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‘Consultation’ Method Helps Teachers Address Students’ Psychological Needs

By Peter Schmidt & Peter Schmidt — December 13, 1989 4 min read

William C. Conzemius, principal of Stoner Prairie Elementary School in Wisconsin, says he has seen many fights between students during his two decades as an educator, and yet often did not understand why children came to blows.

Then a behavioral consultant sat down with teachers at the school in the Verona Area School District and explained to them that “fighting’’ entails much more than fisticuffs. They often can prevent fights, the consultant said, by learning to recognize the kinds of pushing, tripping, and horseplay that represent the early stages of conflict.

The link-up of psychologist and teachers took time out of the school day, but is paying off in a reduction of fighting and other classroom disruptions, Mr. Conzemius said.

The approach, known as “consultation” and pioneered more than a decade ago, is designed to enable teachers to cope with behavior problems that might otherwise require the intervention of a school psychologist.

This alternative method of providing psychological services appears to be helping difficult students remain in regular classrooms, experts in educational psychology say, and thus appeals to school administrators who are under pressure to reduce reliance on special education.

They say interest in the consultation method has surged during the last three years as a result of calls for more “pre-referral intervention"--the broad goal, promoted by the U.S. Education Department, of providing help to children before referring them to special services.

Researchers currently are studying the effectiveness of the Stoner Prairie program and similar models in other parts of the country.

The approach is being used or encouraged by several school districts, university educational-psychology programs, and the education departments of at least three states.

Douglas Fuchs, an associate professor of special education at Vanderbilt University who has been studying consultation programs in 30 Nashville-area public schools,4said teachers often view such consultation with psychologists as “an empowering act.”

“The process is very much in tune with the whole notion of restructuring,” he said.

Changing Roles

Two educational psychologists at the University of Wisconsin, Thomas R. Kratochwill and Stephen N. Elliott, have undertaken a five-year study of the consultation model in the Verona district, where it is being used at Stoner Prairie and one other school.

They are seeking to determine how teachers interact with consultants and children under the model, and how successful the teachers are at intervening when pupils have problems.

“Traditionally, much of the professional training of school psychologists has been focused on doing assessments determining whether children are eligible for special-education services,” Mr. Kratochwill said.

“We would like psychologists to adopt a role where they interact more with teachers and where teachers actually become involved” in assessing student behavior and intervening as needed, he added.

In the traditional school setting, Mr. Kratochwill said, psychologists spend most of their workday doing one-time assessments of students to determine if they should be removed from regular classrooms.

Under the Verona program, in contrast, teachers work with school psychologists to evaluate troublesome behavior on a continuing basis through observation, curriculum-based assessment, and other monitoring techniques.

The cooperation begins with a private session, lasting about two hours, between each teacher and a school psychologist. The two discuss specific behavior problems that have arisen in the teacher’s class, then select appropriate, well-researched strategies the teacher can use to resolve the difficulties.

The chief payoff, supporters say, is that teachers learn strategies they can continue using in the future. As new situations arise, they can turn to the psychologist for more advice.

While the model used in the 2,600-student Verona district stresses collaboration between teachers and psychologists, the program takes a more prescriptive form in the much larger Nashville district, Mr. Fuchs said. Psychologists in the 67,000-student district attempt to save time by giving teachers pre-established lists of intervention strategies for given problems.

Proposed in 1970’s

The consultation model was developed in the late 1970’s by John Bergan, a University of Arizona researcher. He wrote the 1977 book Behavorial Consultation and implemented the model in nearby schools.

The method was slow to catch on, however, largely because implementing it involves reshaping the role of psychologists and teachers and requires strong support from the administrators who must allot time for consultations.

“Until the system embraces it, it is really an uphill battle,” Mr. Elliott of the University of Wisconsin said.

In addition, financial incentives in the form of government aid may encourage districts to place children in special education rather than try an alternative approach, said Daniel J. Reschly, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University. He has advised his state’s education department on its efforts to adopt the consultation model statewide.

Iowa launched pilot programs in 15 districts in 1984 and now has such programs in 120 districts, about a third of those in the state. It plans to include about half of its districts next year, Mr. Reschly said.

He said follow-up studies found that consultation “significantly improved” pupils’ behavior in more than 70 percent of the cases studied.

North Carolina allows such consultation as an option under its requirement for pre-referral intervention, and California has for a decade encouraged districts to implement such programs. Consultation training also is included in the educational-psychology curriculum at the University of Cincinnati, the University of Texas, and other institutions.


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