Educator's Guide: A Strategy of Courage, Wisdom & Caring

Carl, 11, a 6th grader, had punched another boy during recess. He had run away from school authorities who asked him to come to the office. When the mother was called, she said she was afraid of Carl and wouldn't be able to take him home with her. When the school then sent Carl to the emergency room, he was diagnosed as depressed and suicidal and was recommended for a psychiatric hospitalization. At the urging of the school social worker, the mother called a family therapist who was working with the school as a consultant in the School-Based Collaboration with Families program. This therapisr met with the family and demonstrated in one hour how the parents' battle with each other was the cause of the problem and how Carl's depression and anger were a function of his being overprotected and under-controlled by Mom and under protected (yelled at) and overcontrolled by Dad. The parents were receptive to the therapist's "systems" diagnosis, as opposed to an individual one, and agreed to patch up their adult differences and work together on a balanced approach to parenting Carl. The therapist met with the school personnel to discuss his experience with this kind of situation and to ask that Carl be readmitted to school so long as Carl's parents were really willing to change and deal with their "child terrorist" son. The school staff was extremely reluctant to accept Carl back into school without at least a month's hospitalization. At a "Collaborative Team Intervention" with Carl and all relevant family and school parties in attendance the parents were able to convince the school personnel that they were clear, for the first time, about the origin and maintenance of Carl's problem, did not blame the school, and were willing to do whatever was necessary to get their son under control. They agreed to pick Carl up from school daily at the first sign of his disrespect for school rules. Carl's problems at school disappeared within two weeks.

Educators today are faced with increasing numbers of students who skip school, come to school unprepared, disrupt their classes, abuse their peers, and show signs of anger, anxiety, and depression. Although it is clear that most of these student problems are not primarily individual problems, but rather problems created and maintained in relationships with adults, educators continue to use rhe "diagnostic lay-away plan" of individual diagnosis and treatment which included individual counseling, psychological testing, grade retention, special education and psychiatric and substance abuse hospitalization. There is another way.

A Re-Focus of Interactions

The School-based Collaboration with Families model is a method of school assessment and intervention through which student problems are examined from a systems perspective soon after the presentation of a problem, instead of last or never. Individual diagnoses such as learning disabilities, conduct disorder, depression and drug abuse are postponed until the relationships in the student's world are analyzed. These relationships include the parent-child, parent-parent, parent-teacher and teacher-child relationships, to name a few. Most student problems stem from dysfunctions in these relationships and, therefore, these relarionships are assessed and treated first. Disfunctional approaches and marital conflict are the two most common correlates of student school and home problems.

The School Decision Chart

The School Decision Chart outlines a way for teachers - with the help of school specialists - to identify and solve relationship-based school problems. The process outline in this chart requires the teacher to continue to take primary responsibility for solving child school problems, instead of sending them for individual solutions to guidance counselors, school psychologists, social workers., special educators, administrators, outside therapists and institutions. Further steps in this chart should be taken every one or two weeks when solutions are not forthcoming.

Solutions to relationship-based student problems involve the re-structuring of these relationships. Parents who arc under- or over-protective, or under- or over-controlling of children are helped to find the proper balance in their use of protection and control. Teachers are similarly helped. Adversarial relationships between parents and educators are dealt with, as are adversarial relationships between educators and outside therapists and experts. Students of all ages are invited to be active participants in the diagnosis and treatment of their own problems and those of their "managers,' namely, parents, teachers, and other adults.

The CollaboratIve Team Intervention

The Collaborative Team Intervention (CTI) is a forum in which all relevant parties in a child's life, including parents, siblings, extended family, educators and others, get together to solve a child problem. The CTI is arranged only when previous smaller steps have been unsuccessful. In the atmosphere created in a Collaborarive Team Intervention, when it is conducted by a competent systems therapist or a consultant, the conditions maintaining the child's problem quickly become clear. Conflicts between parents or between parents and teachers, differing beliefs about the nature of the problem and about solutions to it, ineffective or abusive parenting or teaching styles, and other relationship problems are publicly diagnosed and discussed. Conflicting adults are asked and helped to resolve their conflicts. Parents and teachers are shown how to change their child management style. Children are asked and helped to explain their problems to adults. When everyone is present, multiple interactions are possible, and Iearning is enhanced. Commitments and agreements can be elicited from all relevant parties. Parents can agree to get tougher or more patient with their child. Teachers can agree to call home more often to coordinate efforts with parents. Experimental consensus can be reached and evaluated weekly until a solution is reached.


There is widespread opposition from school administrators and other educators to the use of the School-Based Collaboratrion with families model. Today's educators have been trained in a primarily individual or intrapsychic way of looking at the world and are often quite reluctant to give it up. The school-based systems model of intervention requires a "paradigm shift" in school practice which requires courage, wisdom, and caring, the three qualities sought by the Lion, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz. These commodities are difficult to find in one human being. It is a lot simpler to continue to blame children, imaginary intra- psychic disorders, disabilities, dysfunctions, deficits, and other "d" diagnoses, and to avoid the difficult task of honest and open sharing among the student's adult managers.

The Solution

The fastest solution to decreasing educator frustration with student problems that don't go away may be the adoption of the School-Based Collaboration with Families model and the pursuit of adequate training in this model. The key questions for educators to ask parents are as follows:

"Do you agree that your child has a problem?"
"Do you agree that it is serious?"
"Do you have a solution to the problem?"
"Are you motivated to find a solution?"
"Are you very motivated to find a solution?"
"Will you be willing to look in the mirror with us, the school educators, to see what we, the adults - are doing to create and maintain this problem?"

Schools put 90% of their time and money into individual, intrapsychic diagnoses and treatments and 10% into systems analyses and treatments. If these percentages are reversed, a format can be created for adults to look into their personal, marital, and child management dysfunctions, and child problems will be a lot easier to solve.

For appointments and scheduled consultations, please contact Dr. J. Brien O'Callaghan at or write to him at J. Brien O'Callaghan, Ph.D., 246 Federal Road, C-32, Brookfield, CT 06804