contributes to these misconceptions, and also unfortunately allows those who are not doctors to “pose” as such.  I am quite familiar with all three, as I am licensed or “credentialed” as all three. I’ve explained the main differences below.

Want to skip the explanations? You can find out very easily if someone is or isn’t a psychologist on the Board of Psychology’s website.  Simply go to the link “Verify a License or Registration” and provide the name (you should also provide their city or county if they have a “common” name). 

What Is A Psychologist?

The title “psychologist” is protected by California law, and is reserved for doctors trained in professional psychology and licensed by the Board of Psychology(BOP) to diagnose and treat mental and emotional problems. All of the states delineate similar requirements in order to practice psychology.  (Neuropsychologists are licensed psychologists with extensive training in neuroscience and brain-behavior relationships that is in addition to their training as psychologists.  Neuropsychologists are minimally required to be doctors who hold a license through the BOP.)

Consumers may be understandably confused because the title “psychologist” is often erroneously used to refer to those who are not doctors, and do not hold a clinical license.   For example, a “school psychologist” typically holds a master’s degree and is not licensed (see “What is a School Psychologist” below).  To make matters even more complicated, other master’s level practitioners such as social workers (LCSW), marriage & family therapists (MFT), and licensed educational psychologists (LEP) sometimes incorrectly identify themselves as psychologists.  LEPs, LCSWs and MFTs are licensed by the Board of Behavioral Sciences.

The differences? Too many to mention, but simply put (and probably most understandable to the layperson), is the amount and difficulty level of the training involved.  A master’s degree in psychology generally takes 2 years to complete, whereas a doctorate takes an additional 4-6 years of training past the master’s level. Besides doctoral-level coursework, the Ph.D. in professional psychology requires prolonged supervised fieldwork.  It also requires training as a scientist...in research methodology and statistics, as well as completion of a major research project (dissertation).  Additionally, the doctor who is licensed is required to complete lengthy post-doctoral training and supervision, as well as national and state examinations (boards) that evaluate competency.

As will become clear from information provided here, it is imperative for consumers to always ask: “What degree(s)?  In what field?  From what school?  Was the primary focus of your doctoral training with adults or with children?  What license(s) is (are) held?” Those of us with legitimate qualifications will be happy to tell you! 

What Is A School Psychologist?

A “school psychologist” has a “pupil personnel services” credential issued by the CA Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC), and not through any state licensing board.  School psychologists are probably the only master’s level practitioner (MAs) who are not required to be supervised by a doctor, even during their internship (they are typically “supervised” by another MA). Additionally, many, if not most, school psychologists do not hold an undergraduate degree in psychology (they are typically teachers).  I’m not sure why this is the case; probably because the CTC is the state policymaking body for educators, not for psychologists.  This provides a valuable clue as to why the requirements for “school psychologist” are so completely different from those of licensed psychologists.   “Pupil personnel service providers, parents, students, and administrators” make recommendations on changes to the “pupil personnel services” credential.  Ironically, you won’t find an actual psychologist on the board at the CTC!

In California, nearly all school districts and other K-12 educational entities mis-identify their school psychologists as “psychologists,” both on their websites and on their legal IEP paperwork. Until the myriad cases of mis-identification are rectified (presumably through legal action), it is safe for the consumer to assume that anyone not identifying themselves as a doctor (Ph.D. or Psy.D. after their name) is not a psychologist. It is important to note that a doctoral degree in itself does not imply licensure, as only very specific doctoral degrees are accepted by the Board of Psychology (BOP) as the preliminary requirement for licensure. Given that the applicant has earned the proper doctorate, licensure through the BOP typically takes another 2 postdoctoral years. It is the epitome of irony that unlicensed doctors outside of the educational system are required to call themselves “Psychological Assistant,” while master’s level school psychologists mis-identify themselves on legal paperwork, on websites, and on their own reports as “psychologists.” 

Discovering that their child has in fact not been assessed by a doctor (after signing assessment plans and IEPs, and receiving psychoeducational reports whereby the educational entity as well as the master’s level practitioner mis-identify their qualifications) angers parents and understandably results in mistrust of the educational system.  Whereas other governmental agencies may also be guilty of self-made titles such as “program specialist,” at least the consumer has a good idea that these are in fact “made up” titles that are idiocyncratic to that agency. The title “psychologist,” however, is a professional title (like “physician” and “attorney”) and not an agency-specific one, and most consumers are aware that this title implies “doctor.”  It remains to be seen whether consumers who have been subjected to this kind of misrepresentation will attempt to remedy the situation. 

What Is A Licensed Educational Psychologist (LEP)?

A licensed “educational psychologist” (LEP) and a “school psychologist” are nearly the same thing.  An LEP is typically a master’s level practitioner who is licensed by the Board of Behavioral Sciences (BBS).  This is a license that is unique to California; as far as I know there are no other states that issue this license.  The requirement for an LEP is a master’s degree. No supervised experience is necessary, just proof of 3 years of working in the educational system. Therefore “school psychologists” with 3 years working at a school can obtain an LEP license if they choose to take the LEP exam.

LEPs are unfortunately not required to disclose their level of education in their advertising. It is safe to assume that those who do not provide a “Ph.D.” or “Psy.D.” after their name are master’s level. For myself, possession of the LEP license is redundant, as my Board of Psychology (BOP) license far and away supercedes it. I keep the LEP license because of the above-described misconceptions and misrepresentations (see “What is a school psychologist?”).  Another way of understanding the LEP license (since it is unique to CA) is this:  The majority of psychologists (i.e. those who are licensed through the BOP) could become licensed for independent practice in another state if they chose to move. The majority of LEPs could not. 

What Is an “ADHD coach” or “behavioral consultant?”

Who knows! And therein lies the problem.  The number of self-proclaimed “experts” in childhood disabilities continues to grow, and is truly alarming. There is a proliferation of so-called “therapists” in everything from “ADHD coaching” to “neurofeedback” to “autism specialist.” Amazingly, many of these folks do not even hold a bachelor’s degree in psychology!  How do they get away with it? The confusion about mental health providers in general amongst consumers allows these folks to masquerade, and terms like “specialist,” “counselor,” “coach,” “therapist,” and the like can be used by anyone.  Without a license, they are accountable to no one, and their training may be arbitrary or nonexistent.  Consumers beware!  If you have paid money to someone whom you feel may be illegitimate, you may be able to file a complaint with the CA Dept of Consumer Affairs, and it may constitute fraud. 

Along similar lines, the worldwide web contains a plethora of information on childhood disorders...some of it good, some of it bad, and much of it incorrect or misleading. Most of the information on websites such as “About.com” regarding drugs, treatment, and other areas is being touted by persons who are far from qualified to be making these recommendations. The relative anonymity provided by the web seems to make these faceless “experts” even more audacious.  Those who are lacking the proper qualifications are doing you, your child, and the general public a disservice. At best they are feeding their own egos and at worst they are lining their pocketbooks.

A note about prescription medication:  Although properly trained licensed psychologists have gained prescription privileges in New Mexico and Louisiana, in California it is currently illegal for anyone other than a physician to prescribe medication. Licensed psychologists are permitted to discuss the appropriateness of the prescribed medication or to suggest a medication to the physician. Licensed psychologists are also permitted to discuss medication with patients (See the Board of Psychology’s “Statement on Medication” for more information).

Consider the following 3 factors when buying services or accepting services for your child:

Level of training: The minimal level of training for practitioners in mental health is a master’s degree in psychology. Weekend courses and training camps are called “continuing education” for those of us who hold professional degrees and licenses, and do not constitute professional training in and of themselves.  Beware of those who pump themselves up with meaningless letters after their names.  “Ph.D. or Psy.D.” (doctor) and “M.A. or M.S.” (master’s degree) are the letters you are looking for.  The rest is fluff. 

Licenses: For yours and your child’s protection, be sure that the person holds a license through the California Board of Psychology (doctors) or the California Board of Behavioral Sciences (all others).  Mental health licenses in the state of CA are the following: Psychologist, educational psychologist (LEP), social workers (LCSW), marriage and family therapists (MFT).

Specialty area: You should make sure that the person holds a master’s degree or doctorate in psychology, and that the main emphasis of their formal training was with children and adolescents.

If you wish to obtain a diagnosis, choose a doctor (licensed psychologist).  Even if subdoctoral-level specialists claim to “diagnose,” be aware that most governmental agencies won’t accept “diagnosis” from sub-doctoral level specialists (e.g. licensed educational psychologists, school psychologists, MFTs, etc.).

A special education teacher who is certified by the California Dept. of Education may be an invaluable resource for providing “coaching” services to your child if they are being supervised by a doctor and/or have received recommendations from a diagnostic assessment performed by a doctor.

Beware of “learning centers.”  These outfits claim to provide “assessment” and some even claim “diagnosis.”  They have no one qualified to do either, as no licensed doctor would work for these corporations. Besides false claims, it is unethical to be testing children with the intent to sell their parents services (talk about bias!).  Even if these services were free, parents stand to waste their child’s time and energy if they do not have a legitimate diagnosis. Since the folks who work at these outfits are far from being doctors who would be reprimanded by their licensing boards, no one can stop them. “Caveat emptor.”

A special education teacher who is certified by the California Dept. of Education may be an invaluable resource for providing “coaching” services to your child if they are being supervised by a doctor and/or have received recommendations from a diagnostic assessment performed by a doctor. 

What Is Psychological Assessment?

Evaluations performed by licensed psychologists are the scientifically-based means used to diagnose behavioral, cognitive, and emotional disorders.  They are also used to assess giftedness, evaluate personality, or to estimate levels of functioning in various areas. I tailor assessment according to your concerns and your child’s presenting problems.  Although assessment is usually intellectual, emotional, or behavioral in focus, it often includes a combination of these areas.  Standardized tests and procedures are used that most children and teenagers enjoy.

Psychological assessment usually includes a clinical interview with both the child and parent(s) and a battery of psychological, neuropsychological, cognitive, and educational tests.

Why Psychological Assessment?

Childhood disorders are complex. For example, a child with a learning disability may also have behavioral or emotional problems, language processing problems, and/or attention problems.  There are many people who call themselves “learning specialists” and the like.  Some can only test academic achievement, some can only test language, and so forth.  Their scope of training is usually narrow, and they cannot assess the “whole child.” Although many can “test,” few can effectively interpret results or diagnose.  In contrast, licensed psychologists are doctors trained to assess and diagnose all areas of cognitive, behavioral, and emotional functioning.

How Are Evaluation Results Used?

Your child’s evaluation results are your personal property.  With very rare exceptions, results are confidential and cannot be shared without your expressed written consent.  My job is to answer your referral questions. Results may:

  • Confirm or clarify a diagnosis
  • Quantify levels of functioning in various areas
  • Facilitate educational planning
  • Document changes in functioning since prior examinations
  • Reveal compensatory strategies
  • Be used to make treatment recommendations

What Is Psychotherapy?

Psychotherapy is a term that encompasses diverse methods of personal assistance given by a licensed psychologist or other licensed professional, such as an MFT (marriage & family therapist) or LCSW (social worker). Behavioral therapy, and sometimes cognitive-behavioral therapy (for some older children and teenagers), are the methods that have been scientifically proven to be most effective with childre and teens. Psychotherapy may address the following:

  • Behavioral intervention
  • Anger management
  • Social skills training
  • Skill enhancement for ADHD and learning disorders
  • “Issues” & parenting consultation for parents
  • Depression, anxiety, & other emotional problems

Because it is often a benefit paid for by insurance (and I do not bill insurance), I usually encourage parents to use their insurance benefit if psychotherapy is indicated.  However, I routinely provide parental training in behavioral intervention so that they may become “therapists” in their own home.

Special Education Questions

Neuropsychology Questions

What Disabilities Are Assessed?


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