Theoretical Foundations of School Psychology Research and Practice

The purpose of this chapter is to provide an orientation to theoretical foundations in the field of school psychology. We begin with a case study that highlights how different theoretical orientations can be used to explain similar behaviors and support the development of an intervention. After this introductory case study, we describe key historical issues in school psychology, as well as how theories have been situated in school psychology and used in research and practice. Next, we foreshadow the chapters in the book by describing core school psychology content areas with a brief review of relevant theories. This chapter concludes with a brief overview of the book chapters with common themes and key considerations across chapters that can guide a review and in-depth study of the chapters and the primary issues authors present.

Case Study

A Tale of Two Theories

Darnell Williams is a school psychologist employed at Farver Middle School in a large urban school district. He has recently started working with an 11-year-old boy, Freddy, to address issues related to school refusal. Freddy’s attendance was variable during the fall of the academic year and he has not returned to school after the winter break. His parents report that they are unable to get him to attend and have decided to enroll him in virtual home-based instruction for the remainder of the school year. Freddy has expressed that he is “too stressed” when at school and often perseverates about disliking school each evening in anticipation of attending the next day. His worrying each night has resulted in regular arguments with his parents and intense emotional outbursts. The distress Freddy experiences in the evenings has diminished somewhat since his parents started the virtual school, but he now exhibits worrying behavior consistently throughout his day. Freddy’s hither is responsible for the home instruction and is overwhelmed by having to manage both academic instruction and Freddy’s behavior. He has reported that Freddy often shuts down, engages in extremely negative self-talk, and sometimes screams and cries when he feels challenged with work or is asked to engage in a non-preferred activity. Math is a particularly challenging subject for Freddy. Although there are no concerns about Freddy’s achievement in math, it has never been a preferred subject area for him in school. Whereas Freddy’s teachers expressed concern about his overall attendance, they report that he is a very studious, engaged, and respectful student in class. They have not observed any of the behaviors that Freddy’s parents observe within the home setting. Darnell is meeting with Freddy’s parents next week to discuss a plan to address his school refusal and he wonders how to approach Freddy’s challenges.

Case Conceptualization Using Behavior Analytic Theory

Darnell’s training in school psychology was strongly rooted in behaviorism and he decides to rely heavily upon a behavior analytic approach (Baer, Wolf, & Risley, 1987; O’Neill, Albin, Storey, Horner, & Sprague, 2014) to address Freddy’s school refusal. When he meets with Freddy’s parents, they collaborate to clearly define the problem behaviors Freddy is exhibiting at home by focusing on identifying measurable and observable behaviors. They agree that the two most problematic behaviors are Freddy’s negative self-talk (i.e., negative statements about his ability) and perseveration about fears at night (i.e., stating worries repeatedly; asking for reassurance he can avoid certain situations). They also discuss antecedent and consequent conditions to understand what variables might be maintaining his negative self-talk and perseveration at night. Together, they identify that negative self-talk occurs most frequently when Freddy is asked to engage in a non-preferred task or activity (antecedent), such as challenging homework or attending school, and this generally results in him escaping or avoiding the situation or task (consequence). Freddy’s parents and Darnell further identify that his worrying behavior in the evenings most often occurs when the bedtime routine begins (antecedent) and often results in him receiving excessive reassurance and attention from parents (consequence). Ultimately, Darnell and Freddy’s parents determine that his negative self-talk is reinforced by escape and avoidance of aversive tasks and activities, whereas his perseveration on worries in the evening is reinforced by attention from his parents. They agree to develop a plan to address these two main behavioral functions.

To address his negative self-talk, Darnell designs a plan that incorporates key antecedent strategies whereby Freddy’s parents will restructure parent commands to increase the likelihood that Freddy will comply with non-preferred tasks and also establish a highly structured and fixed daily routine so that expectations and activities are predictable. Additionally, he recommends that Freddy’s parents slowly increase expectations for task completion with a specific reward system for homework completion and eventually school attendance that will help Freddy approximate a long-term behavioral goal of full-day school attendance. To address Freddy’s worrying behavior in the evenings, Darnell recommends they again establish a highly structured bedtime routine, employ planned ignoring when he begins to state his worries, and provide praise and physical reassurance (i.e., hugs, high fives) when he completes his bedtime routine while maintaining a positive attitude.

Case Conceptualization using Cognitive-Behavioral Theory

Imagine now that Daniell decided to conceptualize Freddy’s school refusal behavior using Cognitive-Behavioral Theory (Beck, 1976). During the meeting with Freddy’s parents, Daniell identifies that Freddy holds several irrational and maladaptive thought patterns related to his perfonnance in school, particularly as it relates to peer and teacher evaluations of hrs work and ability. He also identifies important environmental variables that have contributed to Freddy’s school avoidance, including high parental expectations for school achievement and parents’ inability to enforce work and school attendance when Freddy complains or refuses to engage in behaviors that are expected of him.

Darnell designs a treatment plan that includes weekly sessions with Freddy in his home using a modular cognitive-behavioral approach (Chorpita, 2007). During the initial stages of treatment, Darnell will focus on providing Freddy psychoeducation about anxiety and help him create a social-evaluative anxiety hierarchy whereby he identifies situations in school that cause him increasingly higher levels of anxiety and stress. For example, Freddy might indicate that raising his hand to answer a question, followed by completion of nightly math homework, followed by an end-of-chapter math test as situations that raise his level of stress on his hierarchy. Darnell will also incorporate sessions focused on helping Freddy restructure his distorted cognitions and adopt a more balanced and adaptive perspective about his perfonnance in school and utilize relaxation techniques to manage the physiological symptoms of anxiety. During the final stage of treatment, Darnell will use behavioral exposure as a way to help Freddy engage in activities he has been avoiding while utilizing his strategies to cognitively reframe distorted cognitions and manage his physiological distress through relaxation.


This introductory case study illustrates how a school psychologist might conceptualize or explain the behaviors of a hypothetical student, Freddy, from two alternative theoretical orientations. Adopting a specific theoretical orientation in both scenarios allowed Darnell to explain Freddy’s observed behaviors and the phenomenon of his school refusal, as well as develop strategies to treat or ameliorate his challenges. Although the goal of both approaches was the same -for Freddy to return to regular school attendance — the pathway to getting him there varied depending on which orientation Darnell applied. Using the behavior analytic approach, Darnell emphasized the manipulation of antecedents and consequences within Freddy’s environment to create new stimulus-and-response patterns and ultimately behavior change. Conversely, using the cognitive-behavioral approach, Darnell’s treatment plan balanced the role of the environmental variables with that of how Freddy thought about key interactions (i.e., faulty cognitions). So, which approach is best? Our goal for including this case study at the forefront of this book is not to make such a determination but rather illuminate that theories should be an important foundational element of school psychological research and practice and that there are multiple educational and psychological theories from which we might draw from in the field. An aim of this book is to orient readers to the most prominent theories guiding contemporary school psychology. We therefore turn our attention to a brief orientation to the field of school psychology next.

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