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Redefining "prereferral" intervention as intervention assistance: collaboration between general and special education.

Redefining "Prereferral" Intervention as Intervention Assistance: Collaboration Between General and Special Education

ABSTRACT: The article by Pugach and Johnson raises some important points relative to

assumptions of prereferral intervention approaches, including the importance of full

participation and ownership by classroom teachers. At the same time, their arguments are flawed

by a misunderstanding of some of the conceptual underpinnings of prereferral intervention.

These concepts, such as intervention assistance and "alternative" intervention, actually are

founded in collaborative consultation. Intervention assistance approaches will be most effective

when special and general educators work together, not to the exclusion of either group. * When a topic in education is perceived as "new," as prereferral intervention is in the article by Pugach and Johnson and elsewhere in the special education literature (e.g., Lloyd, Crowley, Kohler, & Strain, 1988), it often is the subject of attention, critique, and debate. This attention is productive in that it helps to advance our understanding of the particular area and to define needed areas for future research and implications for practical implementation. Pugach and Johnson have made an important contribution to the literature in this area by highlighting some important assumptions underlying prereferral approaches, particularly the role of the classroom teacher. However, many of Pugach and Johnson's assertions are predicated on the assumptions that (a) prereferral intervention is a new area in special education and that (b) their propositions are not incorporated in existing prereferral approaches. Neither of these assumptions is entirely accurate.

To my knowledge, the term prereferral intervention was first used in the special education literature in an article by Graden, Casey, and Christenson (1985). Although the term was new, the process described in the approach was not new. Graden et al. described the process of prereferral intervention as "collaborative consultation." The foundation for these practices was established relative to the consultation literature (e.g., Bergan, 1977; Meyers, Parsons, & Martin, 1979), and the overall approach was similar to what Ritter (1978) described as a "school consultation program." Thus, prereferral intervention did not represent a new approach, but a new name for an existing service-delivery model--consultation.

In retrospect, I wish that this term had not been used, because of the many misconceptions that have resulted from its use, some of which are apparent in the Pugach and Johnson article. Most notable among these misconceptions is the view that the prereferral process is a first step in the special education decision-making process and is owned by special education. Although the popularity of the concept came in part from a recognition of the need for alternatives to standard referral practices, the underlying concept was the development of a support system intended to provide needed assistance to students within regular classrooms. Since the publication of that original article, my colleagues and I have come to prefer the term intervention assistance to more accurately portray the process consistent with its foundations in collaborative consultation and the emphasis on using problem solving for intervention development (e.g., Zins, Curtis, Graden, & Ponti, 1988).

Understanding the foundation of prereferral intervention in the consultation literature is important to this critique for two reasons: (a) understanding that it is not a "new" service, as described by Pugach and Johnson, and (b) addressing several of the criticisms they raise of the existing prereferral approaches. Indeed, many of their criticisms may be addressed by examining the conceptual foundations of consultation and the empirical support for its central features. In fact, many of the cautions they raise regarding prereferral intervention (e.g., the avoidance of an expert model and the need for a true collaboration between equals) have repeatedly been discussed in the consultation literature (cf. Conoley & Conoley, 1982; Gutkin & Curtis, 1982; Zins et al., 1988).

In this response to Pugach and Johnson, I will attempt to address the major points of disagreement that I have with their arguments about the prereferral process. Although we also have many areas of agreement (e.g., the need for collaboration and the need for teacher-teacher problem solving), space limitations require a focus on areas of disagreement and misconceptions. The major areas of disagreement include (a) the broad generalizations by Pugach and Johnson of the skills, attributes, and roles of special educators and general educators, with the major premise that special education should take much more of a "hands-off" approach to problems experienced within general education; (b) the misrepresentation of informal, team problem-solving approaches (e.g., assistance teams) and consultation approaches as two different approaches; (c) misunderstandings of the assumptions of some of the current approaches to prereferral intervention and some of their key features; and (d) the contention that the alternative assumptions proposed are different than those central to consultation-based approaches.


One important contribution of the work of Pugach and Johnson is their emphasis on enabling teachers to make decisions about intruction and interventions in their classrooms. Through studies of teacher-teacher collaboration, Pugach and Johnson have demonstrated that teachers can effectively help each other in problem solving. A corollary to this emphasis on the classroom teacher, however, is a strong suggestion that special educators should remove themselves from roles in supporting and assisting classroom teachers. Throughout the article, the authors describe special educators, including school psychologists, as operating as "experts," as being intimidating to teachers, and as being unable to collaborate, presumably by virtue of who they are--their roles and titles--not what they do.

This assertion that special educators can be seen only as experts is not only erroneous, but counterproductive to efforts to develop more effective partnerships among all educators and to avoid defining roles and responsibilities according to membership in separate systems. The assertion that only classroom teachers can best help with problem solving with other teachers is erroneous in that it assumes (a) that all classroom teachers will be perceived as helpful by their colleagues (and will not operate in an expert model--judging the other person, telling the other person what to do) and (b) that, conversely, all special educators cannot be true collaborators because they will be perceived by teachers as experts. From my experience in schools and from my knowledge of the literature on the skills and attributes of effective consultants, I believe that being an effective and helpful collaborator is more a function of personal skills that could be held by any educator than of the role (i.e., teacher, special educator, school psychologist) one serves.

We need to move away from defining ourselves by our roles in education and focus more on the skills and background that we have to offer. It is not a matter of either special educators as consultants or regular educators as consultants, but a matter of who is perceived by the individual as being best able to work with him or her on a particular problem. In an ideal situation, collaboration would occur throughout the school, across all roles, as needed for particular situations in a "collaborative school" (Curtis, Curtis, & Graden, 1988; Graden et al., 1989).


The Distinction of Two Approaches

One primary disagreement that I have with Pugach and Johnson is with their description of two distinctly different approaches to prereferral--assistance teams and consultation approaches. In fact, if one traces the literature in this area, the central foundation and common core for both of their "types" of prereferral approaches emerges in the consultation literature. Furthermore, the distinction of either a team approach or an individual approach is inaccurate, in that some approaches (e.g., Curtis et al., 1988; Graden et al., 1985; Zins et al., 1988) incorporate both an individual and a team collaborative-consultation approach. In this combined individual and team approach, collaborative consultation provides the foundation for how problem solving occurs across all situations, whether individual or team. Thus, there are not really two distinct models of team or individual consultation, but rather distinctions in how the process works in terms of collaboration and involvement of the teacher who seeks assistance. Instead of contrasting team or individual approaches to assistance, it is more meaningful to distinguish between approaches that are more "expert" or more "collaborative" (cf. Curtis et al., 1988).

Critique of the "Assistance Team" Approach

In critiquing the team approach to prereferral, Pugach and Johnson argue effectively that assistance team models that have more formal processes, centralized decision making, and ties to the special education decision process do not operate any differently in their practices and assumptions than do current multidisciplinary teams. It also is my contention that efforts to form assistance teams, without attending to the assumptions upon which they are based (expert vs. collaborative models) will not lead to effective helping practices (Graden, 1988). It is not the use of the team that creates a problem; however, it is how the team functions (collaboratively or expert/advice giving) that relates to its outcomes.

Misunderstandings About the "Consultation" Approaches

One of the primary misconceptions of Pugach and Johnson is that collaborative consultation is a new concept recently advocated in the consultation literature to address the problem of an implicit hierarchy between special and general education. As I have attempted to demonstrate, collaborative consultation has been the model promoted in school psychology for over a decade (e.g., Bergan, 1977; Conoley & Conoley, 1982; Gutkin & Curtis, 1982; Meyers et al., 1979), thus preceding the use of collaborative consultation as attributed in the article.

When this foundation in collaboration is accepted, along with the central features of (a) absence of a hierarchy and (b) decision-making power resting with the teacher, it is clear that Pugach and Johnson's critique of some prereferral consultative approaches is flawed. They argue that the existing consultation models (a) continue to maintain dependence on specialists for problem solution and (b) result in a transfer of problem ownership from the teacher to the consultant. In fact, not only are these assertions blatantly in opposition to the assumptions directly stated in the collaborative consultation literature, but empirical research lends support for the fact that these problems do not occur in effective collaborative consultation.

For example, consultation has been shown to result in teachers' feeling more (not less) competent to deal with current and future student problems (e.g., Bergan, Byrnes, & Kratochwill, 1979; Curtis & Watson, 1980; Tombari & Bergan, 1978). In addition, Pugach and Johnson describe specialists such as school psychologists as not being ideal consultants because they are not sensitive to the fact that teachers find certain interventions unacceptable. The concept of intervention acceptability--as well as an appreciation of its importance in consultation--however, is well grounded in the school psychology literature (e.g., Witt & Elliot, 1985).

Empowered Teachers Versus Specialists

One potentially damaging assertion made by Pugach and Johnson is that if all current efforts to empower teachers to solve their own problems are successful, specialists will not be needed to help solve problems for students with learning and behavior problems. This belief is dangerous because it continues to perpetuate the separation of special education and general education as two distinct systems that operate independently. Instead, I believe it is more helpful to see special education as a support system to general education and to acknowledge that special educators always will have a helpful role to serve with regard to general education. When we focus on the role of either general education or special education in intervention assistance, we extol the virtues of each without considering what can be accomplished in a partnership. One example of a working partnership between school psychologists and classroom teachers has been articulated by Will (1989).

Perhaps by so strongly arguing that teachers need to be empowered to work together, Pugach and Johnson have unintentionally diminished the important role of special educators in helping with problems in regular classrooms. Multiple components--teacher-teacher problem solving, teacher-special services problem solving, and prescribed use of team problem solving--are essential to developing an effective service-delivery model. Regardless of all the progress that is made in empowering teachers, there always will be a need for specialists to collaborate with teachers in solving problems. It is my experience that as more collaboration and consultation occurs in a school, the need for consultation increases. Furthermore, the complex problems that students experience will continue to require the assistance of someone with training in different areas from what classroom teachers receive.


Pugach and Johnson propose four "alternative" assumptions that will provide the foundation for more effective prereferral practices. As I argued previously, these are not alternative assumptions, but are exactly the assumptions that are either explicit or implicit in the intervention assistance models that are founded on collaborative consultation. Some of the existing sources on implementation of intervention assistance approaches (e.g., Curtis et al., 1988; Graden et al., 1985; Ponti, Zins, & Graden, 1988; Zins et al., 1988) discuss all the major points made by Pugach and Johnson about collaboration.


Pugach and Johnson should be commended for their attention to some critical points that warrant sincere examination by those who are attempting to implement prereferral intervention strategies. Even though some of their assertions do not represent new assumptions and other assertions are erroneous, I share their primary concerns that many current efforts to implement prereferral intervention are not based on teacher collaboration; they do not maintain the locus of power and responsibility with classroom teachers. It is my sincere hope that this interchange is not just an academic exercise, but an opportunity (a) to bridge the special education and school psychology literature on prereferral intervention and (b) to provide an understanding of critical assumptions to be examined when implementing prereferral procedures. I continue to believe, as I think Pugach and Johnson do, that we must continue to build and expand on ways to provide alternative approaches to more traditional referral practices in special education.

Special educators should be commended for their attention to some of the deficits in current approaches and for their efforts to develop alternatives. Now that the need for alternatives has been recognized, these approaches must be implemented with full participation by all educators, and not "owned" by one system or another. Despite the concerns raised by Pugach and Johnson and others, and despite the cautions raised here about examining assumptions, intervention-assistance models that are well grounded in collaborative consultation and systematic problem solving have much to offer schools and children. These models should continue to be implemented with careful attention to critical issues.

JANET L. GRADEN is Associate Professor, School Psychology Program, University of Cincinnati, Ohio.
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Title Annotation:includes bibliography
Author:Graden, Janet L.
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Nov 1, 1989
Previous Article:Prereferral interventions: progress, problems, and challenges.
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