NASP Communiqué, Vol. 33, #8
for Educators and Parents
By Kerry A. Schwanz, PhD, & C.
Horry County (SC)
The No Child Left Behind Act
of 2001 and the current reauthorization of the Individuals With Disabilities
Education Act (IDEA) mandate that educators focus on supporting the academic
progress of all students through research-based instructional strategies.
Further, recent calls to reform special education have emphasized the importance
of using problem-solving approaches to support at-risk students within
Unlike traditional models of refer and place,
problem-solving models seek to resolve student difficulties within general
education through the application of evidence-based interventions and systematic
monitoring of student progress. The student's response to regular education
interventions then becomes the primary determinant of need for special
education referral, evaluation, and service.
While there have been many models of problem
solving at building, district, and state levels, all share several key
and assessment that emphasize skills rather than classification, and measuring
response to instruction rather than norm-referenced comparisons
interventions within general education
consultation and/or team efforts among general and special educators
This handout describes the functioning and
implementation of this collaborative team in the context of a problem-solving
Definitions and Terms
A Problem-Solving Team is a school-based
group composed of various school personnel, such as teachers, guidance
counselors, school psychologists, and administrators, who meet to provide
assistance to children who are having academic or behavioral difficulties
in school. The team is responsible for implementing a problem-solving approach
to identify and intervene in response to students' needs within the arena
of general education.
Many terms have been used to refer to this Problem-Solving
Team including Instructional Support Teams, Intervention Assistance Teams,
Building Level Teams, Mainstream Assistance Teams, and Student Support
Teams. Here, Problem-Solving Team will be used to encompass all such teams
that have the purpose and employ the methods described in this handout.
Problem solving versus pre-referral. It
is important to distinguish Problem-Solving Teams from what are frequently
termed Pre-Referral Teams. The two differ primarily in purpose and
intent. A Problem-Solving Team develops valid interventions designed to
resolve a student's academic or behavioral difficulty in a general education
setting if possible. The emphasis in problem solving is to meet the student's needs first
and produce positive learning outcomes.
Conversely, the mind-set of Pre-Referral Teams typically
is to move a child through one or more interventions as a prelude to a
traditional psycho-educational assessment for consideration of special
education placement. A Pre-Referral Team is often used as a mechanism to
collect all the necessary referral information in order to get a student
evaluated. Historically, Pre-Referral Teams have been perceived as procedural
hurdles en-route to special education services rather than as vehicles
for implementing evidence-based interventions to solve student problems.
Overview of Problem-Solving Teams
Common Components and Strategies
There are numerous variations of problem-solving models
in schools. Generally all have three basic components: (a) describing and
analyzing a student concern, (b) identifying potential strategies to address
the concern, and (c) testing the selected alternative strategies by implementing
them and evaluating their effectiveness.
The distinguishing features of Problem-Solving Teams
include the following:
use of a systematic, problem-solving process
focus on modifying the environment to assist students
focus on assessment of what the student knows and can do, and not on weaknesses
use of functional assessments that can be performed by teachers
that have been shown by research to have a high probability of success
use of strategies to ensure that the interventions are implemented consistently
use of systematic data collection and progress monitoring to determine
the student's response to the intervention
The nature of problem solving involves a sequence of
steps starting with a definition of the problem and proceeding to the testing
of a hypothesis and evaluating the outcome of any intervention. Depending
on the model used, problem solving is typically broken down into as few
as four or as many as eight steps. Regardless of the number of steps, the
general problem solving sequence is as follows:
1: Define the problem. Team members discuss the referral information and define the concern in observable
and measurable terms. The emphasis at this step is to break down a
broad general concern such as reading difficulty into the specific
skills related to the concern, such as problems with phonemic awareness,
accuracy, and fluency, or poor comprehension, thus providing a more
specific and behavioral definition of the problem . Questions that
need to be answered through assessment are also generated at this step.
For example, a question to ask regarding a first grader might be, "What
teaching strategy will help Derrick learn the vowel sounds?"
2: Develop an assessment plan. The Problem-Solving Team identifies
methods for measuring the specific behavior or skill identified in
the first step. This measurement, called a baseline, identifies
the pre-intervention level of performance.
For example, if the identified problem was reading
fluency, the team may decide to obtain a measure of words read correctly
at a certain grade level in 1 minute. The reading probe (simple test from
the student's curriculum) is administered on three separate occasions,
and the median number of words per minute is the student's baseline.
If the identified concern was behavioral,
the team may use direct classroom observations or teacher frequency counts
(e.g., number of times student leaves seat during instruction) as the
method for obtaining baseline data.
3: Analysis of the assessment results and goal setting. The Problem-Solving Team compares the target student's baseline
performance to an acceptable level of student performance. This acceptable
level of performance or standard for comparison is often based on a
classroom or local norm that has been developed using measures such
as Curriculum-Based Measurement (CBM) or observations of the peer group.
Based on the discrepancy between the target student's baseline performance
and the expected or desired performance, goals can be set for the next
4: Develop and implement the intervention plan. The Problem-Solving Team identifies interventions that can
be implemented with the student and relevant personnel who are responsible
for carrying out the interventions and monitoring the student's progress.
It is recommended that teams implement an intervention for at least
a 3-week period.
Interventions have two components:
modification of instruction or behavioral contingencies for the student
targeted in the identified area of concern
progress-monitoring component to evaluate the effectiveness of the intervention.
instruction or behavioral contingencies-the intervention plan itself-are
selected based on identified student needs and empirically based strategies.
For academic concerns, the progress monitoring might involve weekly
administration of the same CBM probes that were used to obtain the target
student's baseline, or daily records of task completion. Using measurable
goals and objectives allows for graphing of the student's performance,
providing a visual depiction of the student's progress toward the goal
established during step three.
In addition to specific measurement of student performance,
the intervention plan should address treatment fidelity; that is,
the degree to which the intervention is implemented as planned. This is
critical when it comes time to evaluate the plan's effectiveness: If the
intervention appears to be ineffective, it is critical to determine if
the intervention really failed or failed to be implemented.
Teams that consider necessary supports to enable an
intervention to be faithfully implemented will have few problems with treatment
fidelity. For example, if a peer tutoring intervention is recommended,
the team should consider what supports will be needed by the peer tutors,
such as scheduled time, training as tutors, parent permission, and space
Step 5: Analysis
of the intervention plan. The Problem-Solving Team analyzes the target student's rate
of progress and the student's performance relative to the goal that
was set in step 3. Several different outcomes can occur when analyzing
the data obtained during the intervention phase:
If the team determines that the student is making
sufficient progress toward the goal
or has achieved the goal as a result of the intervention plan, then they
may decide to continue the intervention plan with periodic progress
monitoring without making any changes to the plan. The continuation of
progress monitoring, however, is important in order to identify any future
difficulties the student may encounter.
If the team decides that the student did
not make adequate progress toward
the goal with the intervention plan, then they may decide to develop
a different plan or modify and add on to the one already in place.
If the team determines that the student's needs are
more than can be met in a regular education setting (after intensive intervention
in the regular education setting and data documenting lack of growth toward
the goal despite the interventions) , then the team may decide to refer the child to the
special education team for consideration of an evaluation of eligibility
in accordance with state and district procedures. Regardless of the procedures
and criteria used for special education evaluations, the data gathered
by the Problem-Solving Team will
provide invaluable information to the special education team regarding
the student's needs and response to intervention.
Frequently Asked Questions About Problem
What Is an
An intervention is a new
strategy or modification of instruction or behavior management designed
to help a student (or group of students) improve performance relative to
a specific goal. In the context of problem-solving models, interventions
are evidence-based strategies; that is, they have been proven effective
in similar situations through well-designed research. Simply making a change
is not really an intervention. For example, shortening assignments or moving
the student's desk are not really interventions,
although a well-designed intervention might include such changes. An effective
intervention is based on valid information about current performance and
desired performance, is realistic for implementation in the current setting,
is directed toward important and realistic goals, and defines success in
How Is the Effectiveness of
an Intervention Measured?
Through a problem-solving process, information
(data) is gathered throughout the implementation of the intervention in
order to see if it is working for the child. Teams will often use Curriculum-Based
Measurement to measure a student's academic performance and chart his or
her progress in response to interventions. With older students, progress
toward goals might involve test scores, grades, tallies of completed assignments,
etc. Other measurement techniques are used to measure progress toward behavioral
goals, such as direct classroom observations or frequency counts (tallies
of occurrences of behaviors such as fights or office referrals). Effectiveness
is judged by comparing the results of these measures with the student's
baseline and with the goal of the intervention.
Later Referred to Special Education?
Evaluation for special education eligibility
is only one possible outcome of the problem-solving process. The goal of
Problem-Solving Teams is to help children in the general education setting-and
often they succeed. Research indicates that implementation of Problem-Solving
Teams can significantly reduce referral to special education while improving
student achievement and behavior.
Involved in Problem-Solving Teams?
Parent input is critical to student success
in school. Many Problem-Solving Team models include parents as members
of the team. Parent input should always be sought because parents know
their children best and often have unique information and ideas to share.
They often can provide needed background information about a student's
health and development as well as input about how the child acts in a variety
of settings. Depending on the nature of the intervention, parent involvement
may be crucial to its success.
What Skills and Training Are
Needed to Implement Problem-Solving Teams?
Educators and parents are not necessarily comfortable
and skillful as team members without training and practice. Teaming requires
good listening and collaboration skills, as well as a good foundation in
the design of academic and behavioral interventions and in the measurement
of student skills and progress. Schools seeking to implement a Problem-Solving
Team process are urged to start slowly, and to start with training in team
processes and intervention strategies. Although the team itself will mostly
likely be a core group of regular and special educators, all school personnel
will need to be familiar with the process to be used by their team, including
how to make a referral, how to collect baseline data, and how to help collect
information to evaluate intervention outcomes.
Iverson, A. M. (2002) Best practices
in problem-solving team structure and process. In A. Thomas & J. Grimes (Eds.), Best practices
in school psychology IV (pp. 657-669). Bethesda, MD: The National Association of School Psychologists.
Tilly III, W.D. (2002). Best practices in school psychology
as a problem solving enterprise. In A. Thomas & J. Grimes (Eds.), Best
practices in school psychology IV (pp. 21-36). Bethesda, MD: The National Association of School Psychologists.
Reschly, D. J., Tilly III, W.D., & Grimes,
J. P. (1999). Special education in transition: Functional assessment
and noncategorical programming. Longmont, CO: Sopris West. ISBN: 1570352275.
Ysseldyke, J., & Marston,
D. (1999). Origins
of categorical special education services in schools and a rationale
for changing them. In D. J. Reschly,
W. D. Tilly III, & J. P. Grimes (Eds.), Special
education in transition: Functional assessment and noncategorical programming (pp.
1-18). Longmont, CO: Sopris West. ISBN: 1570352275.
Heartland (IA) Area Education Agency 11, special education
research site- www.aea11.k12.ia.us/spedresearch (see Diverse Learners)
National Association of School Psychologists-www.nasponline.org (Search Problem-Solving
Kerry A. Schwanz, PhD, is consulting school psychologist with a specialty
in staff development for the Problem-Solving Model
, Horry County Schools, Conway, SC. C. Ben Barbour is Coordinator
of Special Education, Supervisor of Psychological Services, with the
Horry County Schools. This handout is reprinted from Helping Children
at Home and School II: Handouts for Families and Educators (NASP, 2004)
© 2005, National Association of School Psychologists. 4340
East West Hwy #402, Bethesda, MD 20814