School psychologists can—and should—do more to educate parents about vaccines

Carly Atchley, a first-year graduate student studying school psychology in the McKay School at BYU, is not afraid to tackle the ethical issues that come with her future job as a school psychologist. Neither was she afraid to take on one of the biggest headaches to both schools and parents alike: child vaccination.

In her article “Required Vaccines in School: What is Ethical and Necessary to Keep Students Safe?”, the first-year school psychology student looked at why parents in Utah choose not to vaccinate and what school psychologists can do—and ought to do—to respond ethically. Atchley’s article was recently published in The Observer, a monthly newsletter disseminated by the Utah Association of School Psychologists (UASP) to school psychologists in the state. 

To understand how Utah parents feel about vaccinations, Atchley didn’t have to look far: a group of BYU nursing professors published a study about the topic in 2012, and again in 2016. “It was cool that those two fields [nursing and school psychology] were coming together, and it happened to be at BYU.” 

Carley Atchley in the McKay School
Photo courtesy of McKay Creative

Based on her research, Atchley wrote that “a number of parents are abstaining from important vaccines for reasons that are not scientifically justified.” For example, parents fear that vaccines cause autism (the basis of which has been repeatedly disproven). In addition, Atchley found that parents also feared that vaccines would overload their children’s immune system or even cause them to get the disease the vaccine is supposed to protect against. 

For other parents in Utah, opting out of vaccines is a matter of convenience rather than fear: writing a quick note to the school is easier than scheduling a doctor’s appointment. For low-income parents, a visit to the doctor simply isn’t in the budget. 

According to Atchley, her most interesting find was about the two vaccines that parents in Utah most commonly refused to give their children—HPV and Hepatitis B. “In this religious community, parents are saying, ‘well, my child isn’t sexually active, so they don’t need vaccinations that relate to sexually transmitted diseases’,” said Atchley. “Even in religious communities, up to half of all teens are sexually active. But parents had these ideas of how their children were living their lives and made assumptions . . . as to why their children didn’t need to be vaccinated.” 

In a time when opinions are numberless and emotions are high, Atchley said that school psychologists have to balance being objective with taking a pro-children approach. “Our job is to make sure the children are priority, but we also have to respect other people’s opinions or personal beliefs even though they are different from our own,” said Atchley. 

But that doesn’t mean school psychologists should take a passive approach. After reviewing the ethical standards established by the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), Atchley wrote that “school psychologists have the right and obligation to advocate for changing policy to help students receive life-saving vaccinations.” 

Atchley said that one of the best ways school psychologists can do this is by collaborating with other school staff, particularly school nurses. School nurses are approachable and can educate parents about the benefits and the risks of vaccination. As she wrote in her article, school psychologists also need to be aware of what information about vaccines is available to parents. This is especially important in Utah, where child vaccinations are consistently lower than the national average.

Atchley hopes to work as a school psychologist in elementary schools and to continue to educate parents about vaccination. “In general, I just want to be really creative at my job and help parents find solutions to problems.” 

Writer: Anessa Pennington
Contact: Cynthia Glad 801-422-1922