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Effective Problem Solving Teams

By: Yvette Arañas

In previous blog posts, we have described how a Multi-Tier System of Supports, or MTSS, can be used to determine which students are in need of additional, more intensive, interventions. We also discussed the importance of using data to make decisions and implementing research-based interventions. When a school attempts to implement an MTSS model, how can educators figure out what type of support each student needs and whether a student should receive intensive, one-on-one interventions? One approach that schools can take is to have a Problem Solving Team (PST). Such teams can help teachers plan and implement tiered interventions and collect data to identify which students need more intensive academic or behavioral support. Usually, a referral is made to the Problem Solving Team when a student is not showing improvements despite receiving Tier 1 (e.g., core) plus Tier 2 intervention.

What Does a Problem Solving Team Look Like?

The members of a Problem Solving Team act as consultants to teachers and other staff who have worked with a student. Because many of the referrals could reflect a variety of academic and behavioral problems, it is important to make sure that the team is made up of people from different educational positions who can offer different perspectives about students’ needs. Ideally, a PST will include at least one classroom teacher, a special educator, a school psychologist, a counselor or social worker, and the building principal. All PST members are encouraged to think about students’ school difficulties in relation to the expectations of students in the same grade level. The main job of the PST is to reduce any differences between those expectations and the student’s current school performance.

What Does the Problem Solving Process Look Like?

There are five main steps that the PST and the referring teacher should follow.

  1. Problem Identification: After the teacher refers a student to the PST, it is important to define the difference between the student’s expected level of performance and the student’s actual level of performance. To get a clear definition of this discrepancy, the team should examine the data already collected as part of efforts to help the student. In addition, some members of the team, and perhaps the referring teacher, should collect up to date information about the student’s current behaviors or academic performance.  Having such information before beginning new intervention will make it possible to examine the effects of any new intervention(s). For example, if a fourth grade student is struggling with reading, the team should look at the student’s screening data from assessments such as aReading, AUTOreading, or CBMreading. If progress data from current interventions are available, those should be reviewed as well.  If progress data have not yet been gathered, the PST should appoint someone to collect CBMreading progress monitoring data. Some members of the PST should also gather information from other sources, such as the student’s records, classroom observations, test scores, or interviews with the parent, teacher, and student.All the data that are gathered before beginning a new intervention are often referred to as baseline data. These data should help the team define the problem specifically. An example of an identified academic problem is, “Currently, fourth grader Paul is reading 30 correct words per minute on grade-level CBMreading passages while fourth grade students are expected to read 150 correct words per minute at this time of the year.”  An example of an identified behavior problem is, “April is on task 65% of the time in her math class, while her classmates were on task about 90% of the time in that same class.”
  1. Problem Analysis: After collecting the baseline data from multiple sources and with multiple methods, the team should try to figure out why the student’s problem is occurring. The team should develop an hypothesis, which is a specific statement that attempts to determine why there is a discrepancy between what is expected and the student’s current level of performance. Is the student struggling academically because she did not get enough practice doing the expected task ? Did she not have enough instruction? Is she expected to do a task differently than before? Is the task too difficult? Or is she refusing to do a task? Is the student struggling behaviorally because she does not know how to do the expected behavior? Is she trying to get something as a result of her behavior (e.g., attention from peers)? Or is she wanting to avoid something (e.g., assignments that are too easy for her)? For this step, it is important to focus on variables that can be changed, such as instruction, the classroom environment, and strategies to keep the student motivated. Although factors such as the student’s home life might contribute to the student’s challenges, focusing on such factors would not be helpful in informing the development of the intervention plan because such factors cannot be changed by school staff.
  1. Plan Development: When developing the intervention plan, the PST should make sure that the intervention is teaching the student the skill that he or she needs to learn or improve. In addition, decisions for selecting an intervention should be based on the baseline data that were collected and the hypotheses that were developed. For example, a student who has not had enough practice improving her reading rate is most likely to benefit from participating in a fluency-based intervention every day. If a student is not performing well because she is not motivated to do well, the team should consider implementing an intervention that would give the student an incentive for doing the given task.The team should also establish how data will be gathered to monitor the student’s progress. Collecting data for reading, math, and behavior can be relatively easy, particularly if a school is using an assessment system like FAST™. For academic skills like reading and math, the student can complete a brief 1 to 2 minute assessment each week. For behavior, a teacher can use a tool like the FAST Direct Behavior Rating (DBR) to estimate the percentage of time that a student displays a particular behavior within a class period, or keep a tally for each time a student displays a behavior. When collecting progress data, it is important to gather the data at regular intervals, usually weekly for academic skills and daily for behaviors..

    During this step, the team should also establish a goal that is specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound.  For instance, the team might decide that the student should be able to be on task in her math class for an average of 85% of the time by the last day of the current school year. Notice that a time frame is included and the expected behavior is defined quantitatively. The team could also be more specific and define what “on task” means (e.g., doing independent work, participating in class discussions).

  1. Plan Implementation: After establishing the plan and the goal, the plan is next implemented. Depending on the available resources, the plan can be implemented by the referring teacher, small-group interventionists, or another staff member who is well trained in academic or behavioral interventions. In addition, the team should check in with the person who is giving the intervention occasionally (especially during the first few weeks) to make sure that the intervention is done with fidelity. In other words, the intervention should be implemented the way it should be implemented. Many intervention programs include fidelity checklists, which outline the specific steps for each lesson in the intervention. A member of the team can do an observation during the first week of the plan and complete the fidelity checklist to provide the interventionist with some feedback. In most cases, an intervention needs to be implemented for about 6-8 weeks before it can be evaluated. The easiest way to organize intervention progress data is with a graph. Most intervention assessment systems, including FAST, automatically graph student progress data on a regular basis.  If such a system is not in place, a member of the PST should graph the data before the team meets for the Plan Evaluation step.
  1. Plan Evaluation: After the intervention has been implemented with fidelity and enough data have been collected, the PST should meet with the teacher to decide whether the plan was effective. Such evaluation is conducted by looking at the progress monitoring data to see where the student’s performance is relative to the goal. Specifically, the team should look to see whether the discrepancy that was defined in the first step decreased, increased, or stayed the same. Based on the data, the team should decide whether the plan should be continued, modified, or terminated. If the intervention is modified, the PST should meet with the teacher again after a few more weeks to determine whether the changes benefited the student’s performance. If a student continues to show a lack of progress despite having a well-implemented plan in place, the team might need to have a discussion about the possibility of referring the student for a special education evaluation.

Having a strong Problem Solving Team can help a school implement the MTSS framework effectively. A strong team  also can help educators understand how data-based decision making works. Team members can consult with teachers during all stages of the problem solving process and provide an objective way to identify a plan for an individual student and evaluate whether a plan is effective in helping the student.

Yvette Arañas is a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota. She was a part of FastBridge Learning’s research team for four years and contributed to developing the FAST™ reading assessments. Yvette is currently completing an internship in school psychology at a rural district in Minnesota.

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