By Lida Sunderland, MA, LGPAT, LGPC | April 19, 2018 | Advocacy | Children | Education | #WeAreArtTherapists


April 16-20, 2018 is Specialized Instructional Support Personnel (SISP) Appreciation Week!  Check out the Congressional Resolution (H. Res. 823) introduced on April 12th to honor art therapists and other SISP colleagues during this special week.  I want to take this opportunity to share some information on art therapists in schools and how we work with our SISP colleagues to foster safe and supportive learning environments for students.

I am an art therapist and art educator in Washington, D.C. and serve as AATA’s Elementary and Secondary Education Policy (ESEP) Advisor.  I help monitor changes in national educational policy and advise on how these changes can affect the AATA and its members.  I spent several years working in public schools, first as an art therapy intern and later as an art therapy contractor. Currently, I work as an art therapist at The Center for Family Well-Being, working with school-aged children and adolescents.

What SISPs are and why it’s important for school-based art therapists to identify as SISPs


SISP stands for Specialized Instructional Support Personnel, and SISP professionals provide and support school-based prevention and intervention services to reduce barriers to learning and promote educational success. SISPs collaborate with teachers, administrators, and parents to ensure positive conditions for learning. They help all students achieve academically, with the ultimate goal of guiding students towards becoming productive citizens.  SISPs include: school counselors, school social workers, school psychologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech-language pathologists and audiologists, school nurses, dance therapists, music therapists, and—of course—school art therapists!

SISP isn’t just an acronym that’s a little difficult to say (we know); it’s a federal definition. The term SISP was introduced by President Obama in the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) that was originally enacted by President Johnson in 1965.  ESSA, like ESEA before it, is the law governing the main federal education programs for our nation’s K-12 students.  And SISPs don’t just get a shout out in the weeds of the text—by defining and citing SISPs many times over, ESSA establishes and protects their integral role in the education system.  For example, ESSA explicitly requires consultation with SISPs in the development of Title I state and local education plans, as well as Title IV plans and needs assessments.  You can review the multiple mentions of SISP in ESSA here.

In addition to ESSA, SISPs are vital stakeholders in other major education policy missions.  The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA); The Higher Education Act (HEA); and Medicaid in Schools and other student health initiatives are all important examples.  All students should have access to the services they need, and therefore all students should have access to SISPs.

Advocating for SISPs through the National Coalition for Specialized Support Instructional Personnel (NASISP)

American Art Therapy Association, NASISP

NASISP has 20 Member Organizations representing more than one million SISPs who serve our nation’s students.  AATA is an active Member Organization, and we send a representative to the NASISP monthly meetings (usually yours truly).  We also enthusiastically engage with NASISP and our fellow member organizations in between meetings, often by collaborating on advocacy statements and letters that go directly to congressional offices.  You can see a sampling of those letters (as well as those that we collaborate on with other coalitions) in the advocacy section of the AATA website.  And sometimes we knock on the doors of those offices, too—NASISP organizes Hill visits and puts us in front of our elected officials so we can hold them and their staff directly accountable to the rights enshrined in law for SISPs—and therefore, the rights of our students to be served with our professional support and expertise.  For more on the NASISP mission and its activities, as well as to learn more about the issues and policies they work on, visit their website.

While AATA and other NASISP member organizations advocate for meaningful legislation in Washington, it’s vital to keep in mind that ESSA and others are federal laws that need to be implemented at the state level. So there is a lot of work to be done nationwide.  AATA Chapters can advocate for implementation fidelity. NASISP has assembled a toolkit to assist you in this endeavor. Check out a recent letter from the AATA to the New York City Department of Education supporting the inclusion of art therapy services in the NY ESSA Plan.

The day-in-the-life of a school art therapist


Well, as they’ll readily tell you, there is no such thing as a typical day for a school art therapist. Moreover, not all art therapists arrive in schools via the same path—you may know an art therapist who also functions as an art teacher, for example, or as a special education instructor. Or, maybe they are stationed at a school through a local health services agency.  Increasingly, however, school art therapists are part of established, district-wide art therapy programs that offer direct services to students through referral systems.  School art therapists may provide what are termed either “push-in” or “pull-out” services; the former sees art therapists supporting students and teachers directly in the classroom setting, whereas the latter involves picking up individuals or small groups of students from their regularly scheduled activities for therapy sessions during the school day.  Some school art therapists are anchored in single schools, while others migrate between multiple campuses in a cluster, or their school district at large.  In addition to direct services, school art therapists contribute to their school environment through mounting art therapy exhibitions, providing professional development presentations and trainings for teachers and school staff, and hosting events that promote parent and community engagement.  The AATA offers members-only resources to guide implementation of art therapy programs in schools as part of a K-12 curriculum, as well as a service for youth affected by traumatic events.

How collaboration among SISPs benefits students


We all know how powerful art therapists can be on their own.  But when school art therapists work with other SISPs, they not only support the work of their colleagues, but they also increase the effectiveness of their own art therapy interventions.  SISP collaboration can take on many forms.  Different providers, for example, can be in direct communication to streamline, track, and update treatment goals.  They can also co-lead group interventions and integrate services. SISPs also work together on advisory committees to strategize school-wide about how to best address student needs.  SISPs, teachers, and administrators employ multi-tier approaches to the early identification of students with learning, social, emotional, or behavioral challenges.  By having a diversity of expertise on such committees, we can take the broadest view of our students and their potential needs.

How SISPs contribute to the redoubled efforts to foster safe environments for our students following recent events in Parkland and across the country


By being principally in the service of promoting the welfare of students, SISPs are inherently committed to doing everything possible to create environments that are safe, supportive, and conducive to learning.  Through screening measures, assessment, and treatment protocols, SISPs are actively engaged in preventative interventions that conform to best practices.  SISPs work on a wide range of issues related to school and student safety such as school-wide approaches to violence prevention, positive behavior interventions, crisis abatement, suicide prevention, and anti-bullying measures that support non-discrimination.  When tragedy does strike, SISPs are on the front lines of crisis management, evaluation and treatment for PTSD, bereavement support, and postvention services.

At the macro level, individual SISP member organizations advocate for permanent change. The AATA has taken a strong stance in this conversation, and, joined by many SISP colleagues, has signed on to significant public statements that clearly articulate our stances on gun violence prevention.

Showing your appreciation


There are many ways to celebrate SISP Appreciation week.  Share your appreciation or story using #SISPinSchools.  If you are a SISP yourself, share your story of SISP Team Collaboration by filling out NASISP’s online form.  And don’t forget to hug a SISP or two this week!