- The Washington Times - Friday, March 4, 2022

The American Psychological Association has revised its standards for high school psychology curricula for the first time in 11 years, citing a need to make classroom lessons more scientific and focused on diversity.

The 2022 revision to the National Standards for High School Psychology Curricula by the largest professional organization of psychologists in the U.S. says “psychology should be taught as a science” and adds a concern for cultural diversity. The change follows updates in 2005 and 2011. 

Tina Athanasopoulos, chair of the association’s National Standards for High School Psychology Curricula Working Group that revised the standards, said the concerns for science and diversity were not mutually exclusive.



“Psychological science helps us to understand that both general principles and individual differences influence human behavior,” Ms. Athanasopoulos said. “Increasing the diversity of the psychologists who conduct research, as well as the diversity of the people they study, will help us to better understand the scope of human behavior and leverage our ability to address racism, the mental health crisis and health inequities.”

The group said that the revisions, approved Feb. 25, are based partly on recommendations developed at the group’s Summit on High School Psychology Education held in 2017 in Utah.

While the standards are not mandatory, many state departments of education adapt them.

Psychologist Thomas Plante, a member of the association’s Council of Representatives, said the guidelines will keep U.S. high school textbooks free of the fake science that teenagers increasingly find on social media.

High school teachers who are asked to teach psychology classes are generally not psychologists and are often social science teachers,” Mr. Plante said. “Guidelines that are scientifically based are especially important since psychology and human behavior can too often lean on pop psychology and pseudoscience among the general population.”

Citing newer research, the revised guidelines exclude once-popular theories such as the five stages of grief of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.

They also take account of social media influences, political divisions and mental health problems associated with COVID-19.

Mr. Plante, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University, said the guidelines could help teens from different cultural backgrounds escape a “mental health tsunami” of anxiety, depression, suicide and substance abuse.

“Finally, equity, diversity and inclusion issues have been increasingly important to acknowledge, understand and integrate into psychology classes, too,” Mr. Plante said. “We live in an increasingly diverse world and our high school psychology classes need to adjust and accommodate to this important reality.”

The association said Thursday that the revisions revolve around the following themes: scientific testing and adaptation of psychological theories; a focus on general behavior principles with respect for individual differences; the influence of cultural and other factors on mental habits; the way perception and bias filter people’s experiences of the world; ethical principles; diversity; and the positive change psychology can make for people and groups.

“Psychology values diversity, promotes equity and fosters inclusion in pursuit of a more just society,” the association said.

But Kathy Koch, an educational psychologist and faculty member at the evangelical Summit Ministries in Colorado, questioned the group’s assumption that psychology changes “because the culture changes.”

Concern for diversity could dilute the association’s claim that the new guidelines are more scientific, she added.

“One of the foundational challenges we always face is to not let personal biases impact the way we view empirical evidence, causing us to look for, and find, the answers we want to see,” Ms. Koch said. “Unfortunately, personal biases are given prominence today, but it is dangerous to let those personal views change the way psychology is viewed.”

Jonathan Butcher, a senior education policy fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, echoed that concern.

“The APA is calling into question its commitment to empirical work by embracing a popular trend rooted in prejudice that focuses on racial differences rather than personal choices,” Mr. Butcher said. “When applied to schools, policies such as these inject racially discriminatory activities into classrooms — such as mandatory racial affinity groups dividing students according to race for school events and lessons on how people are supposedly guilty of oppression based on the color of their skin.”

For that reason, Mr. Butcher said the new guidelines could run afoul of recent parental rights legislation banning racially divisive concepts in many states.

“State leaders should reject these ideas and protect teachers and students from racial prejudice with proposals that say no individual should be compelled to affirm any idea that violates federal civil rights laws,” Mr. Butcher said.

Some mental health professionals said they welcomed the changes.

Therapist Jaclyn Halpern, who directs a behavioral services program for autistic children at Washington Behavioral Medicine Associates in Chevy Chase, Maryland, said she was “thrilled.”

“Providing evidence-based, ethical mental health support requires an understanding of, and sensitivity to, not only the expressed needs of the person seeking support, but also to the cultural and social factors impacting that individual,” Ms. Halpern said. “This is particularly true when supporting the needs of those from marginalized backgrounds who face collective and systematic trauma, particularly when those individuals struggle to access mental health support, or when their cultural or social background has created stigma around seeking such support.”

Laura Linn Knight, a parenting educator and author based in Arizona, said the new standards could help children, teens and adults struggling with “a dramatic increase in mental health diagnoses” during the pandemic.

“As the American Psychological Association has revised its high school psychology curriculum standards to focus on diversity and emphasizing that psychology is a science, I am encouraged to learn that more teenagers will have access to important information about the science of the mind,” Mrs. Knight said.

The new standards come on the heels of a law California passed in January requiring all school districts with health classes to include mental health in their curriculum by 2024.

• Sean Salai can be reached at ssalai@washingtontimes.com.

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