Designing Effective Prereferral Interventions: Key Questions the

School Counselor Should Know and Ask

Art W. Bangert

Assistant Professor School Psychology, College of Education, Idaho State University

Julie P. Baumberger

Clinical Therapist, Community Services, Inc., Russellville, AR 72801


        A key role for school counselors is to consult with teachers and other school specialists in efforts to design and implement effective student interventions (ASCA, 1999). In order to effectively facilitate prereferral intervention efforts and consult with teachers, it is recommended that school counselors be familiar with problem-solving methods that specifically address the individual needs of an increasingly diverse population of students (West & Idol, 1993). This article proposes that school counselors be knowledgeable of critical questions that are important to ask during each step of the problem-solving process in order to better identify and implement effective student-specific academic and behavioral interventions.

Designing Effective Prereferral Interventions: Key Questions the

School Counselor Should Know and Ask

Prereferral Intervention Teams

The Regular Education Initiative (REI) (Will, 1986) and the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Educational Act (1997) strongly encourage general education interventions prior to referral for special education evaluation and placement. The Teacher Assistance Team (TAT) (Chalfant, Pysh, & Moultrie, 1979), sometimes referred to as a Child Study Team, is one vehicle that is typically used by the public schools to design and implement educational accommodations within regular classroom settings. TATs are committees of general education teachers and other educational specialists whose goal is to collaboratively design and implement academic and behavioral interventions to meet the needs of difficult-to-teach students (Sindelar, Griffin, Smith, & Watanabe, 1992). The use of TATs for generating and implementing interventions has been shown to have positive effects on student achievement and behavior in addition to reducing referral rates for special education testing (Hayek, 1987). Considering these positive outcomes, it is not surprising that the majority of states now require or strongly recommend some type of prereferral intervention process (Carter & Sugai, 1989; Sindelar, Griffin, Smith, & Watanabe, 1992).

The School Counselor as Facilitator

The purpose of prereferral interventions is to reduce the number of inappropriate special-education placements while at the same time identifying interventions that will enable students to remain in the regular classroom (Carter & Sugai, 1989). According to the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), one of the primary roles of the school counselor is to consult with teachers and other school specialists in efforts to design and implement effective student interventions (ASCA, 1999). As a result of this important role, school counselors are sometimes asked to serve as a member of Teacher Assistance Teams (Baumberger & Harper, 1999; White & Mullis, 1998).

In order to effectively assist with prereferral intervention efforts, the school counselor must be familiar with problem-solving methods that specifically address the individual needs of an increasingly diverse population of students (West & Idol, 1993). It is important that problem-solving efforts be collaborative in nature, focus on clearly identifying concerns, analyze and evaluate factors affecting the concern, and work toward designing and evaluating successful interventions (Allen & Graden, 1997). Incorporating a systematic, collaborative, problem-solving process as a methodology for guiding the prereferral intervention process will do much to increase the probability of creating well-designed strategies that can be successfully implemented.

Problem-Solving Method

An excellent example of a collaborative, problem-solving model that school counselors can use in their efforts to facilitate the prereferral intervention process is one that has been developed by Bergen and Kratchowill (1990). Their problem-solving model consists of the following four steps:

(1)         problem identification;

(2)         problem analysis;

(3)   plan development and implementation; and

(4)        problem evaluation. 

We have developed a series of questions that are important to consider during each stage of the problem-solving model to better ensure identification and implementation of specific academic and behavioral interventions. Our questions are similar in concept to those suggested by Allen & Graden (1997). However, we have expanded on the depth and numbers of original questions that we feel are important for school counselors to pose when engaged in problem-solving activities. The reflective questioning process recommended in this article has been specifically tailored to the role that school counselors often find themselves in when leading prereferral intervention teams or consulting with teachers to ensure effective intervention design and implementation.

Problem Identification

The primary objective of the problem identification stage is to clearly define the discrepancy between a student’s actual and expected academic and/or behavioral performance in a particular setting. To initiate the process of problem identification, we suggest that the following critical questions be asked to clarify the problem.

1.      What is the student doing or not doing that has caused us to perceive a problem?

2.      What behaviors would we like to see maintained and what behaviors would we like to eliminate?

3.      What environmental and personality factors are contributing to the problem situation?

4.      What behaviors would we like to see the student engaging in and not engaging in?

5.      What is the student’s current level of performance and what level of performance will the student need to reach to meet expectations?

To answer these questions, it will be important to review data available from school records, medical records, student work samples, teacher and parent interviews, direct observations, behavioral ratings and other miscellaneous sources. This type of data provides valuable information that can assist in describing problem behaviors. The more data available for review, the more precisely problem situations can be defined in concrete, behavioral terms that can be readily observed and easily measured. For each problem behavior identified, specific positive replacement behaviors should also be identified and defined using the same concrete, behavioral terms. Ultimately, the target behaviors that are expected to increase or decrease as a result of intervention efforts should be agreed upon and clearly defined by all Teacher Assistance Team members.

Problem Analysis

The major purpose of the problem analysis step is to formulate educated guesses about why the problem situation is occurring so that appropriate interventions can be developed. In other words, to examine various factors such as the academic skills and behavior of the student, teacher – student interactions, and the environmental context within which problems occurs. The following questions were developed to assist school counselors to identify the important components of the ecological analysis that is characteristic of this problem-solving step.

1.      How are environmental and personality factors contributing to the mismatch that exists between actual and desired levels of performance?

2.      In what settings is the problem behavior occurring and in what settings is performance better?

3.      What assessment methods are most appropriate for determining factors that contribute to the problem situation and how do these methods relate to intervention design?

4.      What resources are available to help resolve this problem situation?

To answer these questions, it is important that a functional analysis of the problem situation be conducted. This will help to describe the complex array of factors that may be contributing to the problem situation. Functional analysis procedures involve identifying past and present factors, which control or have a "functional relationship" with the behavior(s) responsible for the problem situation. Functional analysis methodology is a process for determining what factors are related to the occurrence, nonoccurrence and maintenance of problem behaviors (Tilley & Flugum, 1997). Functional analysis methodology incorporates a variety of assessment methods for collecting data to describe the relationship between environmental and personality variables related to the target behaviors of concern. The intent of these functional assessments is to discover the purposes, goals or functions of behaviors by clearly describing challenging behaviors contributing to the problem situation manifested by the child under consideration (Educational Resources Information Center, 1998).

Examples of functional assessment methods used for intervention purposes include systematic and direct observation, structured interviewing, behavior checklists, curriculum-based assessment, review of records, and representative work samples from the classroom. Some of these data sources may have been examined during the problem identification step and may need to be reconsidered in light of other data collected during a more comprehensive functional analysis. Functional assessment procedures are not only the best practice for identifying and designing appropriate interventions (Reschly & Ysseldyke, 1997) but are also required for satisfying assessment procedures specified by the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act of 1997 should a special education referral be necessary. Once the functional relationships between environmental factors and the problem behaviors are identified, hypotheses can be generated about the types of interventions that may be effective for resolving problem situations.

These assessment techniques are particularly important when attempting to identify specific skill or performance deficits, which need to be targeted for remediation. Interviews and behavioral checklists may also provide insight about student, teacher, and parent perceptions that may be contributing to negative, acting – out behaviors. Often times, these overt, externalizing behaviors are related to inappropriate attempts by a student to satisfy the emotional needs for safety, a sense of belonging, love, or achievement. Interviews and checklists completed by multiple informants can assist with interpreting the purposes of these maladaptive behaviors and provide specific information with which to design interventions. By the end of the problem analysis step, the TAT should have a clearer picture of the discrepancy between actual and desired level of performance; the most appropriate setting for the proposed intervention, and an understanding of how the problem situation and contextual variables relate to one another.

Plan Development and Implementation

For interventions to be effective, they must be related to the identified problem and selected based on specific information derived from problem analysis. During this stage of problem solving it will be important that school counselors facilitate discussions centered on factors contributing to the mismatch between current and expected performance. This discussion should include persons who are most familiar with the problem and who can assist the TAT in identifying intervention strategies that have a strong likelihood for success. Asking the following questions may assist the school counselor in guiding Teacher Assistance Teams or consulting with individual teachers when selecting and implementing interventions that “fit best” for each problem situation under consideration.

1.      What interventions should be tried to improve the problem situation when considering information collected during problem analysis?

2.      What interventions are least intrusive, most natural, and most effective?

3.      How acceptable is the intervention to the person responsible for implementing    it?

4.      What effects might the intervention have on other students?

5.      How will the proposed intervention(s) occur to improve the problem situation?

6.            How will we know that the proposed intervention(s) is working?

7.      What is the feasibility of implementing the intervention and what resources are available?

8.      How can proposed interventions and those implementing them be best supported?

Answering these questions will provide critical information for developing an action plan, which is vital to the successful execution of intervention strategies. The action plan should describe, in detail, a) persons responsible for each intervention component, b) the best setting for the intervention to be conducted, c) critical dates for beginning the intervention, and d) methods for assessing progress toward intervention goals. Documenting progress toward intervention goals might include assessment procedures such as collecting frequency counts of observed positive as well as negative behaviors, performance on standardized achievement measures, or ratings from behavioral checklists.

Providing support to teachers and other specialists responsible for implementing interventions is also a critical component of this problem-solving phase.  School counselors, who are often times, directly involved in applying academic and behavioral interventions can support other participants by providing positive feedback and encouragement. Feedback to teachers and other support personnel is important because it provides a way for them to know if interventions are being implemented using the specific procedures specified by the Teacher Assistance Team.

Problem Evaluation

During the problem evaluation step, awareness of assessment as an on-going practice is necessary for determining progress toward attainment of the desired behaviors or expected outcomes specified during the problem analysis stage. The following key questions that should be considered during this stage are listed below.

1.      How well is the intervention working?

2.      Is the problem resolved or does the intervention need to continue?

3.      If the intervention was not successful, is it certain that the intervention plan was implemented consistently and correctly?

4.      Does the problem situation need to recycle through the problem solving process to generate alternative intervention strategies?

Decisions regarding intervention effectiveness should be made at pre-specified times after interventions have had sufficient time to be implemented. The functional analysis methodology described during the problem analysis stage is well suited for making data based decisions regarding the effectiveness of implemented interventions. This process involves comparing baseline data collected in steps one and two with the same data sources collected during the time frame in which interventions are put into operation. Expected progress may be determined by evaluating student performance before and after interventions have been implemented or by comparing a student’s performance to that expected of a typical peer. Graphically representing frequencies of target behaviors that occur over time (e.g. daily, weekly) is a powerful method for assisting the TAT in making decisions as to whether interventions are working, whether goals are being met, or if the intervention plan needs to be changed. Monitoring progress toward intervention goals by visually representing increases or decreases in the frequencies of target behaviors provides firm evidence of treatment efficacy and greatly reduces the chances of making incorrect decisions based on faulty or biased perceptions. If progress monitoring reveals that the intervention has not been effective, the problem situation should be reviewed and recycled through an earlier step in the problem-solving process. The appropriate problem-solving stage to initiate reevaluation of the problem situation is dependent on where (i.e. what step) intervention design and implementation break down.


In order to effectively consult and collaborate with teachers and other specialists, we recommend that school counselors understand and have knowledge of the critical problem-solving components required for developing effective intervention strategies for assisting students with significant learning and behavioral difficulties. The team approach is the cornerstone of effective prereferral intervention systems and is a means of enhancing general educators' ability to serve students with learning and behavior problems (Carter & Sugai, 1989).  As such, Teacher Assistance Teams represent a proactive strategy through which school counselors are well positioned to facilitate the construction of educational environments that will serve to maximize every student’s academic potential.

It is our view that school counselors can increase their effectiveness as consultants by knowing and asking the important questions that drive all phases of the problem-solving process. It is unlikely that satisfactory progress toward intervention design and implementation will be made unless these questions are posed, discussed, and answered. School counselors can use these questions to systematically guide the pre-referral process, whether it is through team efforts or in collaboration with an individual teacher. At the same time this systematic approach will ensure quality and accountability when providing services for all students.



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Author Biographies

Arthur W. Bangert received his doctorate at the University of South Dakota in 1995. He is an Assistant Professor in the Department of School Psychology at Idaho State University. Dr. Bangert has been a teacher, counselor and school psychologist in the public schools for the past 23 years. Research interests include peer assessment, applications of generalizability theory and prereferral intervention.  Contact information: 1550 E. Terry St., Pocatello, ID 83209, Ph: 208-637-1217, Fax: 208-282-2244, E-Mail: bangarth@isu.edu

Julie P. Baumberger is Clinical Therapist at Community Services, Inc. in Russellville, Arkansas. She is a certified school counselor and specialist in the assessment of intellectual functioning. Her research interests include the role of the school counselor and students with disabilities, cognitive intervention strategies for students with learning disabilities and music cognition.