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Effective Consulting: What Teachers Have Taught Me

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Behavioral analysts are constantly challenged to develop and provide effective behavior strategies designed to reduce or eliminate problematic behavior as quickly as possible. I've learned that creating an effectual behavior plan is only half the challenge. A behavioral consultant is effective only if the teacher actually implements the recommended strategies. While effective consultation has to accurately assess situations and develop creative and successful ideas, it must also make complex strategies practical, understandable and tailored to the person implementing them.

When I was a classroom teacher, I had both good and bad experiences with consultants. Teachers have the overwhelming responsibility to juggle 20 or more students, curriculums, state assessments -- plus parents. Therefore, when dealing with a student who exhibits challenging behavior, the consultation should be reassuring and accessible without adding to the teacher's stress level. Today, as a behavior analyst, I continue to learn valuable lessons from front-line teachers on how best to consult to them.

Logistics Matter

Never underestimate a logistical problem. It's often logistics that prevent one of my behavior plans from being implemented. It would be a mistake to think that logistical concerns are a teacher's excuse to avoid initiating interventions. When a teacher says, "I don't have an adult who can take him out of homeroom early" or "I have six students in the reading group, so I can't provide one-on-one attention to Johnny during that time" or "There isn't a small, quiet room in this building where he can calm down," it's incredibly important to listen and help solve the logistical problem- involving administrators if necessary. If a solution can't be attained, it's vital to bypass the problem with a new approach.

Practicality Beats Intricate

Even if the concepts behind the behavior plan strategies are complicated, the implementation of the plan must be simple. Early on I made the mistake of crafting beautifully detailed data sheets and token charts that often collected dust or ended up in the trashcan. I have learned to prioritize the required effort, making strategies as uncomplicated and easy to implement as possible. If I don't, the plan is dead on arrival. Asking the teacher questions about daily classroom life helps me design a system that will fit. When there's a lot to tackle, it's tempting to address as much as possible. However, picking one intervention or behavior to focus on at a time is more accessible to teachers than focusing on several. In other words, I might need to focus on the student's yelling in class before tackling his on-task behavior.

Modeling Ensures Understanding

We all know that modeling is an evidence-based component of skillful teaching. Teaching teachers is no exception. I've often had the experience where I leave a meeting with teachers nodding enthusiastically and reporting they totally understand the behavior plan. Only later do I find out that something was lost in translation. As clear as I think I have been, there is always room for misinterpretation. Modeling a student intervention is a great way to circumvent any confusion. Prior to modeling the implementation of the strategy, I like to introduce the behavior plan/strategy to the student and teacher together, ensuring everyone is clear, focused and on the same page.

Check in Quickly

Within the first two weeks of implementing a new behavior plan or intervention, I expect to be asked many questions. If issues aren't addressed within this time window, bad habits on the part of the student or teacher may become entrenched. What's worse, the teacher may abandon the plan altogether. Students never cease to amaze me. They often find loopholes in the plan or are initially resistant to certain strategies. Supporting the teacher and student is never more important than in the introduction phase. Tweaking the plan quickly during its onset is a must for long-term success. I count on teachers to keep me updated so we can facilitate the plan effectively. Once they are off and running they'll need the consultant less.

I've found the more closely I work with teachers, the better equipped I am to help them handle the classroom. I translate the lessons I learn from one teacher into new ways to help another who's handling a similar situation. Without a doubt, when the consultant is open to being taught, everyone benefits.

Jessica Minahan, M.Ed, BCBA, is a board-certified behavior analyst and special educator in the Newton, Massachusetts public school system. She is the co-author of The Behavior Code: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Most Challenging Students, written with Nancy Rappaport, M.D. (jessicaminahan.com)