Too much advice?

An adviser has become extremely attached to a child with high health needs and his family. She sees input from other professionals as challenging her knowledge and understanding of what is best for the child.

An unsatisfactory meeting

At the end of the school year, an IEP meeting was held to review the needs of John, a child with high health needs. At the meeting was the assistant principal (who chaired the meeting), John’s mother, his classroom teacher, his teacher for the following year, Sally (the adviser who had been working with him), and another adviser from Group Special Education (GSE).

The meeting was tense. Sally and John’s mother shouted at and verbally attacked the GSE adviser over the reduction in John’s teacher aide hours. John’s teacher and the assistant principal were left feeling embarrassed, wary, and frustrated as the agenda for the meeting gradually became lost in a battle of words and accusations.

Shortly after, the assistant principal and John’s teacher came to see me. They were furious. The meeting had eventually been cut short, with the assistant principal shouting over the barrage that she would send out a summary of what had been achieved with John over the year. We all wondered what we were going to do next.

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Conflicting roles

At the beginning of the following year, John’s new teacher was soon concerned about his behaviour and the effect this was having on the rest of the class. She found his tantrums, screaming, and demands exhausting. His relationship with his peers was deteriorating. It was now clear the main problem was not his disability, but his behaviour.

I arranged a meeting with John’s mother. She told me that they were also having problems at home with John’s behaviour. I suggested that we use 0.1 of his Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS) funding to employ someone who could help us with a behaviour plan. She discussed this with her husband, and they reluctantly agreed. It seemed harder for them to accept his behaviour problems than his disability.

John’s mother told Sally about my intention. She also told her that she had agreed with my plan. Sally went nuts. She told us that she was totally against the idea. Apparently, John only needed her support, she could sort out his other problems as well as support him with his disability. There was no need for anyone else. She told me that the additional funding for time could be given to her to work with John. The classroom teacher was furious. She pointed out that Sally would not be able to work with John on his behaviour because she did not see that it was a problem.

By now, I was feeling very concerned for my classroom teacher – her state of mind and her health.

To ensure support for John’s teacher, I called in the adviser from GSE. She was more than happy to work with the teacher and the teacher’s aide to help solve the problems with John’s behaviour. Strategies were put in place, tried, and adapted as the need arose. There was consistency between the teacher and the teacher’s aide, but when Sally visited John for two days of the week, we could see that she was determined to undermine the strategies.

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Reflective questions 1

  • What is the problem or issue here? Is there more than one?
  • What would you do at this point if you were in this principal’s position?
  • What are the principal’s options for dealing with this dilemma?

Practitioner comments on dilemma

Principal one

  1. Sally could have been given more specific descriptions and details of John’s behaviour. Follow-up discussion could have highlighted how these behaviour needs required a different sort of expertise. The principal could have been more explicit about the need for Sally to be cooperating with the agreed course of action.
  2. The principal could set up a meeting with the class teacher, the teacher’s aide, Sally, and the GSE adviser, to focus on how to best meet John’s learning needs in the class environment. This could have been done using a thinking tool such as OPV (other people’s viewpoint), where all discuss the issue from the others’ points of view. The OPV tool creates a more cooperative working framework and they could have discussed a consensus solution that they all could live with. The principal would check that the solution was being used.
  3. There is an underlying issue here – what role should the adviser play in determining the programme? Sally’s involvement with John has led her to lose track of the big picture. Sometimes a conversation about how the child fits into the class and school setting helps to clarify the issues.
  4. It may be necessary to refer the matter to to Sally’s senior manager. This may be a one-off situation with John, but there may be a pattern that needs to be addressed as part of Sally’s performance management. Sally may have professional supervision on a regular basis, where the issue could be discussed with her supervisor.

Principal two

  1. I would have a discussion individually with the teacher and the parent initially, and then meet with Sally to discuss the issue. It would be helpful to include the teacher at this level.
  2. The principal could also contact Sally’s manager to discuss the issue. It wouldn’t be an official report, but a request to the manager about what may be helpful in dealing with this situation. For example, does Sally have history in how she deals with children?
  3. Longer term, it could also be worthwhile to negotiate protocols with advisers and RTLBs, in order to clearly identify roles and expectations while working in the school.

Leadership adviser

  1. Sometimes people do get very involved and possessive about their work, so it is necessary to have clear guidelines for roles and meeting protocols.
  2. It must be clear that the outcomes of an IEP, once agreed upon, are non-negotiable.
  3. GSE could have been asked to carry out an independent observation of John’s needs, and to help with the development of an IEP plan for all the team to follow. It seems that the meeting was left too late and patterns of behaviour were well established, making change harder to implement.
  4. Sally could have been left out of the meeting. The school has the right to decide who is to attend. At the meeting, the roles of the various parties present needed to be agreed on and recorded.
  5. The principal could speak to Sally’s manager about the conflict of interest and ask for a replacement for her.

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Actual courses of action taken by this principal

I asked Sally to call in to talk to me about how things were going with John. We discussed his learning before I asked about the behaviour management plan currently operating in the classroom. Her reply was that she thought it was too severe and unnecessary. When asked about the effect on other children within the room, she was less vocal, but thought that the teacher controlled the room well. The teacher was wanting more than this.

As this had been less than a satisfactory meeting, I decided to call a meeting between all parties (not an IEP meeting) to discuss the programme and to have an agreement from all concerned. This was held and a set of strategies was agreed to by all present.

A short while later, the GSE adviser came to see me, stating that the programme was continuing to be undermined. I asked both advisers to meet with each other and me. After discussing the need for a programme, support for the classroom teacher and the other children, and the role of each of the advisers, I left them together to discuss their roles. Sally agreed to use the strategies, albeit reluctantly.

John is now removed from the classroom when working with Sally, and the programme continues in the classroom. John’s behaviour is showing a marked improvement. Although the behaviour strategies are been maintained, they are now rarely being used.

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Reflective questions 2

  • By the time of the first major meeting for all parties at the end of the year, major tensions were already affecting the participants and the meeting was upsetting for people. What strategies could the principal have had in place to prevent the complexity and escalation of the problem?
  • The principal admits to being unsure of 'what will happen if the John’s behaviour deteriorates again'. What further decisions and processes need to be put in place to prevent such an outcome?
  • What have the school and the principal learned from this situation? In what ways does the dilemma provide useful learning possibilities for you and your school?

Writer’s reflection

As the two advisers generally worked with John on different days, they were rarely able to communicate directly with each other. Knowing the events of the meeting the previous year, I could have arranged a meeting between them earlier in the year.

It seemed to me that the problem was caused by the loss of professionalism by the adviser because of the relationship she had developed with the child. She disliked the idea that the school believed we needed more advice.

As the GSE adviser no longer has a need to be involved, we have peace, but I’m not sure what will happen if John’s behaviour deteriorates again.

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