Monday, April 30, 2012

Solving Problems Collaboratively: The Ross Greene Approach

Ross Greene's book Lost at School has played a critical role in how I frame my conversations and interactions with students who are having a hard time navigating through their day. It's important to note that this requires a shift from "doing things to" kids to "working with" kids. At best the former can get us temporary compliance while the latter can bring authentic engagement.

To do this, I find myself using Ross Greene's three steps to Ross Greene's approach for working with children:
  1. Empathy
  2. Identify the Problem
  3. Invitation to solutions


Children have to believe that we care about them before they will care about what we have to say, and one of the best ways to express empathy is to suspend our judgement and listen to the child. This might be as simple as asking "What's up?" While the child is offering their answer, you might find it helpful to clarify their concerns by echoing what you hear them say by saying, "I'm hearing you say..."

When an adult and a child enter into a conversation, the disparity in age by definition creates an imbalance of power. Despite conventional wisdom, this is not the time to increase your adult power; on the contrary, I've found it quite necessary to reduce my adult power and ensure that the child feels like I am not trying to enter into a power struggle by imposing my will on them.

Because I believe that children should experience their successes and failures not as reward and punishment but as information, I find it very helpful to start off my conversation with "I'm not mad..." or "You're not in trouble". Sometimes I find it helpful to add "I'm a teacher, not a punisher. I'm here to help you learn, not punish you".

Because empathy is not a word, it's a feeling, this step will require more time and effort than it takes to simply say "I care". Our best intentions are always trumped by the child's perception; that is, we often may find ourselves ready to move on to the next step before the child is convinced we are in fact empathetic.

Identify the Problem

The key to this step is understanding that there are usually two problems that need to be identified and eventually solved - one is the adult's problem and the other is the child's problem. Adults are great at identifying the problem we want to solve, but we aren't all that great at identifying the problem that concerns the child. Our problems can be obvious, but I've found that a child's problem can be quite elusive until we actually take the time and effort to engage them in a conversation about what truly is troubling them.

The child must feel like you care about solving their problem as much as you care about solving your own.

Invitations to Solutions

Adults are great at unilaterally imposing solutions in search of a problem and not so great at remembering that there are two problems that need a solution that is mutually satisfactory and durable. One way to initiate this with a child is to say, "I wonder if there's a way..."

Don't get discouraged when the first attempt at the solution fails. These things take time, effort and collaboration. Solutions can fail for a couple different reasons:
  • Sometimes kids suggest unsustainable solutions. 
  • Sometimes adults suggest unsustainable solutions.
  • Sometimes kids feel compelled to agree to solutions that are not really satisfactory to them.
  • Sometimes even good solutions need practice or minor adjustments.
For some kids, all this is totally unnecessary, but for kids who lag the necessary social, emotional and behavioral skills to get through their day without explosions, Ross Greene's approach for working with children gives them a chance.


  1. I live and breathe CPS and Ross Greene. The empathy stage is less about empathy and more about gathering info about the kid's concerns and reassuring him that you just want info , his input , you don't want to impose your solution. the brilliance of the approach imho is that people, kids etc usually present their concerns in terms of a solution. A solution in reality is only one way to address a concern. We need to step back and drill down for concerns. Alfie Kohn's writing compliments CPS - CPS is more about the how , AK adds more to the why. Collaborative problem solving is becoming more popular but as Lisa Cooley said the starting point must be respecting kids and not using cps as a means to get what adults want. This is the reason we start out addressing the kids concerns first.It is not easy , we have to overcome trust issues as well as help kids acquire skills. The cps process itself addresses the kid's need for autononmy - his concerns and his solutions are on the table, competence - he is learning indirectly lots of cognitive skills and relatedness - the process improves trust and relationship. There are 2 cps sites that I recommend - Ross Greene's . I blog combining CPS =Greene ,Alfie Kohn and RDI - relationship development intervention = the non behaviorist approach to autism instead of ABA. CPS is not easy and hard work

  2. I sometimes have difficulties in handling my students. Your writing helps me a lot. Thank you.


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