Collaborative Problem Solving

VMS Community Blog
Posted December 4, 2017
by Julie Schlossinger, Lower School Director

There is a wonderful presentation I recently viewed and shared with the lower school teachers by Dr. Stuart Ablon, the Director of Think:Kids in the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is also Associate Professor and the Thomas G. Stemberg Endowed Chair in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

You can view his talk by clicking here. Essentially, Dr. Ablon describes the model of Collaborative Problem Solving, which when applied in conversation with children, helps them resolve problems and develop social emotional skills.

The CPS approach helps adults support challenging behavior set forth by kids. It is guided by two theories: challenging behaviors are the result of underdeveloped skills rather than motivation, attention seeking, and manipulative behaviors; and challenging behavior is best supported by skill development instead of rewards and punishment.  

In school, we see challenging behaviors such as defiance, physical hitting or pushing, swearing, crying, running away, etc. When problem solving the behavior, we try hard to first identify the skill deficit in the child, and then we focus on teaching and supporting the cognitive skills the child needs in that area.

We teach those cognitive skills by helping challenging students learn to resolve their problems in collaborative and mutually agreeable manner.

An example of how this plays out at school is the following anecdotal summary of a recent event:
A student displayed anger out on the playground that manifested in swearing, pushing, and running away from others. I brought the child to my office and provided stress reducing manipulatives for them and gave several minutes to calm down.

Once the child was emotionally regulated, I began speaking to them about what happened. I prompted the child to share details and directed questions to get at what caused the initial anger-- a feeling of exclusion during a game of People From Mars. Once that was identified, I acknowledge their hurt and anger at being excluded which immediately put the child at ease and opened them up to problem solving.

We discussed the fact that the resulting behavior (swearing, pushing, and running away) demonstrated a problem at school where students need to behave in a safe manner even when faced with a hurtful situation. While this was understood by the child, in the moment of dysregulation, they did not have the cognitive skill development necessary to regulate their emotions in an appropriate way, hence the poor behavior.

Finally, I invited the child to help me brainstorm a solution and action plan that was realistic and mutually agreeable-- written and verbal apologies for the other students and faculty present during the event, a meeting with the child and their parents, and the practice of regulation strategies like deep breathing, walking away, and getting an adult to help.

This child’s problem was not magically resolved in this one instance, but rather, after a commitment to this practice of CPS, the child began to develop the cognitive skills of self regulation in the midst of conflict due in large part to the prior practice of problem solving with an adults help.

The CPS approach is effective across a wide range of settings, is evidenced based, and grounded in neurobiology. I encourage all parents to set aside time to view this talk by Dr. Ablon and consider trying these methods with their own children at home when conflicts occur.