Dr. Ross Greene's Collaborative Problem Solving:
Book Study: The Explosive Child (2005) by Dr. Ross Greene. NY: HarperCollins.
Read Ch 1-4: What issues or ideas does the author explore? Do you feel that your teaching practices may change as a result of what you have read so far? Why or Why not?
Greene introduces the idea of the “explosive child” and the fundamental belief which drives the book: “Children do well if they can” (16). I like the idea that rather than focusing on a clinical diagnosis from a textbook, Greene explains that the child simply doesn’t have the appropriate tools for the expected response. The explanation of what’s happening when someone explodes is succinct and helpful: “an explosive outburst - like other forms of maladaptive behavior -- occurs when the cognitive demands being placed upon a person outstrip that person’s capacity to respond adaptively” (17). I’m liking the fact that this approach doesn’t rely on the label of a diagnosis. Nor does it assume that kids want to be “bad” and act out. Rather, it assumes good intentions: as Greene explains, “it’s not that they don’t want to learn; it’s simply that they are not learning as readily as expected (12). More specifically, these kids are challenged in the “domains of flexibility and frustration tolerance” (12).
Greene tries to reframe thinking about “explosive” behaviour, which I find helpful. We get stuck thinking of “good” and “bad” behaviours too often and, as Greene puts it, get stuck “putting a lot of energy into motivating your child and teaching him who’s boss” which is counterproductive. I can think of many classroom moments from the early years of teaching where I’ve felt the need to make sure students recognize that I was in charge in the room when faced with challenging behaviour. This shift in thinking that Greene suggests seems easy (and logical, given how he presents it, but it really does fly in the face of traditional thinking and practice in schools. I’ve been fortunate to hear Dr. Greene in person and our board has tried to adopt CPS as a regular practice, so I know how much of a challenge it actually is.
I really like the idea that explosive behaviours are a result of a lack of skills (be they executive skills, language processing skills, emotion regulation skills, cognitive flexibility skills, or social skills) (24). I also appreciate Greene’s approach to dismiss diagnoses and parenting as “causes” for the lack of skills. Greene’s approach is logical to me: determine the lacking skill and let go of the idea that the behaviour is “attention-seeking, manipulative, or unmotivated” so that you can predict the explosive behaviour, and then teach the appropriate thinking skill (24).
Also interesting is Greene’s dismissal of reward programs or punishments; rather behaviours are a problem to be solved. Again, it’s logical to me that “thinking clearly and solving problems is a lot easier if a person has the capacity to separate or detach himself from the emotions caused by frustration” (29). This “separation of affect” (29) needs to be taught to kids. And, of course, it’s easier to understand how a person could explode if a person struggles to express herself through language, since “language is the mechanism by which most people solve problems” (33). Greene also explains how many people experience “a fairly chronic state of irritability and agitation that makes it hard for them to respond to life’s routine frustrations in an adaptive, rational manner” (37). Again, problem solving, rational thinking, and flexibility are recognized as skills that need to be taught, especially to people who “have a strong preference for predictability and routines, and struggle when events are unpredictable, uncertain, and ambiguous” (42). The idea of “emotional illiteracy”, from Daniel Goleman, is helpful to explain how social situations place stressors on people, leading to outbursts. These various triggers (defined as “a situation or event that routinely precipitates explosive outbursts”) are viewed by Greene as “problems that have yet to be solved” (47). By trying to understand the triggers or explanations for a child’s outburst, we can therefore “help the child develop the thinking skills and solve the problems” to limit the explosions (48).
Greene is right that as an educator, it’s easy to see the kids I’ve taught in the examples he’s using. I am intrigued by this approach and am certainly interested in trying it. I wish I'd had these ideas in hand sooner!! As mentioned before, many of my school board’s support staff (SERTs, EAs, ECEs, SSTs, Social Workers, Psychologists, Guidance Counsellors, Admin... there are more I am forgetting) have been trained in Greene’s approach, by Greene himself. I’ve chatted with people who have applied the approach and one thing is clear: it’s not easy. It requires a rethinking of what we normally do and it requires a lot of time. I’m interested to read more of the book to really understand the Collaborative Problem Solving approach.
Read Ch 5-6: What are three ways to manage an explosive child? Which plan do you prefer to use?
Plan A: impose your will
Plan C: drop the expectation for the time being
Plan B: work out a solution that is realistic, doable and mutually satisfactory (CPS: Collaborative Problem Solving). There are also 2 variations of this - Emergency Plan B (usually a discussion in response to a “heated” individual) and Proactive Plan B (which attempts to problem solve long-standing issues). Plan B consists of 3 steps: 1) empathy, in which you restate the child’s problem or concern; 2) define the problem, which is the clarification of the two concerns that need to be reconciled (parent’s and child’s); and 3) the invitation, which is the brainstorming of potential solutions and the acceptance of a mutually agreeable solution.
Ideally, Plan B is what I’d prefer to use, but let’s be honest, for most teachers, Plan A and C reign supreme. We talk about wanting kids to be independent and thoughtful, but much of school is really designed for the teaching of compliance (teaching “social norms” is still an expectation of the school system). When a kid is heated, plan C usually comes into play, but in the form of a rescue - something along the lines of sending the kid to the Resource Room or the office. I’ve worked with a few “explosive kids” over the years, and there were times where we reached a mutually agreeable solution, but for many adolescents, it’s a real struggle to identify the real problem or concern. Step 1 of the process is SO DIFFICULT. Many adolescents simply cannot identify what their real problem is, and it’s therefore so difficult to pinpoint it. Trying to empathize becomes an exercise in frustration for both parties. And, of course, there might be 30 other students to worry about.
As an example, I introduce Alice*, a student in my grade 10 Academic English class; Alice struggled with the course material and didn’t have any of her friends in the classroom. I asked Alice to put away her cell phone while her group was having a conversation. Alice had come to class late and had missed some of the instructions as well as the point of the activity (it was on the board, but she didn’t notice that either). Within 2 minutes of sitting down, she was on her phone, rather than engaging in the lesson. As it was the beginning of a period of timed, collaborative, group work, I asked Alice to put away her phone. She immediately became “heated” (it wasn’t the first time the phone had been a problem in my classroom) and indicated that if I didn’t let her use the phone, she’d just leave the class. My plan A response was to ask her to put the phone away again by explaining what we were doing and why; I had a lesson plan that I was determined to follow. I let her know that if she wanted to leave she’d have to go to the office, but that was her choice. She exploded, pushing aside books, throwing back her chair, swearing at me, calling me names, and making a scene while leaving the classroom. I watched to make sure she went to the office, which she did. Unfortunately, it was the last day she spent in my classroom.
I later found out that Alice had been kicked out of her dad’s house that morning and was facing homelessness (she had already been removed from her mother’s home earlier in the semester). She’d been using her phone to try to contact her dad as well as to contact friends to find somewhere to go that night. Additionally, to calm herself, she’d “self-medicated” that morning by getting stoned. Fortunately, we have a great social worker at our school, and we met a few times in order to resolve the issues that had been coming up in class. The social worker used the CPS approach to help Alice and I communicate and understand each other, but it was clear that even if we could “hear” each other, there were bigger issues than her getting grade 10 English. The social worker reminded me of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: if low level needs aren’t being met, then it’s really difficult to focus on cognitive/intellectual or even emotional needs. What I found most frustrating in all of our meetings to help Alice transition back to the classroom or to get her credit was that we’d seemingly make progress in one-on-one conversations, but then it would fall apart when the mutually agreed plan didn’t happen (we attempted a “credit rescue” where she’d work in Resource on the rest of the credit, which had modified expectations). Again, her basic needs (food, shelter, safety) outstripped her education.
So, I’m looking forward to reading more about Plan B and how to really do it well. I’m not sure it works in a classroom at the beginning of a lesson plan, but am interested to read on! I’m worried - since the target audience is clearly for parents - that Greene’s examples will usually be one-on-one or parent-child. Thus, I’m leaning towards the conclusion that this method is more beneficial for a teacher/ student after the student has been removed from a classroom setting.
*Student's name changed.
Read Ch 7-8 What solutions does the author propose? How successful would it be to embed these solutions into your daily classroom practice?
Greene spends much of chapters 7 and 8 teasing apart examples to help readers better understand solutions to problems that arise. Greene points out that people skip some of the steps of Plan B (1. Empathy, plus reassurance 2. Define the problem 3. Invitation) or that some of the steps aren’t applied well. Really, it boils down to clear communication with an explosive child, ideally in a proactive way. The other key is identifying the exact problem (which I what I find the most challenging). So often, what we think is the problem isn’t really the issue. I like the fact that CPS involves the child in the process of solving the problem and therefore teaches the child the skills that are necessary to self-regulate. It’s also teaching the parent/ teacher how to really listen to the explosive child.
The Q and A format helps explore common questions and respond to other parenting models (e.g. using consequences, overusing plan A, consistency in parenting styles, using a reward system, time-outs, etc.). The list of skills - as well as potential solutions - is helpful when trying to identify the potential problems (and to be proactive). I think that as a SERT, you could guide a teacher and a child through the process, supporting them in coming up with mutually beneficial solutions. The proactive approach would be to identify the skills that need to be taught to a particular child given his/her needs and brainstorm a bunch of solutions that are acceptable in the classroom. The challenge is that this process takes time: “Proactive B discussions often take much longer than those depicted..., especially on complicated issues like sharing and appreciating how one’s behaviour is affecting others” (Greene 204). Working with adolescents in a high school setting, it makes a lot of sense to work through this process. Since we’re trying to teach adolescents how to become more capable of self-regulating and monitoring their behaviour, I think this process works. I also think you’d need support with this; that is, other staff would also need to be using the same process (e.g. Resource Room staff, admin). I think you’d want to be able to openly discuss the process and brainstorm problems and potential solutions ahead of time. In my school board, we’ve had a number of our staff trained to do this, so I’m hopeful that I can practice the steps with the support of school staff.
Read Ch 9-10 Talk about a specific passage (Ch 1-10) that struck you as significant —or interesting,profound, amusing, illuminating, disturbing, sad...?Why was it memorable?
I found the section on “maladaptive communication patterns” (ch. 9) really interesting, especially as it relates to the family dynamic. One of my concerns with the idea of being proactive means that we sometimes jump to conclusions before we even engage in a discussion with a troubled individual. Greene identifies several ways that communication can go sideways:
- Speculation - “drawing erroneous conclusions about each other’s motives or cognitions” (211),
- Overgeneralization - “the tendency to draw global conclusions in response to isolated events” (214),
- Perfectionism - “parents fail to acknowledge the progress their child has made and demonstrate a tendency to cling to an old, unmodified vision of the child’s capabilities”(215),
- Sarcasm - “black and white” thinking people don’t understand it or it’s frustrating (217)
- Put-downs - criticism of a child or the behaviour (217)
- Ruination or catastrophizing - “parents greatly exaggerate the effect of current behavour on a child’s future well-being” (217)
- Dwelling on the past
- Talking through a third person - extending one’s own concerns to another individual, speaking for that person
I like how Greene summed up this section: “Over time the goal is for you to be able to communicate with your explosive child in a way that demonstrates to him that you can control yourself during discussions, stay on topic, recognize when discussions aren’t going anywhere, get the discussion back on track, and deal more adaptively with things that are frustrating to you both” (218). Greene’s statement focuses as much on the behaviour of the adults as well as the children. In the case of working with explosive children, it’s too easy to fall into a pattern of using plan A where teachers try to impose their will. This section resonates with me as I think it’s miscommunication that’s at the root of many problems in schools (as well as in families). I can practically hear the voices of the children in the examples either from my own teaching or family life. I worry that when trying to be proactive, I might speculate or overgeneralize, so I like that this section helps identify pitfalls in communication.
Read Ch 11-End: Has this book changed the way you will approach future behaviour concerns in your classroom? Who, if anybody, would you recommend to read this book? Why?
I hope that this book has resonated enough that it will cause me to think differently about behaviour concerns in my classroom. I think if I have another explosive child in my classroom this year, I will certainly give CPS a try. It’s interesting that Greene downplays a child’s explosiveness at school, providing some suggestions as to why some kids don’t explode at school: embarrassment, over-tiredness, socialization, and medication (243-244). This suggests that the target audience for this approach really is parents (as is clear in the book). I think at school, it would look a little different. As I’ve stated previously, I think CPS requires a team approach, so I am hopeful that others would be interested in using the approach. To facilitate this, I’d recommend the book to members of our Resource Room (although some of them have already been trained in CPS). I’m also interested in reading some of his other resources - the website, http://www.livesinthebalance.org/, is also a really rich resource.
I have a friend who is currently struggling with a 2 year old’s explosive behaviour, and I’ve thought of her family as I’ve been reading, but I really don’t think this approach would work with a child who cannot rationalize or have the discussions needed. I’ve wondered throughout reading the book about the lower age range for trying this approach, but recognize that it would be different for different children. The book gives an example of a grade 1 student (pg 260), suggesting that school-aged children would respond to the approach.
In the conclusion, Greene summarizes the implementation of Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) nicely:
“If you’ve been trying to implement this model in your home or classroom, you’ve probably been working pretty hard. That’s OK - you were working hard already - let’s just make sure you have something to show for all that hard work. Just remember, it can take a while. You don’t fix a reading disability in a week, and you don’t fix this learning disability in a week either. But if things aren’t going as well as you hoped, seek out someone who can help you. Some who knows that children do well if they can” (273).