An Introduction to Collaborative Problem Solving (with Dr. Ross Greene)

I was first introduced to Dr. Ross Greene’s work on Collaborative Problem Solving during a discussion about at-risk students at Ed Camp Vic 2016. While he has published several books and has a website about his practice that is filled with helpful tools, I decided to start learning about this approach by working through one of his video series, which I’ve included below. I’ve also included a few notes from each video about the points I found most interesting. Please keep in mind that while many of my notes are drawn directly from his videos, they are not direct transcripts, just key quotes/points that stood out to me.


Kids do well if they can

Kids do well when they can! It’s not a question of whether they want to or not, it’s a question of whether they have the tools to do so.

What’s Your Explanation (videos 1 and 2)

Conventional wisdom for why challenging kids are challenging: because of “passive, permissive, inconsistent, non-contingent parenting”. But then, what about the families who use traditional discipline and it works for some of their kids but doesn’t work for others?  What about those kids where reward/punishment seems to make the child act out even more?

If you think a child is acting out because they want to get or avoid something, you will work hard to convince them that their behaviour isn’t working (generally using rewards or punishments). But what if their behaviour is because of delayed development of certain cognitive skills (flexibility, adaptability, frustration tolerance, problem solving?

If you start thinking about challenging kids as though they have a skill deficit rather than a motivation deficit, then you want to teach the skills rather than provide motivation (through reward/punishment). Greene found that when teachers began to apply the same compassion towards these kids as you would towards any other child with a developmental delay their behaviour began to improve. In contrast, when they kept treating these kids as though they were “limit testing” and “unmotivated”their behaviour would tend to get worse.

Maladaptive behaviour occurs when the cognitive demands put on a individual exceed that person’s capacity to respond adaptively. 

Be Responsive

People who have well-behaved kids take too much credit for having well-behaved kids and parents whose kids aren’t particularly well-behaved are too often blamed for their children’s behaviour.

Don’t treat kids exactly the same because every child is different. Good teaching means figuring out what each child needs and making sure that they get it. In a classroom this means paying attention to the needs of individuals as well as the needs of the group. Because this is so hard to do, classroom teachers often sacrifice the individual for the well being of the group. Being responsive to the needs of individuals and the needs of the group need to be linked!

Check Your Lenses

We can view challenging behaviour through many lenses.

Diagnosis lens: doesn’t actually tell you what skills are lacking or what is precipitating the behaviour. Pathologies kids, when really it’s the demands of the environment exceed the child’s capacity to respond adaptively. Takes two to tango: the child’s lagging skills and the demands we are placing on the kid.

The lens of poor parenting or genetics: blaming parents/family for their child’s behaviour.

Lagging skills and unsolved problems are the filters Greene uses to screen information he gets about any given kid. These are two ares where we can actually do something to help!

What skills is this kid lacking? What unsolved problem set them off? If you consistently treat kids who lack the skills like they are unmotivated, they will soon lose their motivation.


Three Options for Solving Problems

3 Options for solving problems:

Plan A) impose your will (this will cause challenging behaviour for challenging kids) because it requires cognitive skills to handle well. Plan A causes challenging behaviour in challenging kids. Meanwhile, the non-challenging kids may have the skills to deal, but you only teach those kids that might makes right.

Why do we use plan A then? Because it feels convenient, can make things happen quickly, and it is what many of us were taught.

Example. “Time to brush your teeth” (This is not plan A, just an expectation. How you handle an expectation is plan A, B, or C. Plans are only for UNMET expectations.)

“I’m not brushing my teeth”

Plan A response: You MUST!

Plan B: (discussed in a later video)

Plan C: Drop the expectation for now.

Emergency C: Drop the expectation in the moment (Example “I’m not brushing my teeth”. Emergency plan C: “Okay”

Alternative C would mean removing the expectation altogether because you know the reaction will be “NO”. Act as a tour guide when teaching kids how to regulate their emotions. Plan C is not about giving in. It’s about choosing a starting place (ex. teach empathy, then math). Focus on big problems first to avoid an outburst, deal with little stuff later. 

Remember, expectations are a good thing! But when you encounter unmet expectations you may need to reassess if they are realistic in this point of the child’s development. Can this kid do what we are expecting? Plan C is about dropping expectations, at least FOR NOW. However, if all you are doing is switching between plan A and plan C, you are just picking your battles.

Plan B is not about battling. It’s a way of operating with a kid who is lacking skill and has problems they are having difficulty following. Plan B isn’t going to work in a day. It’s going to take awhile!

Plan B (videos 1 and 2)

3 steps for plan B:

1) Empathy (information gathering from kid so as to understand his concern or perspective on the unsolved problem we are trying to talk to him about right now)

  • Example: “I’ve noticed this has been happening. What’s up?”. The key to this observation is that it is NEUTRAL (ex. NOT “I’ve noticed you are trying to disrupt my class”. Non-neutral observations shut the kid up. Being neutral gets them talking!)
  • Life gets interesting the moment you say “what’s up?” Something is going to happen. S/he will say something, or s/he won’t. S/he may just say nothing. You may need to be quiet and patient. Watch for nonverbal cues (already forgot the question, I don’t want to talk to you, I’m thinking).
  • The first thing s/he says is unlikely to be the whole picture. You need to drill for more information. At each point ask yourself, “do I understand yet?” If not, keep asking.
  • “I don’t know” scares people, but it just means that you need to do more exploring
  • Kids have legitimate concerns, but adults often ignore them because they are afraid it will mean sacrificing their own concerns.
  • Adults often think they already know what the kids concerns are. Try to enter plan B with an OPEN mind. Don’t rush! This is not emergency B, it’s preemptive B. Rushing makes it hard to gather information.
  • All you are doing the first time you move into plan B is to gather information

2) Define Problem (adult or other party gets their concern or perspective on the table)

  • Once the kids concern is on the table, you can bring your problem to the table. His concern needs to go first or else the kid will think you are sticking to plan A (going to push him around).
  • What’s the hardest part about the empathy step? Asking the right questions and keeping an open mind! Adults don’t always know what their concerns are either.
  • Dueling solutions/ power struggle: power struggles are ALWAYS win-lose. Someone has to lose. Collaborative problem solving is win-win. The goal is to address the concerns of both parties. You don’t know what problem you are trying to solve until BOTH concerns are on the table.
  • Adult concerns can usually be fit in 3 categories 1) safety 2) learning 3) how your behaviour is affecting yourself or others
  • Adults have legitimate concerns too. What about when the adults put their concerns on the table and the kids says “I don’t care” – maybe he is used to people not caring about his concerns? Plan A begets plan A, plan B begets plan B. It may take time to encourage empathy to flow both ways.

3) The Invitation/brainstorming (brainstorm solutions that will address the concerns of both parties that we have now explicitly laid out in our first 2 steps)

  • One both party’s concerns are on the table it is time for 3rd step: brainstorm solutions together so as to address the concerns of both parties. Hard for people to start thinking beyond themselves. Takes bravery, effort and practice. Invitation means it is WITH the kid, not TO the kid. Once the kid knows you are trying to meet his concern too, then he will try to help solve the problem with you.
  • Remember, a lousy plan B is still better than excellent plan A. It’s all a part of learning.



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