ERIC Identifier: ED315705
Publication Date: 1990-00-00
Author: Golden, Larry
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Counseling and Personnel Services Ann Arbor MI.
Brief Family Consultation in Schools. Highlights: An ERIC/CAPS
Brief family consultation is a short-term strategy that enlists the home and
school in an attempt to solve childhood behavior problems. It is ideally suited
to a school setting where there are severe limitations on the counselor's time.
Further, the skills involved draw upon those that are taught in most counselor
education programs: active listening, behavior modification, and interpersonal
Brief family consultation, in common with family therapy, is based on systems
theory. Systems theorists assume that the presenting problem is not that of the
child alone. Individual problems are seen as relationship problems. Experienced
counselors are aware of the importance of working closely with the family when a
child exhibits behavior problems. The family is in a powerful position to
support or sabotage the best efforts of counselors and teachers on a child's
behalf (Palmo, Lowry, Weldon, & Scioscia, 1984).
A functional family can make rapid gains in
counseling; a dysfunctional family will bog down in rigidly fixed patterns of
communication and will resist the school counselor's attempts at change.
Therefore, a quick method of assessing a family is important to the success of a
A functional family, that is, one that will respond successfully to a brief
intervention, will score "high marks" on each of these criteria: (a) parental
resources, (b) chronicity, (c) communication between family members, (d)
parental authority, and (e) rapport with professional helpers (Golden, 1988).
Parental resources. Are these parents capable of providing for their child's
basic needs (food, shelter, and care)? A stable marriage, an extended family,
and gainful employment are resources that work in favor of the parent's attempt
to bring a child's misbehavior under control. On the other hand, young,
immature, single parents have fewer resources at their disposal. Families in
which there is a history of extreme poverty or alcoholism bring very limited
capacity to the task of managing childhood behavior problems.
Chronicity. An acute problem with an identifiable psychosocial stressor
presents an opportunity for behavior management; a chronic problem may indicate
the need for long-term therapy. A parent's response such as, "She's always been
a difficult child," suggests a less favorable prognosis than, "His grades have
gone downhill since October, that's when I lost my job."
Communication between family members. Can family members communicate well
enough to solve problems? According to Satir (1972), there is a normal tendency
to close down communication during periods of stress. In dysfunctional families,
closed communication is the rule, not the exception. This closed system is
maintained by yelling, blaming, sarcasm, or more ominously, silence. The
following interaction illustrates a closed, defensive system:
Counselor: (To 9-year-old) Tell your father how he can help you or encourage
you to get better grades.
Father: (Angrily interrupts) He would have to change his entire attitude
before I'll help with a damn thing! He wants to squeak by doing nothing and
that's just what he'll amount to!
Mother: (Putting her arm around Jeff and addressing Father) You can't expect
a child to do hours of homework after being in school all day long and on top of
doing all of those ridiculous chores you make him do.
With his furious outburst, Father ensures that a meaningful dialogue with
Jeff will be avoided. Mother reinforces her son's dependency by speaking on his
behalf against Father.
Parental authority. Are parents effective in asserting authority? Parents in
functional families hold an "executive" position within the family organization.
In dysfunctional families parents surrender authority in the hope that conflict
with the child can be avoided. Children in such families are often out of
Rapport with professional helpers. Can parents and professionals work
together as a team? Do parents return phone calls? Are they punctual for
conferences? Central to the issue is follow-through; the functional family does
its "homework." Conversely, are the child's teachers responsive to parents?
An accurate assessment of family functioning
helps the school counselor decide which intervention to choose. A child in a
dysfunctional family may need a referral for family therapy. A brief family
consultation, however, may be sufficient for a misbehaving child in a functional
A brief family consultation requires three to five face-to-face family
conferences. The process is best described by an example of what the counselor
might say to parents in the initial interview. In this case, Brent, a
sixth-grader, presents a problem of getting into fights:
I am interested in working with you for a short period
of time, no more than five conferences, to help get Brent
to stop fighting. I think you can manage this situation
with only a little help from me and there is cause for
optimism. Before he started 6th grade, there were no
reports of any fighting. Brent is earning good grades
and, except for fighting, is well-behaved. As parents,
you have shown that you want to cooperate with school
authorities to get this problem solved. For my part,
I'll coordinate a team effort to include you, Brent's
teachers, and Brent, himself, if he is willing. If he is
not, we are still going to do everything we can to change
The family, and perhaps the teachers, will want to know about their time
commitment. When a brief consultation exceeds five family conferences without
resolution of the problem, another option, such as a referral for family
therapy, is called for. The time limitation can be therapeutic simply by
exerting pressure for results on consultant, teachers, and parents (Chandler,
1983). Typically, the task of the teachers is to provide the parent with a daily
report of the child's behavior. Note that contacts with the family are called
"conferences," not "sessions," because of the therapeutic associations of the
latter term. Likewise, the term "consultation" serves to emphasize that the
family does not need nor will it be receiving "therapy."
According to Haley (1980), parents must agree on three issues if they are to
manage their child's behavior: (a) the specific behaviors that are desired from
the child, (b) the mechanism by which the parents will know if their child has
behaved in the desired way, and (c) the consequences for behavior or
misbehavior. If marital discord surfaces, parents should be encouraged to work
toward agreement for the good of their child and deal with their marital
problems at some later time.
Family members may shut down communication in response to stress, such as
that caused by a child's misbehavior. Unfortunately, it is precisely during a
stressful episode that open communication is most important. A gentle and
respectful application of basic, active listening skills (e.g., paraphrasing,
reflection) will usually suffice to get people talking.
Parents are encouraged to take control of resources that could serve as
reinforcers. For example, a child who is "independently wealthy," sporting a big
allowance and a room full of electronic equipment, is in a position to ignore
his parents' demands for behavior change. In this case, the child's allowance
should be reduced to zero. He/she earns money by behaving responsibly.
Many of the best laid behavioral plans are defeated by ambivalence. In any
brief strategy, the motto must be, "Go for it!" Continuation of problematic
behavior, even in an otherwise competent child, may result in a negative and
habitual style of coping with stress.
While a systems intervention has great
advantages over individual counseling, there are circumstances when an
individual approach is desirable. If the family system is highly maladaptive,
indeed, destructive, the task for the counselor may be to help the child develop
sufficient self-worth and enough self-reliant behaviors to function
A weakness of the systems approach is that the process is crippled if a key
family member refuses to participate. However, a brief intervention can be
effective in single-parent families (Golden, 1983).
Chandler, L. A. (1983). Brief therapy: Ronny G.
Psychology in the Schools, 20, 215-218.
Golden, L. (1983). Brief family interventions in a school setting. Elementary School Guidance & Counseling, 17, 288-293.
Golden, L. (1988). Quick assessment of family functioning. School Counselor, 35, 179-184.
Haley, J. (1980). Leaving home: The therapy of disturbed young people. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Palmo, A. J., Lowry, L. A., Weldon, D. P., & Scioscia, T. M. (1984). Schools and family: Future perspectives for school counselors. School Counselor, 31, 272-278.
Satir, V. (1972). Peoplemaking. Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books.