Collaborative Problem Solving

Here is an interesting summary of a recent Kaplan Article…

In this thoughtful Kappan article, Harvard Medical School psychiatry professor Ross Greene says we need to get beyond giving students diagnostic labels (“oppositional defiant disorder”) and stop blaming poor parenting. It’s much more helpful to describe the specific skill deficits that prevent some students from doing the right thing in school. Examples of skill-deficit descriptions: He finds it very hard to understand the effect of his behavior on others and She has difficulty handling unpredictability, ambiguity, uncertainty, and novelty. Statements like these, says Greene, “provide a far more informative, compassionate, productive set of lenses than do diagnoses.”

​When educators discern the specific skills students lack, it becomes clear that challenging students aren’t challenging all the time. Their skill deficits become problematic only in situations that demand those skills – for example, when the girl who can’t handle transitions is confronted with a transition. This means that almost all challenging behavior is highly predictable.

Greene has pioneered an approach called Collaborative Problem Solving in which schools work to understand challenging behavior, communicate effectively with children, and work together to solve the behavior problems. Greene’s program, which claims significant results in schools, is built on these propositions:

Children do well if they can. If they don’t do well, it’s because they can’t – that is, they lack certain skills. So the crucial task for adults is to identify those lagging skills.

Doing well is preferable to not doing well. Children want to succeed, and if they don’t, adults shouldn’t attribute the failure to kids’ attention-seeking, manipulation, coercion, limit-testing, and button-pushing. The problem is skill deficits.

Challenging behavior doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Adults need to change their lens, says Greene, and view misbehavior in the context of the child’s development.

Behind every challenging behavior is a demand for the missing skill. But that “demand” is rarely articulated by the child – it’s up to adults to figure out how lagging skills are colliding with the demands of the environment. “In schools,” says Greene, “common unsolved problems include getting started on an assignment; completing an assignment; participating appropriately in circle time; behaving adaptively in the hallway, on the school bus, at recess, and/or at lunch; getting along with a peer; and interactions with a teacher.”

Problems should be solved proactively rather than in the heat of the moment. “Because unsolved problems are highly predictable,” says Greene, “solving problems before they occur is far preferable and more productive.”

Problems should be solved collaboratively. Unilateral problem-solving by adults (which Greene calls Plan A, very common in schools) often increases the chances of challenging behavior. “That’s because having someone else’s expectations imposed on you requires skills to handle well,” he says, “and those are skills that challenging students are lacking. Better to involve the student in the process.”

​Plan A is counterproductive, says Greene. He mentions Plan C, which involves deferring a non-critical problem so people don’t get overloaded. Plan B is his program, Collaborative Problem Solving, and it has three steps:

Empathy – The adult gathers information from the student and gets a clear picture of what the problem and the lagging skills are. For example, Shawn was sent to the assistant principal because he rudely told his math teacher that her help didn’t help. The assistant principal questions Shawn and learns that he doesn’t understand fractions, is fatalistic about failing math, and is embarrassed when the teacher offers to help him in front of his peers – hence his rude remark. Other than math, Shawn is doing well in school.

Define the problem – The adult states his or her concern or perspective about the unsolved problem. The assistant principal says that Shawn’s frequent trips to the office during math class need to stop and arranges a meeting with Shawn, the math teacher, and herself. It becomes clear that Shawn needs help with fractions but will continue to react inappropriately if the teacher tries to help him in class. He’s willing to stay after school for help, but has formed a negative view of the teacher’s ability to help him, mostly because he’s embarrassed by her attempts to help him in class – plus, he’s concerned that his friends might find out he’s staying after school for help in math.

Invitation – The student and adult brainstorm realistic and mutually satisfactory solutions. The assistant principal tries to find a time during the school day when the math teacher can help Shawn with fractions. Third period doesn’t work, but lunchtime is a possibility, as long as Shawn’s friends don’t know what’s going on. He and the teacher agree to give it a try and the teacher rises to the challenge of being a better explainer of fractions.

Source: “Collaborative Problem Solving Can Transform School Discipline” by Ross Greene in Phi Delta Kappan, October 2011 (Vol. 93, #2, p. 25-29),; Greene can be reached at; see Marshall Memo 260 and 355 for two other articles by Greene.

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