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Peer collaboration: accommodating students with mild learning and behavior problems.

Peer Collaboration: Accommodating Students with Mild Learning and Behavior Problems

* Professionals in the field of special education have become increasingly interested in instructional and management strategies that classroom teachers can use to address the needs of students who are experiencing mild learning and behavior problems. A large part of this effort is directed at students who are not formally identified as handicapped but who are experiencing difficulties in school. Through a class of activities known as prereferral interventions, special education teachers are beginning to take a much more active role in assisting their general education colleagues in developing alternatives to accommodate students who are not progressing successfully.

The purpose of such prereferral activity appears to be twofold. First, it is a means of providing one-to-one staff development for classroom teachers to expand their repertoire of instructional and management approaches for individual students. Second, when prereferral interventions are successful, the potential for students to enter into the special education referral-to-placement system inappropriately is minimized. As a result, prereferral activity has the potential to address one of hte most long-standing frustrations among special educators, namely, that much of their work is directed toward attending to failures of general education (Dunn, 1968).

The two most common variations of prereferral intervention activity are special education consultation (Fuchs & Fuchs, 1988; Graden, Casey, & Christenson, 1985; Idol-Meastas, 1983) and informal teaming (Chalfant, Pysh, & Moultrie, 1979). In consultation, the special education teacher works directly with the classroom teacher in a one-to-one relationship to develop intervention plans for the specific problem of concern. Such plans often call for the use of data-based approaches; much recent training in special education consultation incorporates such approaches (Idol-Maestas, 1983). In teaming, informal groups of school personnel gather to assist classroom teachers in developing solutions to problems. Though the membership of such teams varies, common configuration includes a principal, special education teacher, school psychologist, and the referring classroom teacher (see, e.g., Mehan, Hertweck, & Meihls, 1986). Other configurations of teaming include skilled classroom teachers alone (Chalfant et al., 1979), but this appears in practice to be a less common interpretation.

In both of these general approaches to prereferral activity, then, informal assistance for students having mild learning or behavior prob is freuently mediated by members of the special education profession. It is often assumed that special educators are always needed to consult on such problems. to date, however, little attention has been focused on the degree to which classroom teachers themselves can develop and implement instructional and management interventions for problematic students--independent of the direct input of special educators. By assuming that all prereferral problems require the involvement, albeit informal, of spcial education, it becomes difficult to clarify the kinds of problems classroom teachers are, in fact, capable of solving independently. Without such clarification, the limited resources of special education may continue to be used in situations where classroom teachers may have the expertise to solve many problem themselves.

The purpose of this study was to examine the effectiveness of a structured dialogue--peer collaboration--in increasing the capabilities of classrooms teachers to accommodate the needs of students with mild learning or behavior problems within the regular classroom. Relying on strategies associated with the development of metacognitive thinking, classroom teachers work with thei peers in rethinkng classroom problems and placing them in the context of those vaiables over which they have control in the classroom. The use of specific strategies to guide the development of metacognitive thinking has been effective in a number of studiew with students, notably studies or reciprocal teaching to foster reading comprehension (Palincsar & Brown, 1984). The use of such strategies by teachers, however, ahs not been well studied--particularly in the context of research on classroom interventions.

Specifically, this study included the consideration of three strategies, self-questioning, summarization, and prediction, leading to the creation of a specific intervention and evaluation plan and embedded in the peer collaboration dialogue. Consistent with research on the acquisition of metacognitive skills, explicit strategies are practiced with guided feedback from a facilitating partner as a precursor to their internalization. Of particular interest in this study were (a) identifying the ways in which teachers initially described classroom problems, (b) examining how descriptions might change after teachers engaged in a reflective process of problem clarification through peer collaboration, and (c) examining how the process affected teacher tolerance for ranges of student performance.



Subjects for this study included an intervention group of 44 elementary school teachers and 4 middle school teachers; a comparison group included 43 elementary teachers. In the intervention group, 18 elementary teachers and the 4 middle school teachers came from a single district in southeastern Wisconsin; the remaining 2l elementary teachers came from five school districts in central Illinois. for the comparison group, 20 teachers came from the same Wisconsin district, and 23 teachers came from the five districts in Illinois. Table 1 contains a breakdown of demographic characteristics of subjects in the intervention and comparison groups.

Teachers volunteered to participate in the study as part of the comparison group or part of the intervention group after attending a brief presentation at their schools. These introductory presentations took place either before or after school. Teachers in the intervention group chose partners voluntarily, but were encouraged to choose a partner who taught in the same or near the same grade level. Classroom teachers were instructed to select a classroom teacher as a partner, and specialists were encouraged to select another specialist to preserve true peer relationships. In two pairs, however, the nature of the groups made pairing of participants with parallel responsibilities impossible; here, classroom teachers were paired with either a learning disability teacher or a reading specialist. The 48 teachers in the intervention group were divided into 21 pairs and two triads.


All teachers in the intervention group received training in peer collaboration and agreed to use the process following training to solve at least four problems per pair during the period from October 1986 to april 1987. For teacher pairs, participants initiated two problems each; for triads, each participant initiated one problem each, and the fourth problem was raised by any one of the triad's members. Participating classroom teachers were directed to choose students who were not formally identified as handicapped.

The Peer Collaboration Process

The purpose of peer collaboration is to assist classroom teachers in developing a clearer understanding of the problems they are encountering through a reflective consideration of the variables that may be contributing to the problematic situation.

Specifically, peer collaboration is a structured, four-step, collegial dialogue in which the initiating teacher focuses on the classroom problem and uses the process to expand his or her understanding of the problem, while the peer partner, or "facilitator," guides the first teacher and assures that the steps in the process are followed appropriately. A brief description of each of the steps in the process follows (see Pugach & Johnson, 1990, for more detailed description of the process).

Clarifying Questions. The first step in the process is the longest and provides the foundation for subsequent steps. The initiating teacher brings a brief written description of the problem in question to the session and generates and responds to questions aloud to clarify all aspects of the problem. This provides the opportunity for the initiating teacher to engage in an explicit, verbal rehearsal of questioning strategies. The facilitating teacher provides guidance by suggesting different or expanded areas for questioning using the format "Is there a question you might ask about--?" The peer partner raises various issues in an attempt to ensure that the intitiating teacher is dealing with the situation from a broad perspective. Question clarification continues until the initiating teacher has exhausted relevant issues and believes a summarization is appropriate.

Summary. The second step in the process includes three parts: a description of the pattern of student behavior, the teacher's response to or feelings about the situation, and the identification of variables over which the teacher has control. The summarization step allows the initiating teacher to consolidate information gathered in the previous step and begin to think about which variables might lend themselves best to an intervention. The facilitator again helpts to preserve the process by describing the requisite parts of the summary and assisting the partner in checking that all parts have been included and that bheavior patterns and classroom variables are consistent.

Interventions and Predictions. In the third step of the process, teachers generate at least three possible interventions, taking into account key variable delineated int he previous step. The initiating teacher then predicts potential outcomes for each one of the interventions that might be implemented. Creating predictions and stating them publicly provides an opportunity for the initiating teacher to reflect onthe potential hazards and benefits of implementing that intervention.

Evaluation. The final step in the process is the develoment of an evaluation plan. This plan is to be practical and include a method to monitor both the imlementation and the outcome of the intervention. The facilitator prompts his or her partner to ensure that the plan is practical and allows for the collection of both process and outcome data. At this point, a meeting is set for approximately 2 weeks following the collaboration process to examine the effectiveness of the intervention.

Peer Collaboration Training

Teachers in the intervetion group were trained in the process of peer collaboration in September and October of 1986. Training sessions took place in the schools, primarily after school hours. Two 4-hour (hr) sessions were conducted. In the first session, an overview of peer collaboration was presented, accompanied by a videotaped demonstration. Teachers were provided with guid booklets that contained descriptions of each of the four steps and activities designed to increase understanding of the purpose of each step. In the second session, each step was practiced in the large group.

In the second phase of the training, pairs worked through problems they were experiencing in their classroom, using peer collaboration. Trainers monitored the progress of each pair, guiding them through each step and using a minimum number of prompts when difficulties in implementation occurred. This phase of the training occurred in two 1-hr blocks during which one member of the pair served as facilitator and the other as initiator. If at the end of these sessions teachers were unable to use the process without making errors, additional sessions monitored by trainers were scheduled.

Data Sources

Three steps of data were collected from both intervention and comparison subjects before training. They included (a) a demographic questionnaire, (b) a description of students who were having problems in class that year, and (c) the Teachable Pupil Survey (Komblau, 1982), an instrument designed to identify teacher preference for 33 attributes of idealized teachable pupils in three categories: cognitive, social, and school-appropriate behavior dimensions. The cognitive dimension includes such descriptors as clear thinking, logical, intelligent, and insightful. The descriptors on the social dimension include calm, friendly, happy, well-accepted and liked by peers, and emotionally stable. Examples of descriptors on the school-appropriate dimension include such items as completes work on time, follows directions, and attentive to classroom directions. Each item was rated on a scale from 1 to 6, with a rating of 1 indicating the descriptor is not at all a desirable attribute of an idealized teachable pupil and a rating of 6 indicating the descriptor is almost always a desirable attribute of an idealized teachable student. Spearman-Brown adjustments to the Alpha split-half reliability coefficient were computed for the cognitive, social, and school-appropriate behavior dimensions; these values were .95, .92 and .93, respectively.

In addition to these data sources, all peer collaboration sessions were tape recorded and converted to transcripts. Using qualitative methods of content analysis, transcripts were studied to identify the kinds of problems teachers chose to solve using peer collaboration. The development of categories followed the use of the constant comparative approach suggested by Glaser and Strauss (1967). The following categories of problems were developed through the content analysis:

1. Off-task, distractible--inattentive, difficulty staying on task, distractible, out of seat.

2. Acting out, disruptive--loud, uncooperative, hostile, or frustrated overtly; seeks attention in negative ways; aggressive; talks out; disruptive and rude; overt refusal to cooperate.

3. Poor work completion--does not complete work in time allotted; does not finish assignments; does not organize time well to complete work. This category does not indicate refusal to work or distractibility, but rather an inability to complete the work.

4. Low general achievement--global problem in general work or in a major area such as reading; general low ability.

5. Specific skill deficit--teacher isolates and identifies one specific content area, skill area, or situation that appears to cause the difficulty.

6. Poor self-concept--attitude toward own inability to be successful is poor; not motivated or shows little evidence of caring about success; does not believe success is reachable.

7. Following directions--major problem involves inability to follow directions or to attend to directions. Distinguished from off-task behavior is an emphasis on direction following as source of difficulty.

8. Other--fits in no other categories or complexity of problem statement.

To determine the reliability of categories developed for problem descriptions, 25% of these were randomly selected and coded into categories by two raters independently. Percent agreement and the Kappa coefficient were computed for these ratings. These values were .94 and .93, respectively, which far exceed minimum standards for acceptable agreement (Johnson & Heal, 1987).

At the conclusion of the study, all subjects again completed the Teachable Pupil Survey. Intervention subjects completed summary forms for each problem, whcih they worked through using peer collaboration, noting the end-of-year status of the problem. Intervention subjects also participated in one final, large-group debriefing session at their home schools; these sessions were tape recorded and converted to transcripts for subsequent analysis.


Three split-plot factorial analyses of variance (ANOVAs) (Kirk, 1982) were conducted to analyze scores obtained on the cognitive, social, and school-appropriate behavior domains of the Teachable Pupil Survey. These ANOVAs had one between- and one within-group factor. The between-group factor had two levels that represented group membership in the intervention or comparison group, and the within-group factor had two levels that represented preadministration and postadministration of the instrument. Table 2 contains the means and standard deviations of teacher scores on three dimensions of the Teachable Pupil Survey. Table 3 contains a summary of the ANOVA results.

As Table 2 illustrates, teachers in the intervention group had lowered mean scores for the cognitive and social abilities of their students following the intervention, reflecting greater tolerance for the range of behavior under consideration, whereas expectations for teachers in the comparison group slightly increased on these dimensions. Both intervention and comparison group teachers had slight decreases in their expectations of what constitute school-appropriate behaviors. Table 3 shows that the shifts in expectations of teachers in the intervention group on the cognitive dimension were significant at the .05 level. Shifts in expectations of teachers on the social dimension were not statistically significant, but approached significance and had probability of occurring of less than .08. Examination of the simple main effects (Kirk, 1982) of the scores on the cognitive dimension revealed that scores were not statistically significant on the pretest but were statistically significant on the posttest, F = 4.18; df = 1,89; p [is less than] .05.

A total of 70 usable problems were completed during this study. Table 4 displays the comparison of initial problem descriptions with problem summaries developed subsequent to the first, clarifying-questions, step in the peer collaboration process. Of the 70 problems described initially, the summaries of 64 of those problems, or 91%, shifted to new categories following this step. There were no initial problem descriptions in the category of absence of appropriate structure in the classroom (a teacher-based rather than student-based problem), but 18 problems were so categorized after the clarifying-question step of the process.

Finally, in reporting on the status of interventions, 43% of participants reported problems as being much improved, 43% of participants reported improvement, and 14% of participants reported no improvement. Only 6 students, or approximately 7% of the problem teachers cited, ended in referral. Of these referrals, two were for general testing, two were for suspected learning disabilities, one for suspected attention-deficit disorder, and one for gifted and talented.


Examination of scores from the Teachable Pupil Survey revealed shifts in teacher expectations regarding the cognitive abilities of idealized students for teachers in both intervention and cmparison groups. Expectations of the intervention group became less restrictive and more tolerant, while expectations for teachers in the comparison group became more restrictive and less tolerant. This shift suggests that teachers in the intervention group showed greater tolerance for students of lesser cognitive ability following intervention. Although not significant, a similar relationship that approached statistical significance existed for teacher expectations regarding social abilities, p < .08. Though teachers' expectations regarding student abilities shifted significantly, as measured by the cognitive dimension, their expectations regarding compliance with basic classroom routines, as measured by the school-appropriate behavior dimension of the survey, remained consistent between the two groups. It appears that the peer collaboration process had an impact on teacher perceptions of student characteristics needed to be successful in their classrooms, but the process did not affect their expectations regarding student compliance with classroom routines. Increasing teacher tolerance for student abilities that deviate from the norm is an important consideration in helping accommodate the needs of students with mild learning and behavior problems.

The comparison of initial problem descriptions with those contained in problem summaries as indicated in Table 4 is also quite interesting. Teachers became more specific in their understandings of the problems they encountered and shifted to discussing them in a manner that made problems potentially more solvable. The fact that 91% of the problems were seen as fundamentally different following problem clarification indicates that with structured dialogue, teachers construct alternative views of problems before developing interventions. In 18 cases, teachers shifted the problem from the child and identified a lack of appropriate structure within the classroom as the problem. Thus, when interventions were generated, they reflected an understanding of the problem that went beyond a teacher's initial interpretation of the situation. These data support the contention that teachers need time to reflect on their concerns in a structured way before codifying the nature of the difficulties for which interventions might be needed and before seeing them as a rationale either for formal referral consideration or for informal problem solving. Without such a period of reflection, classroom difficulties may easily be characterized inaccurately or incompletely (Pugach & Johnson, 1990). If problems are inaccurately or incompletely defined, developing and implementing interventions is counterproductive and is likely to contribute to the frustration teachers may be experiencing with their most challenging students.

These data also indicate that classroom teachers were able to generate a variety of interventions to address the needs of students' classroom difficulties. Although caution must be exerted in determining the effectiveness of these strategies, teachers reported that over 86% of the strategies were successful. Even though this represents self-report data on the part of the teacher, only 5 of these 70 students were referred for consideration in remedial special education and 1 was referred for consideration in the gifted program. This represented approximately 7% of a population of students that were purposefully selected because they were experiencing learning and behavior problems and were having difficulty being successful in the classroom. Taken as a whole, these data suggest that classroom teachers were able to generate interventions that resulted in a successful accommodation of students with mild learning and behavior problems.

If classroom teachers are to tap the expertise that allowed them to deal with problematic situations, the teachers need both time and a structure within which to think strategically. Teachers not only need time to reflect on the nuances of the problem and reconstruct them in a way that leads to action, but also need ways to identify classroom variables they can control, as well as the experience of solving problems successfully. If we are to take the next step forward in accommodating a greater student diversity within the general classroom, we must attend to the capabilities of classroom teachers as sources of effective intervention. The use of strategic thinking processes enables classroom teachers to draw on the expertise they already possess and use it constructively. The use of these processes may also break the cycle of dependence on special education.

Data from this investigation represent an initial step in examining the effectiveness of the peer collaboration process to help teachers accommodate the needs of students with various learning and behavior problems. This study indicates that the process helped teachers reconceptualize students' problems, increase their tolerance for students of lesser cognitive ability, and develop interventions that teachers believed addressed the majority of student problems. Additional studies are planned to expand our understanding of the process. In addition to replicating this investigation, we plan to examine the impact of the process on referrals made to special education, teacher confidence in addressing learning and behavior problems effectively, the affective orientation of teachers toward students experiencing learning and behavior problems, and how teachers implement strategies developed and the effectiveness of these strategies. Although these data suggest that the peer collaboration process has potential as a means of helping teachers accommodate the needs of a diverse student population, further investigation is needed before a more complete understanding of its potential can be realized.


Chalfant, J. C., Pysh, M. V., & Moultrie, R. (1979). Teacher assistance teams: A model for within-building problem solving. Learning Disability Quarterly, 2, 85-96.

Dunn, L. (1968). Special education for the mildly retarded--Is much of it justifiable? Exceptional Children, 35, 5-22.

Fuchs, D., & Fuchs, L. (1988). Mainstream assistance teams to accommodate difficult-to-teach students in general education. In J. L. Graden, J. E. Zins, & M. J. Curtis (Eds.), Alternative educational delivery systems: Enhancing instructional options for all students (pp. 49-70). Washington, DC: National Association of School Psychologists.

Glaser, B. G., & Strauss, A. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. Chicago, IL: Aldine.

Graden, J., Casey, A., & Christenson, S. (1985). Implementing a prereferral intervention system: Part I. The model. Exceptional Children, 51, 377-384.

Idol-Maestas, L. (1983). Special educator's consultation handbook. Rockville, MD: Aspen.

Johnson, L. J., & Heal, L. (1987). Developing a minimum level of interrater agreement. Capstone Journal of Education, 7, 51-64.

Kirk, R. E. (1982). Experimental design: Procedures for the behavioral sciences. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Kornblau, B. (1982). The teachable pupil survey: A technique for assessing teachers' perceptions of pupil attributes. Psychology in the Schools, 19, 170-174.

Mehan, H., Hertweck, A., & Meihls, J. (1986). Handicapping the handicapped: Decision making in students' educational careers. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Palincsar, A. S., & Brown, A. L. (1984). Reciprocal teaching of comprehension-fostering and comprehension-monitoring activities. Cognition and Instruction, 1, 117-175.

Pugach, M. C., & Johnson, L. J. (1990). Developing reflective teaching through structured dialogue. In R. T. Clift, R. W. Houston, & M. C. Pugach (Eds.), Encouraging Reflective Practice: An Examination of Issues and Exemplars (pp. 186-207). New York: Teachers College Press.

LAWRENCE J. JOHNSON (CEC Chapter #51) is an Associate Professor of Early Childhood and Special Education at the University of Cincinnati. MARLEEN C. PUGACH (CEC Chapter #31) is an Associate Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

We thank Rebecca Cook, University of Illinois, who provided invaluable assistance in coordinating this project and in training all the teachers who participated, and Pat D'Auria, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, for monitoring the progress of teachers in the Wisconsin sites. We are also grateful to all of the teachers who so willingly assisted us in this study and to the principals who invited us into their schools.

The preparation of this article was sponsored in part by a grant from the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, U.S. Department of Education (Grant No. G008530153). The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the position, policy, or endorsement of that agency.

Manuscript received December 1988; revision accepted August 1989.

Exceptional Children, Vol. 57, No. 5, pp. 454-461. [C] 1991 The Council for Exceptional Children.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Council for Exceptional Children
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Johnson, Lawrence J.; Pugach, Marleen C.
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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