Monday, June 25, 2012

Collaborative Problem Solving with Curtis

After spending time with Ross Greene and learning about Collaborative Problem Solving, I have learned more about how to work with children to solve problems together.

Here are the three steps that I tend to follow when collaboratively solving problems with children:

1. Empathy and collect information

2. Define the problems

3. Invitation for solutions

The goal of the empathy step is to gather information so as to achieve the clearest possible understanding of the kid's concern or perspective on a given unsolved problem.

The goal of defining the problems is to make it clear to everyone that both the adult's and child's problems need to be addressed.

The goal of the invitation for solutions is to work together to come up with solutions that are mutually agreeable and durable.

During the empathy step, it's the adult's responsibility to be proactive, specific and neutral. The Empathy step needs to be free of:
  • judgements

  • defensiveness

  • solutions

  • hypothesizing

  • theorizing

  • story telling
To do this we need to engage in a conversation (Plan B) with children that starts with an observation about an unsolved problem ("I've noticed that..."), along with an initial inquiry ("What's up?) It's very important to note that the unsolved problem needs to come from the Assessment of Lagging skills and Unsolved Problems (ALSUP). Here's an example:

Using the Assessment of Lagging Skills and Unsolved Problems, Curtis's parents identified one of his lagging skills as:
Difficulty managing emotional response to frustation so as to think rationally.
This is code for he's explosive.

After identifying the lagging skill, it's important to identify a highly specific example of when this occurs. This is called an unsolved problem:
Curtis experiences difficulties waking up in the morning and going to school.
There are three steps to Collaborative Problem Solving, and to kick off step one (empathy), I frame my question like this:
We've noticed (insert unsolved problem). What's up?
If after asking this question you get the feeling like the kid has no idea what you are talking about, then it's possible that the unsolved problem that you have identified is not specific enough, or that you've identified a problem that is not relevant to the child. If they becomes defensive, there's a chance that you are not being neutral or judgment free.

Here's an example of a Plan B meeting I had with Curtis and his parents. Because Curtis's parents were so new to Collaborative Problem Solving, they felt more comfortable with me taking the lead with Curtis. They watched and learned. Here's how it went:

"Hi Curtis, thanks for joining us. Do you mind if we talk together?"


"I know that sometimes teachers do more talking at you than talking with you, but I was hoping that you might talk almost as much as me during this chat."


"Would you agree that things could be better with your family?"

"Yes, definitely."

"Curtis, we've noticed that you've been having difficulty getting up in the morning and going to school."

Before I could even finish my sentence, Curtis said, "Oh, yeah. Totally." This confirmed to me that we did an excellent job identifying a relevant unsolved problem.

"What's up?"

Curtis looked down and tried to sink into his chair.

I waited.

I waited.

And I waited.

Wait time is always important. It's been said before that teaching is mostly about listening and learning is mostly about talking -- too many teachers talk too much -- myself included. If it takes an adult a couple seconds to think of a response, then it will likely take some kids five times as long. However, with saying all that, Curtis wouldn't look up, and he didn't appear to be close to saying anything, so I chose to break the silence.

"When do you have a hard time waking up?"

"All the time. I'm not a morning person. Neither is mom."

We laughed. Which was really important because you could feel some of the anxiety and apprehensiveness in the room retreat. Most of it belonged to Curtis, some belonged to his parents.

"So Tuesday mornings are just as bad as Saturday mornings?"

"Oh, no. Not at all."

"What's the difference?"

"Saturday's are fine. Tuesdays are bad."





"What about school?"

"I don't know. You know. It's school."

"Pretend I was home-schooled and I don't know about school."

"School sucks."

"School sucks?"

"Yeah. You know."

"Tell me about it."


"When you said school sucks, what was the first thing you thought of."

"My teacher. Mrs. Smith."

"Does school always suck?"


"Tell me about a time when Mrs. Smith is cool."

"If I'm sitting quietly, in my desk, doing my work."

"Tell me about a time when Mrs. Smith is not cool."

"Pretty much the opposite. When the class is loud and not doing their work."

"What does that look like?"

"I'm sitting in my desk and I stop working and I play with my pencil."

"You play with your pencil?"

"Yeah, kinda like this." He started fiddling with a pencil.

"Oh, you do those cool pencil tricks that I can't do?"

We laughed. "Yeah, I guess I try."

"So when you do that, you get in trouble?"

"Yeah, I get ticks."

"You get ticks?"

"Yeah, Mrs. Smith gives you a tick."

"Mrs. Smith gives you a tick?"

"Yeah, she puts a tick on the board. Each tick is a minute."

"Each tick is a minute?"

"Yeah, for every tick, you get one minute of detention."

"So if you're sitting in your desk, playing with your pencil and not doing your work, you get a tick?"


"Tell me about when you get a tick."

"I'm not doing my work and Mrs. Smith yells, 'GET OUT'." While he said this, he took his pointer finger and made an aggressive circle through the air and pointed it at the imaginary classroom door. He was re-enacting how Mrs. Smith would throw him out of the classroom door as if he clung to the end of her pointer finger.

I replicated his finger wag and said, "so she would say 'out', like this." I made sure to whisper 'out'.

"No, she yells."

I replicated his finger wag and said, "so she would yell 'OUT', like this." I made sure to yell 'out.'


"Then what?"

"Then I go out in the hallway."

"Tell me about that."

"She yells at me some more."

"What does she say?"

Silence. He looked down. So I waited.

And I waited

Again, despite my best intentions of giving him time to think, it didn't look like he was able to say anything, so I asked, "do you tune her out?"

"No, I hear her, it's just that it's really embarrassing."

"Why is it embarrassing?"

"She's yelling at me."

"In private?"

"Depends. When she kicks me out, it's in front of the whole class. When we are in the hallway, it might be just her and me, but sometimes others walk by."

"Does that bother you?"

"Yes. It's embarrassing."

"Are you more embarrassed if this happens in front of your friends?"

"No, it could be anyone."

"In front of a stranger might be as bad as in front of your best friend?"

"Yes. It's just embarrassing. I don't like it."

"So she yells at you in the hallway. Then what?"

"I go back into class and do my work."

"Do you get a tick for getting kicked out?"


"How often do you get a tick?"

Pause. "About once a week."

"More than once a week?"

"No. I don't think so. I get a tick about once a week. Timmy and Kayla get more ticks than me."

"How often do they get ticks?"

"Like once a day. They get loud and Mrs. Smith yells. I don't like all the yelling. Plus we all get detention."

"You all get detention? So you get ticks to?"

"No it's their ticks, but each tick is one minute of detention for the whole class."

"Wait a minute. Let me get this straight. If Timmy and Kayla get ticks, the whole class loses their recess."

"Yeah." The colour in Curtis's face told us almost everything we needed to know about how he felt about this.

"Curtis, do you remember how we started this whole discussion."

"No, not really."

"I asked you about your difficulties with waking up to get to school. Now I'm wondering if all this stuff that we've been talking about might have something to do with your difficulties."

"Yeah, it totally does. When I'm going to bed the night before school, I have to take my Melatonin for my anxiety. I have a hard time getting to sleep because I'm thinking about everything that I know is going to happen at school the next day."

"When you say anxiety, what do you mean?"

"I get butterflies in my stomach like when you are in a car going up and down hills really quickly."

"When do you get them?"

"The night before school."

"At supper time?"

"No, just before I have to go to sleep. I don't want to go to sleep because I know I have to go to school when I wake up."

"Ok, let's pretend we are in a perfect world and somehow it is true that Mrs. Smith doesn't use the tick system anymore. Would you get butterflies the night before?"

"We need the tick system to control how loud the classroom gets."

"Ok, let's keep the tick system, but this time, if Timmy or Kayla get ticks for being loud, let's pretend that doesn't affect you. You don't get detention for their ticks. Are the butterflies gone?"


"Ok. Why is that?"

"I would still be worried that I would get a tick and still lose my recess. I really need my breaks at school. I love going outside and playing baseball with my friends. I really need my breaks from sitting in class all day."

"Ok. Let's pretend you couldn't get detention for the ticks. Are the butterflies gone?"


"Ok. Why is that?"

"I still don't like all of Mrs. Smith's yelling."

"Ok. Let's pretend that there's no yelling, and you can't lose your recess. Are the butterflies still there?"


He was thinking.

"Hmm. No. I don't think they are."

"I wonder if there is a way for us to make that pretend world come true so that you can go to bed without the butterflies, get up in the morning and go to school?"

Again, Curtis hung his head and sunk into his chair. I could see he was not optimistic about our chances of making any of this come true, so I asked, "I wonder who we need to talk with about all this?"

Curtis looked up, "my parents?"

"Do they have anything to do with your butterflies?"

He hung his head again, "no." But a moment later, he shot his head up and exclaimed, "my teacher!"

"I think talking to Mrs. Smith about all this would be a great idea. And the great news is that your parents tell me that Mrs. Smith really wants to help. She said she would do almost anything to help make things better for you."

Curtis was shocked, "she said that? Really?"

"Yup. That's what I heard."


"Would you like it if I helped you have a conversation with her just like the one we had today?"

"Sure. That sounds good."


After the meeting, I asked the parents what they thought. Both were beaming with excitement when they said that they had never heard any of this information. The mom got tearful as she explained that she had never heard so much of the background behind Curtis's behaviour from him. Too often the only response she ever experienced from Curtis was verbal and physical explosive behaviour.

When I hinted that the discussion went too long (about one hour), the mom said that she could have sat and watched for four hours because she had never seen or heard Curtis be so open about what was really going on. More than once, the mom commented that she doesn't have the words and skills to have this kind of conversation with her son. My first response was to tell her she doesn't have the words or skills yet. I gave her a copy of Ross Greene's The Explosive Child and they are buying a copy of Lost at School for Curtis's teachers.

Later in the day, I asked Curtis what he thought of our meeting. He said that he liked it because he thought that he might have a chance to talk with Mrs. Smith about these problems.

For Curtis, going to school has been a problem for years. An argument could be made that focusing on the problems Curtis is having this year with Mrs. Smith has nothing to do with why this has been a problem for so long.

This line of reasoning is kind of right but mostly wrong.

It's true that Curtis did not have a problem with Mrs. Smith or her tick system in previous years (she wasn't his teacher) and yet he still had a problem with going to school. It's probably also true that, if nothing changes, Curtis will continue to have the same difficulties next year when he has a different teacher with different expectations.

The common denominators here are not his teachers. The common thread here is that Curtis is lagging skills that would allow him to more successfully navigate through his day. It's likely that he's had difficulty managing emotional response to frustration so as to think rationally for a long time. By working with him to solve both his, his parents and his teacher's unsolved problems we indirectly teach him skills. (The truth is the adults learn skills, too) So when Curtis gets a different teacher next year with a new set of expectations that might cause further problems for him, he will have a better chance of working with his teacher in a functional, rather than dysfunctional, manner.

Even if these problems are in reality no more than 1% of the real problems plaguing Curtis, but he perceives them to be 99% of his problems, then this is a critical step in making Curtis an ally in our pursuit towards collaboratively solving problems. After the meeting was over, I asked Curtis's parents which part of our meeting was more beneficial -- the part with or without Curtis -- they quickly and unanimously said that the discussion with Curtis was far more productive than the part of the meeting where Curtis was absent.

Without the child, adults can only guess as to what the child's problems really are -- but the truth is we are usually wrong. Without the child, adults can only ever unilaterally develop solutions which translates into the adult imposing their will (Plan A) on the child. If either of these methods worked, you wouldn't be reading this post right now.


Here's a list I find useful when doing the empathy step and collecting information step. If you look through my discussion with Curtis, I think you'll see examples where I use each ingredient:

  • questions that focus on the who, what, where and when about the conditions of the unsolved problem
  • differentiate between why the problem occurs under some circumstances and not others
  • breaking down the problem into its components. For example, if it looks like the child has problems during English class, ask questions to clarify which part of English class is problematic (reading, writing, group work, individual work) If it's reading, then ask questions that clarify what part of reading (out loud, silent)
  • reflective listening and clarifying statements: "How so?" "I don't understand" "I'm confused" "Can you say more about that?" "What's hard about that?"
  • asking the child what s/he's thinking in the midst of the unsolved problem
  • summarizing what's been learned so far
  • "tabling" some concerns so as to permit considerations of others. "What if the floor wasn't dirty, could you then sit on the floor with the class?" "If we removed Elijah from group, would that solve the problem?" "Would that make it easier for you?"


  1. Great post , I am looking forward to you sharing more cps experiences with kids and teachers.

    You mention that the empathy step should be free of 'hypothesizing'. While it is important for a care giver not to have preconceived solutions or what the concerns the child has , it is sometimes useful when the kid shuts down or does not have the words to express his concerns for the care giver to make tentative suggestions or hypothesis.

    As far as lagging skills goes , it is not a must to identify lagging skills but rather we should be making sure we are wearing the lenses of lagging skills. When a kid's concern is not being heard , addressed and remains unmet , we have a problem.

    Drilling down for concerns is not easy , thanks for helping me update my help list

  2. It's great to see a blog of this quality. I learned a lot of new things and I'm looking forward to see more like this. Thank you.

    Decision Making


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