Teaching Psychology in High School

Hardly a week goes by without some newspaper or broadcast declaring some new scientific finding. But while the news media does an excellent job of creating interesting headlines, it often does a terrible job of reporting the details—such as pointing out the fact that the findings of a psychologist’s study are fundamentally different from those of a chemist’s experiment.

Unfortunately, most Americans—and the vast majority of high school students—don’t know the difference between the “hard” (as in “using scientific method,” not as in “difficult”) sciences and the “softer” social sciences (including psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics, and communication studies).

But they’re both still science, right? Well, yes… and no. But how are they to learn the difference?

Is teaching psychology in high school for me?

Students can learn the difference between the hard and social sciences—and so much more besides—in the more than 5,000 high schools across America that offer some course in psychology. Psychology is usually offered either as a semester-long introductory course, or as a year-long Advanced Placement (AP) course for college credit.

Teachers of psychology face several challenges. First, the field uses a lot of specific terminology, so teachers need to spend a lot of time on vocabulary. Second, much of that new vocabulary is for categories that students have never used; psychology teachers have to scaffold entirely new concepts and ways of thinking about things. Third, they may have to dispell a lot of false information from “pop” psychology sources. Finally, they have a huge amount of content to introduce.

Fortunately, many resources are available. The American Psychology Association provides many resources for teachers, including many specifically designed for Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schools (TOPSS).

Since Introduction to Psychology and AP Psychology classes are electives in high school, psychology teachers usually enjoy highly motivated, college-bound students. However, since only one class in psychology is typically offered at any school, teachers of psychology also must teach other subjects. Depending upon the nature of the psychology teacher’s credentials and/or graduate degree, these could be either other social studies classes or hard science classes (which requires a separate credential). In either case, it means that teachers who choose to teach psychology in high school must have backgrounds that extend beyond just the one subject.

The National Standards for High School Psychology Curricula, put out by the American Psychology Association, identifies seven domains of instruction in the high school classroom:

Identity vs. Role Confusion

One of the psychosocial stages of development described by psychologist Erik Erikson, the “Identity vs. Role Confusion” stage typifies the high school years. This is the time when adolescents from around ages 12 to 18 form much of their identity as it relates to their social environment.

Success leads to the ability to stay true to yourself in the face of social pressures; while failure results in a weak sense of self, and confusion about one’s place and value in any group.

Scientific Inquiry

Teachers instruct students about the goals of psychology, and describe its development as a science. They explain the differences between the social sciences and the hard sciences, teaching students the social scientific method, as well as explaining the differences between quantitative and qualitative research methods. Teachers also explain how psychologists frame studies and experiments, and what kind of data they are able to procure. They instruct students in how to analyze data, and how to identify questionable or inconclusive results.


This domain covers the biological component of psychology. Students learn about both the nervous system and endocrine system. They begin to understand how hormones and nervous responses affect mental states. Students also begin to understand the processes of sensation and perception, examining the various senses that humans and animals possess. Next, teachers help students examine states of consciousness, introduce students to theories about the function of sleep, and discuss states of altered consciousness (such as meditation, hypnosis, and hallucination). Finally, teachers and students examine the effects of drugs on consciousness, and societal views about drug use.

Development and Learning

Teachers introduce students to theories of lifespan development, covering cognitive, moral, and social developmental theories. Students learn about the major issues in infancy, childhood, adolescence (and learn that adolescence itself is a recent cultural development, not a biological reality), and adulthood. They review the types of social, cognitive, and emotional issues that come with aging, and may also discuss how people approach death. Additionally, teachers present more in-depth information on the learning process, with specific emphasis on language development.

Sociocultural Context

Major Schools of Thought in Psychology

  • Psychoanalytical
  • Behaviorist
  • Humanist
  • Gestalt
  • Existentialist
  • Cognitive

Teachers also help students consider how their social environment affects how they think. They begin by examining the relationship between attitudes and behavior, and look at how persuasive techniques influence behavior. They continue by discussing how the presence of other people affects individuals’ behavior, and look at how group dynamics influence personal behavior (and vice versa). Students discuss pro-social and antisocial behavior, and learn about theories of attraction. Teachers also lead students to examine the nature and effects of stereotyping and prejudice, and explore concepts of cultural diversity. Finally, students learn about research regarding race, gender, socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation; and how these factors relate to personal identity.


In this domain, teachers introduce students to concepts and theories regarding memory, thinking, and intelligence. When considering memory, students will learn about the different types of memory, memory disorders, and how to improve memory. They will learn about retrieval cues for memory, and also learn how memory is malleable. In discussing thinking, students will learn about the cognitive processes involved in understanding information, how information is organized in thought, and how it is employed in problem solving. Finally, the examination of intelligence will review different definitions of intelligence and how they’re measured, as well as discuss the influences of biology and culture on intelligence.

Individual Variation

Teaching about individual variation involves discussing the huge differences among people in motivation, emotion, and personality. Students will be introduced to different theories regarding motivation from biological, cognitive, and humanistic perspectives; and examine a few specific areas of human motivations in behavior, including eating, achievement, and sexual orientation. Regarding emotion, students will learn about different perspectives as well as about biological and cultural influences upon emotion. Students will also learn about different theories of personality, and explore the issues of stability and change, individualism and collectivism, and self-concept. Finally, students will be introduced to the concept of psychological disorder—its classification, challenges regarding its diagnosis, and how it functions as a social concept.

Psychology Report Card

As students learn what psychology is (and isn’t), they might wish to know: How does the field measure up against its own goals?

Describe BehaviorA
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) lists in detail all sorts of mental behavior and “illness.”
Explain BehaviorC
Several different schools of psychological theory offer different and competing explanations for human behavior.
Predict BehaviorC
The best psychology can provide are studies showing correlation, not cause-and-effect.
Control Behavior?
This one is entirely uncertain. With so much disagreement over the “why” of behavior, counseling is difficult; yet many people report some experience of improved behavior and continue to spend great deals of money on psychologists.

Applications of Psychology

Here teachers present the concept of mental health, and how stress is a psychophysiological reaction. Students learn various coping strategies, and about other behaviors and attitudes that promote good health. Students also learn about the treatment of mental illness; and about career options for psychologists.

What’s the job market like?

While the current job growth rate for high school teachers is seven percent nationally (slower than the average for all occupations), this number varies between regions. Rural and urban regions are expected to experience more growth than suburban regions; school districts in the South and West are expected to have more growth due to greater student enrollment; while districts in the Northeast are expecting declines in student enrollment.

Currently, 5,000 high schools offer students a class in psychology, and those that do generally only offer one section (although larger schools may have multiple sections if demand is great enough). Teachers of psychology generally teach other social-studies subjects as well—typically history, government, and/or economics.

Sometimes schools do not offer psychology simply because they do not have a teacher willing and expert enough to offer it. Social-studies teachers working at such schools can offer to teach it as part of their job negotiation.

Does it pay well?

Salaries for teaching high school vary from state to state, depending upon state budgeting and degree of federal funding; the median salary nationwide is $53,230, well above the national median average for all jobs ($33,840). On top of that, public school teachers tend to have substantial benefits packages. Additionally, teachers get about two months of the year off from work (during the summer for traditional schedules, but year-round schools still provide the same total amount of time off). Many schools give teachers the option of being paid either on a 10-month or a 12-month schedule.

At schools on a traditional schedule, many teachers get additional paid work by teaching summer school. Another way for teachers to increase their pay is to coach or advise an extracurricular activity, for which they receive a stipend.

Salaries at public schools are often dictated by union rules: pay increases with number of years teaching, and with educational degree. Tenure is available for most teachers after only a few years.

How do I get started?

In order to teach psychology at a public school, you’ll need to obtain the certification or credential required by your state. Requirements vary from state to state; but a public school in one state will accept a teaching credential from another state. Many states, instead of having a certification specific to psychology, will have a social studies certification which includes psychology. You can view your state’s requirements on the teaching certification website.

In college, you might major in psychology and minor in history, then pursue a master’s degree in education; or you might major in history and minor in psychology, then enroll in either a master’s degree or high school teaching credential program. Alternatively, if you have been studying psychology only, you might pursue a master’s degree and seek work as a school psychologist instead of as a teacher, and teach a psychology class in addition to your duties as a school psychologist.

Psychology is an advanced high school course—hence the AP test for college credit—requiring exceptional teachers for it be taught effectively. Yet it is also an extraordinarily rewarding course, both for teachers and students; even students who aren’t interested in pursuing a career in the social sciences will benefit from a greater understanding of their own mental states and thought processes. The psychology teacher gives students greater insight into their own minds, and into the minds of others; and so gives them a great advantage facing future mental and social stresses. Thus psychology classes in high school not only prepare students for success in college, but also prepare them for success throughout life.

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