Last October, Julie Mara, a third-grade teacher at Sunset Heights Elementary School in Nashua, N.H., noticed one of her students struggling to compose sentences. She teamed with school psychology doctoral intern Arlene Silva to systematically assess the student's skills. Their conclusion: The student didn't understand the parts of speech that comprise a sentence. Silva and Mara designed an intervention that included putting a parts-of-speech checklist on the child's desk so that he could make sure each sentence he wrote had at least a subject and a verb. The child's work is improving, and Silva and Mara continue to meet once a week to monitor the intervention and graph data on his improvement.

Mara and other staff at Sunset Heights are beginning to work with Silva on such academic assessment and intervention through the Instructional Consultation (IC) Teams model-a team approach developed by school psychologist Sylvia Rosenfield, PhD, to aid students with academic or behavioral challenges.

"I really enjoy the team approach," says Mara. "I feel Arlene truly cares, and the ownership of this child's success is on both of us. We're making progress."

Over the past 18 years, more than 150 elementary and middle schools in seven states have successfully implemented the IC Teams program, supported by the Laboratory for IC Teams in the University of Maryland (UMD) department of counseling and personnel services. In IC Teams schools, UMD lab staff train administrators, general and special education teachers and other school personnel to work as consultants in concert with classroom teachers. Together, they intervene before students are referred to special education programs. The teacher and consultant comprehensively evaluate the student, develop interventions based on psychological principles and collect data to document the child's improvement. In addition to being popular with teachers, principals and school psychologists, IC Teams have reduced the number of students referred to special education, particularly among minority students and English-language learners.

Need for a new model

Traditionally, school psychologists have served as gatekeepers to special education, says Steve Knotek, PhD, an assistant professor of school psychology and early childhood education at the University of North Carolina.

"The role of school psychologists needs to evolve so that we do more than assessment to get kids out of the [general education] classroom and into special ed," he says. "With IC, school psychologists can help regular education teachers intervene with students who do not qualify for special education."

Though the goal of IC Teams is not to evade special education when those resources are needed, says Rosenfield, early interventions can correct problems in the classroom. "IC Teams are an attempt to work very carefully in the context in which the problem first appears, when it is a relatively small problem," she adds.

Psychologists are ideally suited to take more active roles in identifying these problems in academic performance and initiating change, notes Rosenfield, because much of learning is based on psychological principles such as working memory, prior knowledge, repetition and the use of feedback.

"A lot of psychologists get into the school setting with knowledge, but they don't necessarily have a way to interact with teachers to deliver it," adds Todd Gravois, PhD, who co-directs the Lab for IC Teams with Rosenfield. IC Teams give them that opportunity.

The team serves as a centralized problem-solving unit, models interactive professionalism and operates as a consultant panel for each other and for teachers in the building, says Rosenfield.

The model, developed in the 1980s by Rosenfield, takes five years to fully implement in a school. Staff from the UMD lab begin by training a facilitator-usually a school psychologist-for each interested school. The intense process involves one-on-one, on-site and online coaching with an IC Teams trainer in areas such as how to create change in schools, communication skills, problem-solving and how to asses students and design evidence-based interventions.

The facilitator then assembles and trains for a given school a team of consultants that includes the school principal, teachers and other support personnel.

When teachers notice that a student is struggling, they request help from a consultant. This request for help is always voluntary, says Gravois, which prevents the teacher from feeling that their teaching skills are in question. A team member volunteers to collaborate with the teacher, and they work together in a systematic process to identify exactly what skills the child is lacking, and together they implement an individualized plan of action. "We work with teachers to refine the problem into measurable, observable goals so we can collect data and set short-term, intermediate and long-term goals," says Rosenfield. "Though the intervention is evidence-based, it might need modifications. So we check data, evaluate the effects of interventions with the teacher, and if there is a problem and things aren't moving well, the team is a resource."

Effect of IC Teams

Evidence-based practice is a hallmark of not only the classroom interventions, but also IC Teams in general.

In a 2002 article published in the Journal of Applied School Psychology (Vol. 19, No. 1, pages 5-29), Rosenfield and Gravois found that implementing IC Teams in 10 schools in a suburban Maryland school district resulted in 27 percent fewer referrals to special education and 25 percent fewer placements into special education after the first year.

Gravois and Rosenfield are particularly interested in how IC Teams can benefit minority students and English language learners (ELLs), who are traditionally overrepresented in special education. In a 2006 article published in Remedial and Special Education (Vol. 27, No. 1, pages 42-52), the pair found that IC Teams schools had significantly fewer minority students referred to and placed in special education compared with minority students in non-IC Teams schools. In addition, 46 percent of ELLs initially referred to IC Teams were ultimately referred to special education, compared with 100 percent of students referred at non-IC Teams schools, according to a poster presented in 2004 by Silva and Rosenfield at the National Association of School Psychologists annual convention.

Rosenfield acknowledges the need to move from program evaluation and quasi-experimental designs to the "gold standard of random assignment." A recent grant will help her do just that-in 2005, the U.S. Department of Education's Institute for Education Sciences awarded the IC Teams lab a four-year, $1.8 million grant to compare 17 IC Teams schools with 17 control schools in Prince William County, Va.

"The public deserves to have their children educated using methods that are either known to be effective, or the effectiveness of which is under systematic investigation," says UMD professor Gary D. Gottfredson, PhD, who is co-principal investigator on the grant with Rosenfield.

Although preliminary data suggest that IC Teams are effective, they aren't without their challenges, notes Rosenfield.

The training program is intensive, and it involves a commitment of many hours over several years. "We try to train deeply also because of the churning within districts of superintendents, principals and school staff," she says. "Those we train within the schools tend to move on as leaders, so we need to be sure that the team has enough depth to continue when staff changes." In addition, she adds, another major challenge is moving school staff away from believing that students are in some way defective or that their families are the source of their problems. Instead, says Rosenfield, she'd like staff to believe that classroom teachers can make a difference when they have the support of a colleague and a structured problem-solving process, including an understanding of how to use classroom data.

These challenges aside, field-based research and survey evidence suggest that school staff benefit from IC Teams. Knotek, who also conducts qualitative research on IC Teams schools in North Carolina, notes that several school psychologists he's interviewed have expressed that the IC Teams approach has recharged their careers. In addition, research presented at APA's 2003 Annual Convention by lab staff found that more than 80 percent of classroom teachers report being "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with IC Teams, and 93 percent reported learning one or more skills or strategies as a result of their IC Teams experience.

Howard County, Md., elementary school principal Karen Moore-Roby first learned of IC Teams when she was a newly appointed principal in an IC Teams school. When she opened a brand-new school 10 years ago, during interviews she asked potential staff members if they were familiar with the model and willing to participate on teams.

"I think it's the best approach to solving problems we all deal with every day, and it's supportive of classroom teachers, who sometimes feel very isolated in the work they do," she says. "It looks at best practice in terms of instruction, not at labeling a student as disabled or getting them out of a classroom."

Further Reading

For more information on IC Teams, visit www.icteams.umd.edu. The IC Teams model is fully described in “Instructional Consultation Teams: Collaborating for Change” (The Guilford Press, 1996) by Rosenfield and Gravois.