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Introducing New frameworks for Understanding Relationships

Once potential relationship resources have been identified, the consultant can begin to work with the teacher to promote positive changes in the teacher-child relationship. Recalling the model of dyadic interaction described in the first chapter, this consultation process involves working at multiple levels of the teacher-child relationship, most importantly accessing the teacher's representation of the relationship and working to promote change in actual behavioral patterns between the child and teacher. This chapter focuses on the first level of intervention, by describing practices designed to enhance teachers' understanding of their relationship experiences with children by accessing their perceptions, feelings, and biases about specific children's relationship behavior toward them. However, one principle that will become apparent in this discussion is that the separate practices discussed with respect to strengthening teacher-child relationships, in this and the next chapter, are not isolated from one another. If applied in concert or in combination, these interventions strengthen the possibility of changing the overall quality and functioning of the relationship that promotes self-sustaining change.

Teacher perceptions of children, like other strongly held feelings and beliefs, do not change easily, especially if they involve "problem children." Teachers, like parents, feel defensive about having their perceptions changed, or attacked, and rightly so. Recall that representations of relationships are the product of experience (feelings, behaviors, and information) accrued over thousands of interactions. Unlike psychologists who interact infrequently with children, teachers are there every day, all day-collecting lunch money, teaching reading and social studies, putting on coats, monitoring peer behaviors, watching kids in the halls and at recess, all with, at least in part, an agenda to promote socialization and skill performance. Over these thousands of interactions, certain patterns appear (Stern, 1989). Certain feelings are triggered on a predictable basis, and certain behaviors or reactions can be expected. In this way, a teacher's representational model of children (or a child) is based on the sum total of her real-life experience (and of the child's experience). These representations guide the teacher's behavior toward the child as well, often in a self-fulfilling way, and lead to relatively stable patterns of behavior and feelings over time.

In several studies of elementary school teachers, involving more than a thousand teachers and many thousand children, one item from the Student-Teacher Relationship Scale, "Dealing with this child drains my energy," typifies the teacher who is frustrated and in conflict with a child. Teachers endorsing this item often have high scores on relationship conflict. This specific item and others on the Conflict dimension signal a teacher who is feeling out of control and ineffective in this relationship, probably for a variety of reasons. These are teachers for whom teacher-child relationship feedback or exchange processes with specific children are not functioning well. These teachers feel they cannot communicate with the child, and their feelings, beliefs, and perceptions about the child's behavior are often narrow, negative, and fixed. For example, one teacher stated, "He is always trying to make me angry . . . why does he do that? I wonder sometimes if he actually tries to get me going, almost like he knows that I'll be upset . . . like the other day when he tipped over a paint bucket . . . there always seems to be trouble around him. I talk about this to my husband so much he's tired of hearing it."

In this quote from a TRI, note the emphasis on all exchanges with the child, the negative emotional tone, and the locus of blame in the child. In this context, even if the child did change his behavior, the teacher's expectations for negative interactions are ingrained in ways that make it difficult for her to perceive the child's more positive intentions or behaviors. In these cases, there is a need for intervention at the level of the individual teacher's representations of her relationships with children.

The goals of the interventions described in this chapter are to create representations that

(a) are more flexible and differentiated, in which there is evidence that the adult sees and interprets the child's behavior in a range of ways, both positive and negative, and that these representations are contextualized (i.e., tied to the child's actual behavior and not global characterizations);

(b) are more positive in tone, or at least reflecting positive and negative emotions in a more integrated manner and, thus, if the teacher does have negative beliefs or feelings about the child, these will be balanced by positive experiences, or by an understanding of the child's needs that give rise to the behaviors that the teacher characterizes as negative; and

(c) reflect the teacher's belief and experience that her behavior affects the child, and thus there will be an absence of blaming the child for the entirety of relational problems, and observations of instances in which the teacher feels effective and can link the child's behavior to hers.

Together, these features characterize a representational model that is more open to new information, more responsive to the child, and more integrative and balanced. These changes, independent of efforts to change behavior (through coaching or behavior management), have been shown to result in increasingly positive patterns of interaction between adults and children (see Stern, 1989).

Gaining Access to the Teacher's Representations

The first step in working to alter a teacher's representations of a particular child is to facilitate the expression of her thoughts and feelings about the child. Semi-structured interviews, such as the TRI, can facilitate this step and in many cases accelerate intervention. The key concern at this point is to have the teacher put words to the feelings and beliefs she has regarding the relationship. However, using verbal communication and interviews to gain access to these perceptions can be problematic because, understandably, the teacher may become defensive about difficult or embarrassing circumstances. Also, relying on recall or even observations by others (typically of short duration) can limit the information available for processing in the consultation.

One very helpful tool to use in facilitating expression of representations is videotape, used as a source of feedback to the teacher. The use of videotape addresses two needs in consultations of this sort-first, the need to have accurate, "third-party" (neutral) feedback on teacher and child behavior to introduce as an information source to the teacher's representations. Second, videotape allows for the targeting of very specific interactions under the control of the viewers, and is not subject to selective recall or lack of memory.

Arrange to videotape in the classroom during a period of time that suits the nature of the concern.1 This might involve a reading group time in which the target child participates, a seatwork time, or some other arrangement. In nearly all cases, it is a good idea to videotape the period of most concern and a time in which the teacher reports that things go fairly well (this promotes the goal of developing a differentiated view of the relationship). One of the strategies of intervention is to provide new sources of information to the teacher's representational model of the child and, therefore, it is helpful to have recordings of times in which the child does not behave as expected or predicted; these are good times to tape.

Before bringing a video camera into a classroom, it is important for the teacher to have a clear understanding of the purpose of this method of gaining information. It is not intended to "catch" the teacher doing something wrong, but rather to provide an objective source of information, one that can be returned to throughout the intervention. Trust is an essential part of this type of consultation.

Additionally, the teacher should be asked to prepare the students for the presence of a camera in the classroom. The teacher may simply tell the students that the consultant is interested in seeing what goes on in a typical day in their class. Therefore, students should be asked to do their best to act just as they usually do and ignore the camera as much as possible. Although the consultant will often be interested in a particular child, an effort should be made to tape interactions with several children. This prevents the target child from feeling "on the spot" and also may provide examples of other interactions to be used in consultation session. In order to reduce the distraction that may be caused by a camera, an attempt should be made to set up before school or during a time when the children are not in class.

Promoting Change in the Teacher's Representations

In viewing the videotape, the goal is to utilize the information as a source of input to the teacher's representations. This input can be in the form of the child's behavior, the teacher's behavior, or the feelings that the tape triggers for the teacher. The initial approach to the tape must be as neutral as possible. In order for it to have the desired outcome, consultant and teacher need to understand the tape-viewing as a means of jointly coming to learn about and understand this teacher's relationship with a particular child. Under these circumstances, review of the tape will be served well if the consultant has administered the TRI as an initial assessment so that both consultant and teacher have a somewhat shared set of information about the relationship under consideration.

Consultant and teacher then view the tape together. The worksheet entitled, "Using Videotape to Access Representations" provides detailed suggestions for promoting a discussion during the viewing of the videotape. Throughout these sessions the consultant should work to:

1. Help the teacher narrate her experiences with and representations of the child.

2. Identify interactional patterns between the teacher and child.

3. Work with the teacher to hypothesize alternatives to difficult situations which occur frequently.

Narrating and Labeling the Teacher's Representations

The consultant may ask the teacher to narrate the tape and to label what she sees of her behavior and the child's. For example the consultant may ask, "Just tell me what you see going on between the two of you-what you are doing, thinking, and feeling, and the same for him. Let's not focus on whether you or he did the right or wrong thing, but just help me understand what's going on."

The consultant may then ask the teacher to identify critical episodes on the tape-situations that went well or poorly in the teacher's view, and then to recall her perceptions during those times. For example, "OK, now that I understand a bit more about what was going on, let's find the spot on the tape that shows things at their worst, and then find one where things are at their best, and tell me again what's going on, what you and he are thinking and feeling." These discussions might easily involve what the teacher was thinking or feeling at a particular moment or in response to a child's behavior, or they may involve the teacher identifying the links between her perceptions, her behavior, and the child's behavior. The consultant may also use the questions provided in "Using Videotape to Access Representations" to facilitate this discussion.

Throughout this process, the consultant helps summarize the teacher's narration of relationship experiences in more general terms. It is important for the consultant to affirm the teacher's thoughts and feelings throughout this discussion, while at the same time gently introducing objective insights. Use of validating statements serves to reduce the teacher's anxiety and defensiveness while increasing her participation in the consultation process. Ideally, as the consultation progresses, the teacher will begin to identify and verbalize her own insights about the relationship. Once the consultant feels that the teacher has become sufficiently aware of her representations of the relationship, the consultation is ready to move onto the following two steps, in which behavioral patterns are identified and challenged as a means of bringing positive change to the teacher's representation of the child.

Identifying Interactional Patterns

In subsequent sessions, the consultant might begin discussions with the teacher of her tolerances for children's relationship behaviors, her attitudes and feelings about these behaviors, and her responses to these behaviors. For example, the consultant might say, "You know, it seems to me that he actually does seem to comply once in awhile, and it seems to happen mostly when it's a request he can do, and when you and he have not been going at it for awhile. Sometimes it happens when you're physically close to him."

Over a couple sessions of observation and discussion, consultant and teacher might draw up a list of patterns that emerge across observations. The worksheet "Identifying and Promoting Change in Relational Patterns" provides a format for creating this list. Once the patterns have been identified, the teacher and consultant can move to the next step in which alternatives to these set patterns are discussed.

Hypothesizing Alternatives

Following the recognition of relational patterns, the teacher and consultant can generate a list of teacher responses to these patterns and follow-up plans. At this point, the consultant may also introduce new information or frameworks for understanding the child and interactions with the child. This depends in part on the consultant's use of theory when labeling narrations and observing relational patterns. Armed with a capacity to observe themselves in relationships with children and to understand the child's behavior in terms of the phases of socioemotional development, teachers can then apply this view of relationships to interpret and to hopefully change their interactions with the child.

Follow-up plans should be in the form of hypotheses to be tested-different forms of response the teacher might try, situations the teacher may create, or settings for the teacher to observe. These hypotheses are ultimately used to target representations-that is, they are ways of changing representations. Thus, teacher and consultant should approach this task as an experiment. Use the "Identifying and Promoting Change in Relational Patterns" worksheet to facilitate this step.

In subsequent sessions, the consultant should ask the teacher about the results of these follow-up plans. Attention should be given to alterations in the both the child's behavior and the teacher's thoughts and feelings about the child. If the follow-up plan did not attain the desired effect, the consultant and teacher may generate alternative solutions. Throughout this process, it is extremely important for the consultant to remain objective, supportive, and flexible. This stance, when consistent and genuine, serves as a model for the teacher's interactions, both in the consulting room and in the classroom.


The interventions described are aimed not at a teacher's behavior toward a child or children, but at her representations of behavior. The interventions were not explicitly intended to have the teacher do anything different, but to observe and understand differently. To the extent that behavior was altered, it was altered to test hypotheses about what the child might do, how the child might respond, how the teacher might feel, toward the goal of introducing new information to the representational model, information that would create pressure to reorganize this model. Admittedly, the ultimate end of such an intervention would hopefully be an alteration of interactive patterns between child and teacher. However, improvement in a relationship can take place when someone experiences a relationship more positively once they understand the perspective or behavior of the other, without making a great deal of change in behaviors per se. The introduction of new information, of changing the representations of the relationship, actually alters the relational experience of the partner.

1 Note that depending on school policies, the consultant may need to obtain consent before videotaping a child.

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