Ask educational psychologist (EP) May Chan what she is doing and you will probably get a long answer. On any given day, she may be counselling students, training teachers, planning curricula, conducting research or working on policy changes that could ultimately affect teachers and students throughout Hong Kong.
Never a dull moment
As an EP at the Society of Boys' Centres, Ms Chan is responsible for their three schools for boys with emotional and behavioural difficulties. She divides her time between several roles - assessor, therapist, advisor, teacher-trainer, project manager and researcher - and regularly interacts with students, teachers, parents, schools, organisations and even government officials.
Her responsibilities are constantly evolving, she explains, according to the diverse and changing needs of her students and the environments in which she serves them. In addition to making a difference to individuals - by providing counselling and intervention for students and advising teachers and parents - she operates on a larger scale through curriculum-planning and policy-related work.
"A high level of commitment and professional standards are essential"
This variety is precisely what first attracted Ms Chan to educational psychology. Although she had taught at the Hong Kong School for the Deaf, she decided to make a career change as teaching was too routine for her liking.
An EP's academic requirements are admittedly rigorous. To be categorised an EPII, candidates must earn a Bachelor's degree in psychology, followed by a Master's degree in educational psychology in a professional training programme. To qualify as an EPI, as Ms Chan has, a candidate must also hold a post-graduate diploma in teacher-training and have six years' work experience, with a minimum of three years in the field.
Furthermore, Ms Chan explains, the continual emergence of research findings and changing social conditions dictates that EPs constantly educate themselves about developments in their field. "A high level of commitment and professional standards are essential," she adds.
Since they deal with a wide range of professionals, from social workers to administrative staff, EPs must have a high level of maturity. They must also be self-motivated and independent workers, since they are often solely responsible for determining the course of counselling, intervention or project planning. Finally, they should have compassion and a love for children and be good mentors to trainees entering the profession.
Educational psychology is, in fact, a fairly young profession in Hong Kong; the first locally-trained EPs entered the profession as recently as 1982. However, although 20 to 30 EPs work at universities and in private practices, in addition to the 67 in Hong Kong's state-run schools, their numbers remain strikingly low.
Yet, according to Ms Chan, the field is growing and demand for good EPs is on the rise. She cites the Hong Kong educational system's recent trend towards inclusive education - integrating special needs students into the mainstream public school system - as an example of the increased demand for skilled EPs. Since teachers in mainstream schools are rarely trained to deal with the diverse needs of special needs students, it is the role of the EP to train staff, provide school-based educational psychology services and participate in curriculum design to better accommodate them.
A recent pilot scheme for educational psychology services, for instance, recommends a much higher ratio of EPs to primary schools. In fact, Ms Chan's biggest concern with respect to her profession is that the number of EPs entering the field will not satisfy the educational system's growing demand.
Ms Chan also sees the potential for expansion in her own career. When asked what challenge she will take on next, she quickly responds that she is still in the process of "accumulating expertise in her profession".
"I need to practice in the front lines for several more years," she says, adding that she may consider other options later, including private practice, working as a school consultant or teaching in tertiary education. But, for now, the ever-changing needs of her students and their social environments provide her with ample challenges and rewards.
If educational psychology is fairly recent in Hong Kong, it is even more so in China. While Hong Kong EPs have yet to forge career paths in China, Ms Chan is certain that, once links are firmly established, the opportunity to work in China will be immense. On visits to schools in China, she has observed a growing need for EPs due to the huge population, the emotional problems faced by many children there and the high expectations placed on students. Since training in psychology and counselling on the mainland is minimal, demand is high for well-trained professionals in these fields.