Donna Gayton

Having kids has helped me as a psychologist. And being a psychologist has helped me as a parent. Once I had kids and I was working as a psych, I began thinking ‘now I get it!’ with some of the parenting stuff

Hi Donna, let’s get straight into it. What does a senior school psychologist do? 

In my role, I’m one of five senior school psychologists. I work in the southern network in ‘Learning Services’ at the Department for Education, Children and Young People. We support and supervise about 50 school psychologists in the south of the state. So if they have a tricky case, for example, they might want to work through how they’re going to manage it. Also, some our school psychologists are new graduates. There’s a pathway they need to take to be registered. So we do supervision for that. We’ll get involved in helping the psychologist to manage the incident. We also run organised training, and we make sure our staff have the resources they need. 

What do you enjoy most about your job? 

I think it’s the contact with my team. I enjoy working with them to build up their skills. They’re an amazing bunch of people with an amazing commitment to the kids they work with. Anything I can do that enables them to do their job better – that’s what I find exciting about it. 

Do you have any communication with the parents? 

Absolutely. We see it very much as a partnership. So when we get a referral for a child we’re talking to the parents to get their consent to work with their child. We’ll get a background history of the child. We’ll explain our role, and what our plan is. If we’re assessing an intellectual disability, or a learning disability, then we’ll talk with the parents. We’ll discuss what the outcome was. Then we’ll discuss where to next, and where they might be able to access support outside of school. 

Can you give me an example of a great outcome? 

I’ve tended to work in primary school and early childhood. So finding a diagnosis for the parents, understanding there’s a reason for the behaviour. It’s not that their child is naughty or wanting to misbehave – it’s identifying the underlying problem. And saying there’s something we can do about this. They’re the ones I love. 

What are the common sorts of issues you’d be dealing with? 

Well, being part of the education system, our focus is on learning. If there are learning difficulties, we look at how can we help children to learn better. We’ll look at their reading, writing, and maths – that’s a part of what we do. We also look at their mental health to see if this might be a barrier to their learning. We support kids with the initial identification of a mental health issue. It could be anxiety, ADHD, things like that. We also help with the management of the diagnosis. In primary and secondary schools, we can be dealing with students who are having issues at home, which could place them at risk of homelessness. So it’s about supporting their learning so they can be at school every day. 

Do you think there’s been an increase in anxiety, and mental health in the community in recent years? 

We definitely see a lot more people presenting. We’re seeing a lot more learning disorders. It’s a combination of more of these issues being out there in the community. But also a lot more awareness of these issues – and then people coming forward and seeking help for them. 

What skills do you think you need to be a good school psychologist? 

It’s a busy environment. Whether that’s coming from students wanting to see you. Or parents. Or teachers. Or referrals. So you have to be able to manage your time well. You also have to be able to reason and think things through. To hold multiple options (ie, possible diagnoses) in our head until we work them all through. I also think you have to be able to let go – we help families, kids and parents but we’re not in control. 

Do you think having children is an advantage to being a good school psychologist? 

I do. Not that you can’t be a psychologist if you don’t have kids. But I think it’s beneficial both ways. Having kids has helped me as a psych. And being a psych has helped me as a parent. Once I had kids and I was working as a psych, I began thinking ‘now I get it!’ with some of the parenting stuff. 

In your current role, do you ever work with very young children? 

Yes, I do. So I get a 20% allocation to a school called ECIS to work as a psychologist. I work there one day a week, and I love it. 

Can you tell me about ECIS? 

ECIS stands for Early Childhood Inclusion Services. So it’s for kids aged between 0 and 4 years of age, and who need extra support before they start school. So the aim of the school is to work with families to help all children to become capable and competent learners. 

Are there many jobs for school psychologists in Tasmania? 

There is always a demand for psychologists and the Department for Education, Children and Young People are the largest employer of psychologists in Tasmania.  Many psychologists start with the department on a fixed-term contract and then gain permanency.  Psychologists are also in demand in private practice, especially in high-demand areas such as autism assessment/therapy and working with trauma. 

If you wanted to move into a different area of psychology, is that easy? 

Yeah, so we’re all psychologists first. We have psychology qualifications and we’re registered with AHPRA. (Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency). Then we’ve gone to work for the Education Department. But a lot of our staff work part-time with us, and they work in a private practice – so lots of people straddle this anyway. It’s very seamless to work across industries. 

How many years of study does it take to be a psychologist? 

It’s a six-year qualification, minimum. So first, you’ll need an undergraduate degree that goes to a fourth year. For example, you can do a Bachelor of Arts or Science with a 4th year in psychology. Then there’s a requirement to do a ‘plus two’. So you can either do a ‘plus two’ Masters program. Or you can do a ‘five plus one’. This includes a 6th year internship where you’re out there working.  

Scroll to Top