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School psychology consultation: another approach.


Behavioral approaches dominate the field of school psychology teacher consultation. The author examines the problems with school psychologists relying exclusively on this approach and offers an alternative consultation intervention based on the work of DW Winnicot.


"You need to do a FBA on him," is a statement that brings chills to me. An FBA is a functional behavioral assessment and the first step to producing in consultation with the teacher a BIP (behavioral intervention plan). I try to avoid these FBA's and BIP's as much as possible. School psychologists are under the gun to justify what they do, to be accountable, to show progress and what better way than relying on the behaviorist's toolbox. I am worried by the entrenchment of the behavioral approach, not only as one approach among many but championed and even legislated as the only approach that must be used in any number of situations. "It is noteworthy--and heartening--that Congress recognized the value of FA (functional assessment) in their 1997 amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA, 1999)." (Ervin et al., 2001 p. 177)

There are many approaches that can be taken to help a child and teacher, behavior modification being one of them. The general psychological literature is rich in exploring these many approaches but unfortunately the school psychological literature has tunnel vision. The practicing school psychologists, who are daily, yearly working with students and teachers and who use a variety of other approaches are rarely heard from.

Behavior Intervention Plan Problems

My rejection of the primacy of behavior modification rests on my practice and my reflection in action as I've tried this approach. It is clear that I come with a prejudice and may unconsciously (Unconsciously!) sabotage behavioral techniques. There is a tendency to vilify what one is not good at. Obviously there are many good, sensitive behavioral practitioners doing transforming work but good effective work can be done without utilizing the formalized behavior modification approach.

I have philosophical problems with functional assessment and formal behavior intervention plans. These techniques are too intrusive and limiting. The targets of most of theses individual behavioral plans, in my experience, are boys, those acting out types who are a bane to the organized learning environment. Researchers like Chodorow (1989) and practitioners like Pollack (1998) point out that the main socialization problem of boys is their separation at an early age from their feelings and the creation of what D.W. Winnicott (1965) refers to as a "false self." Winnicott wrote about the importance of the uninterrupted flow of the authentic self of a child. A child comes to know who he really is when he is not forced into a reactive mode, submerging his authentic self to respond to the needs and demands of others. Behavior modification's main strength is filtering out the hidden emotional world and assessing what is left, the behavioral and the environmental antecedents and consequences of a target behavior, and then modifying that environment to extinguish a problem behavior and/or promote a positive one. Behavior modification is focused on having a child respond appropriately to the demands of the formal power structure. The authentic self is always in danger of being crushed along with the troubling behaviors.

Behavior modification emphasizes the here and now--observable behavior. But present behavior, especially troublesome behavior, can have an important connection to past history. Behavior is linked to an individual's emotional past. The behavioral approach can cut that past and those emotions off. A surface intervention pushes those emotions further away.

Another limitation is that behavior modification while powerful is situation specific. I have not observed a strict behavior approach that results in the "good" behavior of a child in one classroom produce that same kind of behavior when the youngster is in other classrooms. Improved behavior may, however, allow the child to become an active, engaged student who is then hooked by interesting and stimulating teaching and learning. Then there can be meaningful lasting change that was, I agree, precipitated by a behavioral intervention.

Natural Behavior Modification

We all use behavior modification techniques. They are common and effective. I was working on a project with an experienced, inspiring sixth grade teacher a number of years ago when we got into a conversation about behavior management techniques and he told me, "I don't use any of that crap." Well a few weeks after our conversation I was in his classroom when a boy started talking out and disrupted the discussion flow of the class. Bill stopped what he and the class were doing and stared at the boy until he was quiet at which point the youngster looked up at Bill and said, "Sorry." Then class proceeded. What Bill had employed was a behavior modification technique, which modified disruptive behavior so the class could continue on its merry way. In the numerous classes I observed Bill, there were many instances where he effectively used behavioral techniques to change the conduct of an individual or group of his students. I am not upset with those natural in the moment behavioral techniques that we all use. What Bill did not buy into was the formal, let's do a functional assessment on this individual kid, find out about the environmental causes of his annoying behavior, and write up a management plan to distinguish it. Resistance to the formalized written behavioral approach has been a common experience of mine when working with experienced teachers as we try together to understand a student's troublesome behavior. When and if a formal plan is put in place teacher follow-up is very sporadic. My experience on inconsistent implementation is supported by current research. "Common observations of practitioners and research describing practice suggest that accurate sustained implementation of interventions in schools is not assured (Happe, 1982; Kovaleski, Gickling, Morrow, & Swank, 1999; Noell, Gansle, & Allison, 1999)." (Noell et al., 2002, p.218)

A Less Intrusive Approach

Consultation between teacher and school psychologist has always been the most important and personal relationship where the school psychologist can establish credibility as he helps teachers find their own voice. The collaboration is often initiated by the teacher as she approaches the school psychologist for help with a student's troublesome behavior. The proper first step is always to accept what the teacher presents and keep the connection; listen and respond to what is asked. "If we want to support each other's inner life, we must remember a simple truth: the human soul does not want to be fixed, it wants simply to be seen and heard. If we want to see and hear a person's soul, there is another truth that we must remember: the soul is like a wild animal--tough, resistant, yet shy. When we go crashing through the woods shouting for it to come out so we can help it, the soul will stay in hiding. But if we are willing to sit quietly and wait for a while, the soul may show itself' (Palmer, p. 151)

The school psychologist's next step is to demonstrate that he is in it with the teacher and willing to do his own work to understand the situation usually by doing a class observation and setting up a time to meet again. Whenever I am consulting with a teacher who is having a particularly difficult time with a student or students I always stop by her class to chat as often as possible usually at the beginning of the day for a few minutes just to see how she is doing. Accepting the teacher's initial query and then going into the situation more deeply will provide an opening to change the classroom dynamics.

Behavior modification may be an effective first line of defense for a teacher who is struggling to get back into control of her class so she can teach. A school psychologist who takes on a consulting role can help such a teacher explore what natural behavior techniques may work and assist her in a number of tasks including examining behaviors and establishing a communication system with parents. During this consultation the school psychologist must be sensitive to the landscape of the classroom and the teacher's strengths in much the same way as the gifted architect Maya Lin surveys a sight. "It is a belief I have. The insertion or intrusion of a quiet order. If you are paying attention you may notice it if you are not you won't. It's indicative of how I like to work with a sight: creating a work that quietly merges with its sight so that there remains an ambiguity if it is man made or a naturally occurring phenomenon." (Lin, 2000, p6). The goal of the school psychologist, teacher consultation not only includes the present crisis but the consultation should also help the teacher explore her teaching voice and how she is comfortable being in the classroom. Most successful teachers are secure in the fact that they can organize their class with their particular strengths and vision and are not fearful about students disorganizing the class with negative energy. Even at the consultation level I try to respect the teacher's style, developmental level, and skills so that it is not clear if I was suggesting an approach or it sprang from the teacher herself. Formalized behavior modification techniques for individual students that are artificially imposed intrude on the landscape of the classroom and rarely, in my experience, work.

If after consultation counseling intervention is needed, then the school psychologist involvement in a behavioral approach becomes more of a problem. I am especially troubled by the duel roles of counselor and behavioral consultant when working with a student. When a child is referred for counseling because of a problem behavior the first priority is to establish a therapeutic relationship. And it has been my experience that behavior modification plans supervised by the school psychologist while also counseling the student cloud that early developing relationship. I have tried to explain behavior mod plans to students and as I do I watch as they draw right away. They realize that I am like all the rest who want to fix them, and our relationship shifts from one that has bonded to one that has to be renegotiated. I feel like I'm a salesman trying to entice them to get on board with this great plan. Epstein points out that in his therapeutic experience even much more subtle hindrances, than an intrusive behavior modification plan, can havoc the counseling relationship. "To think about the end of a session, to wonder what time it is, even to hope for a cure, is to add an agenda that becomes an interference, because it is sensed as a demand. People are exquisitely sensitive to each other, especially in a stripped-down relationship like a therapeutic one." (Epstein, 2001, p.56)

There needs to be an articulation of approaches other than the behaviorist model for the delivery of individual student services and teacher consultation if school psychology is to grow. The theoretical schema that I've found most helpful when reflecting on how I practice is the work of Winnicott (1965, 1971), and Epstein's (2001, 1995) interpretation of Winnicott's writings. Winnicott wrote extensively about parenting and the importance of "good enough parents" who can allow a child to "go on being" and discovering in the process his/her true selfhood. Parents who were "not good enough" forced their children into a reactive role living out a false self either by conforming to the rigid expectations of the parent or anxiously reacting to unstable, inconsistent parenting. Epstein writings emphasize the importance of Winnicott's paradigm in therapeutic work, helping clients recover their true selves. School psychologists can use Winnicott and Epstein's theories as another way to focus on counseling and consulting relationships.

Some children need a holding environment during the school day to work out troubling emotions, find their real school self, and not be forced to adopt a reactive, false one. It is not only the acting out students who are in jeopardy of adopting a false school self. The perfect student may also be living out a false school self by conforming rigidly to the expectations of the school environment. While some classmates with less control just act out their anger and anxiety the perfect student meekly obeys. School psychologists can focus on holding those emotions that have forced the child to become reactive and allay the fear that these powerful emotions will overwhelm him. "Holding," means permitting a child to empty out his troublesome feelings and then the psychologist, teacher, or counselor assumes the responsibility for those emotions until the child is able to take back and integrate them. During consultation teachers can also be encouraged to help children explore their true selves by creating classrooms that are holding environments. Winnicott's theory about parents specifically mothers being "good enough parents" who are not overwhelmed by a child's behavior can extend to how schools treat "problem children." "Good enough parents" are not frozen by their children's anger and temper tantrums they do not withdraw or become rigid in their control of the child's emotional reaction. Good enough school psychologists and teachers need to be able to handle their students' acting out behavior and to create classroom atmospheres where other students are not overwhelmed by a child's acting out.

I often feel pressure not to hold students troubling emotions and not to suspend judgement but to fix the problem child. Harvard psychiatrist and present head of a longitudinal study of men's adjustment echoes the theory of Winnicott and the clinical experience of Epstein. "Harvard men who never achieved successful or gratifying careers also revealed a lifelong inability to deal with anger. It makes all the difference in the world if when you are young your parents tolerate and 'hold' your sadness, your love--and your anger--or if instead they treat your emotions as misbehavior." (Vaillant, 2002, p.99) When working for any extended time with a student, clinging to and retooling a rigid behavioral approach does not allow for the openness that can provide a holding environment and an atmosphere for growth. Children's troubling emotions should be treated as more than misbehavior.

The maturing young child is always in danger of developing a false self in reaction to how parents treat him/her. The developing student is always in danger of developing a false school self. The overbearing or overly anxious teacher can put her students into a reactive mode so that her youngsters have to be more concerned with her emotional life than their own. It is sometimes the role of the school psychologist consultation to function as a holding environment for a teacher's emotions as she struggles to find her own unique voice and balance. Focusing only on outward behavior also ignores the teacher's inner life.

Children need an atmosphere where they can work out the emotions that fuel their troubling behaviors. I once counseled a young child who, when he was in the kindergarten, constantly acted out whether it was running around the cafeteria with me in hot pursuit, reaching for the phone to call the police as the principal was reprimanding him, or having a temper tantrum in the classroom. What slowly turned his behavior around were teachers who were able to tolerate and hold his behavior, not be overwhelmed by him, and forge positive supportive relationships with him. There were behavioral contingencies set up for him in the context of the class and in the flow of the action of class, for example, "finish your math and then you can play on the computer," or, "if I get a bad report from gym then you won't have recess." But there was never an imposed formalized checks and prizes kind of behavioral plan that would have intruded on his relationship with his teachers. The main focus of our consultation and interventions was to create classroom and counseling experiences that were holding environments for Joe's troubling emotions and his fear of being overwhelmed by his destructive impulses. During the first semester of kindergarten Joe wanted to know when we were going to send him home like his preschool teacher had done. His present teachers were never overpowered by his angry disruptive behavior. The strength of the connection between Joe and his teachers, and his confidence in their ability to accept him and hold his anger until he was able to integrate it were the pivotal ingredients that changed his behavior.

We need more than one approach in school psychology consultation. The dynamic insight approach of Winnicott and Epstein encourages practitioners to develop valuable counseling and consulting skills that focus on the internal terrain of children and teachers' emotional lives. It is an approach sensitive to the interpersonal dance of the counseling and consulting relationships.


Chodorow, N.J. (1989). Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Epstein, M. (2001). Going On Being. New York: Broadway Books.

Epstein, M. (1995). Thoughts Without A Thinker. New York: Basic Books.

Ervin, R.A., Ehrhardt, & Poling, A. (2001). Functional Assessment: Old Wine in New Bottles. School Psychology Review, 30 (2), 173-179.

Lin, M. (2000). Boundaries. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Pollack, W. (1998). Real Boys. New York: Henry Holt & Company.

Noell, G.H., Duhon, G.J., Gatti, S.L., & Connell, J.E. (2002). Consultation, Follow-up, and Implementation of Behavioral Management Interventions in General Education. School Psychology Review, 31 (2), 217-234.

Palmer, P. (1998). The Courage to Teach--Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life. San Francisco: Jossey Boss.

Vaillant, G. (2002). Aging Well. Boston: Little Brown & Co.

Winnicott, D.W. (1965). The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment. New York: International University Press.

Winnicott, D.W. (1971). Playing and Reality. New York: Routledge.

Gerard T. Seifert, Sachem School District, NY

Seifert, Ed.D., is a school psychologist at the Sachem School District and an adjunct lecturer of psychology at St. Joseph's College.
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Author:Seifert, Gerard T.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 2006
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