Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: The Evolution of Family Therapy in Schools



Since we began to achieve licensure in the US over 30 years ago, the profession of marriage and family therapy has grown in several areas. Five years ago, AAMFT created several topical interest groups to stimulate and track the growth of marriage and family practice in traditional mental health as well as new domains. This article traces the growth of MFT professional practice in schools, as witnessed by the first three chairpersons of the MFTs in Schools Topical Interest Network.

Following the growth of MFT licensure across the US in the 1990s, the Connecticut Association for Marriage and Family Therapy began to pursue new areas of practice for marriage and family therapists. School-based practice in Connecticut requires state certification by the Department of Education, as well as licensure in mental health. As CTAMFT Chair in private practice and clinical professor at Central Connecticut State University, Laundy worked with Dr. Ralph Cohen, Department Chair and more than 40 students and faculty over the next three years to achieve school certification for MFTs in 2008 (Laundy, 2015a). They developed a training track at CCSU which involved offering three additional school-based courses to train MFTs for school certification. Connecticut was the first state in the US to achieve that certification. They used the text Building School-Based Collaborative Mental Health Teams: A Systems Approach to Student Achievement (Laundy, 2015b) as a resource to orient and prepare MFT students for school-based practice.

The Family Therapy in Schools TIN was fortunate to develop relationships with several national multidisciplinary mental health and school colleagues who are doing innovative systemic work in schools.

When AAMFT created the Topical Interest Networks in 2018, Laundy was asked to be the first Chair of its Family Therapy in Schools TIN. During the next three years, their team of national MFT leaders, including Erin Cushing, Eileen Klima, Wade Fuqua, Mike Rankin, and Laura Wallace, created several school-based programs and events for members who joined the Family Therapy in Schools TIN. Included were a discussion forum on AAMFT’s website, a monthly newsletter, and bimonthly telehealth interviews with leaders doing systemic school-based work across the US and Canada. During that time, they learned that school-based practice for MFTs is growing in three important ways. First, some states such as Connecticut require school certification as well as MFT licensure. Second, MFTs form private practice partnerships with schools across many states. Third, MFTs in social service agencies also develop contracts among their agencies and schools that involve placing MFT students, interns, and postgraduate licensed clinicians in school systems to create needed services and programs. The Family Therapy in Schools TIN was fortunate to develop relationships with several national multidisciplinary mental health and school colleagues who are doing innovative systemic work in schools. The TIN grew to over 350 members during its first three years.


The Coronavirus pandemic and events of nationwide social unrest struck while the Family Therapy in Schools TIN was still in its infancy. Despite these and other challenges, the TIN team created several opportunities for growth and progress. Although we had launched online workshops and networking events for our members before the pandemic hit, the TIN managed to grow these online forums for learning and connection throughout the pandemic experience. Using online platforms, members continued to share resources and connect around mutual needs, stressors, and opportunities for growth. Based on member feedback, the focus and content of scheduled webinars expanded as Erin Cushing, private practitioner and Southern Connecticut State University faculty member, assumed TIN leadership. Under Erin’s direction, the team addressed broader issues of clinical burnout, telehealth service delivery, racism and inequity, and cultural bias as they impact school systems, students, families, educators, and mental health providers.

A few examples of these workshops include 2021 presentations at the Oxford Symposium for School Based Family Counseling and at the AAMFT Systemic Family Therapy Conferences, which examined clinician burnout and student/teacher distress related to remote learning. The presentations traced emerging opportunities for systemic mental health work in school systems related to these pandemic stressors. Another was a fall 2022 workshop led by Dr. Ashley Hicks from Ohio State University, titled “The Role of Systemic Therapists in Addressing Anti-Black Racism in Schools.”  That program garnered the highest number of registered attendees to date. Its most recent spring workshop featured Kim Welk, LMFT from Wisconsin, entitled “School Mental Health in the Digital Age.” That workshop is also being presented at the Oxford Symposium this summer. Welk spoke to the critical need for mental health services in schools and creative avenues she developed through telehealth services to meet these needs systemically.

Using such online workshops and networking efforts, the TIN membership has continued to grow throughout the pandemic. To build further membership interests and needs, the leadership team added student, associate, and social media positions to our board over the past year. We continue to identify opportunities for learning, networking, and advocating for school-based family therapy work, and our membership has grown to over 450 members strong.


Dr. Anne Rambo is the Family Therapy in Schools’ current Chair elect, and she is poised to continue growing the Family Therapy in Schools TIN. Her focus is on the importance of access to mental health services, amidst ongoing school stressors such as school violence and political turmoil that are affecting schools. She notes that thanks to leadership from the TIN team and to the flexibility of school-based therapists nationwide, school-based family therapy has not only survived the pandemic but thrived. She remembers 10 years ago when she cautioned recent graduates of the Nova Couple and Family Therapy Program where she teaches that it would be difficult to find school-based employment.

Now, a recent informal survey of our Family Therapists in Schools Facebook group reveals MFTs, both associate and licensed, working in schools (either as direct hire or through a contract) in Alaska. Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Washington State, and Wisconsin, as well as on Tribal lands and in schools located on or near military bases through contracts with military service provider agencies. The outstanding work of family therapists working with school-aged children and their parents, and the growing acceptance of MFTs nationwide, both play a role in this growth. She notes that “we are not everywhere yet, but we have made considerable progress.”

With that progress comes great optimism, but also a caution: It will be challenging to hold on to our unique systemic perspective as we begin to be “inside” school systems to a greater and greater extent. The challenge will be to appreciate and utilize the complexity of systemic thinking as we work to address the varied needs of children, families, teachers, and administrators in educational settings.

We would also be remiss not to point out a more somber reason for the increasing presence of MFTs in schools—tragic need. States rocked by horrific school shootings have in some cases responded by greatly increasing the funding for family therapists in schools; Connecticut, Florida, and Texas are examples. The epidemic of school shootings in this country, unrivaled by any other country, and the sobering realization that most school shooters obtain their weapons from their parents’ homes (Laundy et al., 2022), both point to a need for increased communication between home and school.

Public education is often considered the cornerstone of our democracy.

There is political turmoil that currently challenges schools. For example, the recent legislation passed in Florida allows parents to sue their child’s school if discussions of sexual orientation and gender take place with which the parent disagrees. This reflects the often-considerable tension between school districts and parents. In Florida, some parents have sued because they feel such discussions took place without their consent. Others are currently suing because they feel such discussions should take place more often. There are bans against teaching critical race theory in several states and a simultaneous federal lawsuit taking aim at the bans. Public education is often considered the cornerstone of our democracy. Now, more than ever, constructive links between families and schools are needed to help it survive and thrive. Below are a few examples of current events in schools:

Judge dismisses lawsuit against Leon Schools that helped inspire ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill

Florida parents, teachers refile lawsuit over ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law

Federal Lawsuit Poses First Challenge to Ban on Teaching Critical Race Theory

Education is the cornerstone of democracy

The ability of family therapists to facilitate communication and increase understanding among families and schools is becoming increasingly important. Please join us at the AAMFT Family Therapists in Schools Topical Interest Network and help us build a larger, more effective systemic presence in schools!

Kathleen Laundy, PsyD, LMFT, is an AAMFT Professional Member holding the Clinical Fellow and Approved Supervisor designations.

Erin Cushing, LMFT, is an AAMFT Professional Member holding the Clinical Fellow and Approved Supervisor designations.

Anne Rambo, PhD, LMFT, is an AAMFT Professional Member holding the Clinical Fellow designation.

Laundy, K. C.  (2015a, January/February). Family therapy in schools. Family Therapy Magazine, 14(1), 52-57.

Laundy, K. C. (2015b). Building school-based collaborative mental health teams: A systems approach to student achievement. TPI Press. The Practice Institute, Camp Hill, NJ.

Laundy, K., Rambo, A., & Alfaro, Alexandra. (2022, July/August). School shootings: A family therapy approach. Family Therapy Magazine 21(4). Retrieved from https://ftm.aamft.org/school-shootings-and-family-therapy-where-do-we-go-from-here/

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