Friday, May 18, 2012

Solving Problems Collaboratively in the Classroom

Here's how I used Ross Greene's Approach (Plan B) with a student.

Dylan is a very active grade 2 boy who was reading The Lorax on the iPad. Dylan can't read independently yet and that's ok. He's very young. The good news is that he sometimes still gets excited about reading with an adult. The iPad works well because it allows him some autonomy while it reads to him. Plus it's interactive which is great because it keeps Dylan engaged. (Please note that the iPad does not replace reading with an adult -- it merely supplements)

After he finished the book, I showed him how to take screen shots of his favorite parts of the book. He placed them in Keynote and, with some assistance, he wrote a couple sentences that explained what was happening in the picture.

After three pictures and three text boxes, Dylan made it clear that he was ready for a break, so I sent him for a walk down the hall. When he came back I had him choose a little journal for him to keep. I asked him to write down his name, the date and something about what he did this morning.

All of a sudden, Dylan crossed his arms, knitted his brow, hung his head and huffed. It took me all of a half second to see something was wrong. It's at this point that too many adults engage in Plan A. Plan A is where the adult places an expectation on the child and when the child doesn't comply, the adult imposes their will to make them comply.

In Dylan's case, my problem was that I wanted him to write in his journal but he wouldn't. Plan A might take any number of forms including threats, bribes, punishments, consequences and other forms of manipulation and coercion.

Plan A solves the problem, right?

Well, sort of but mostly no.

Plan A does solve a problem. Plan A is the best way to solve the adult's problem while almost always completely ignoring the child's problem. Because Plan A never bothers to engage the child, the best it can ever gain us is short-term compliance. We gain expediency and efficiency at the cost of sustainability.

This is as unacceptable as it is ineffective.

Plan B is where we engage collaboratively with the child to solve problems. Here are the steps:

1. Identify the lagging skill and unsolved problem.

2. Engage the child in an empathetic conversation in an attempt to gather information about their perspective of the problem.

3. Identify both problems (yours and theirs).

4. Invite them to come up with solutions and agree on one that is mutually satisfactory and durable.

Here's what Plan B looks like for Dylan:

After I resisted Plan A, I quickly identified Dylan's lagging skill: he has difficulty handling transitions and shifting from one task to another. The unsolved problem here is that Dylan is having difficulty starting his journal writing after reading on the iPad.

Here's how I started the conversation:
Hey Dylan, I've noticed your having difficulty starting your journal writing, what's up?
I waited.

Dylan avoided eye contact.

I waited some more.

Dylan still looked away.

I waited even more.

Then Dylan shifted in his seat and dropped his crossed arms. He wasn't avoiding me. He was thinking. It was really important that I say nothing so that he could think. Dylan then said something that made me go aha!
I'm hungry.
This aha! moment made sense. It was 20 minutes to twelve and even I was getting hungry.

There is only one person in this world who could provide me with this invaluable piece of information, and that person is Dylan. If I don't take the time and effort to engage in a conversation with him, then I guess I could hypothesize and theorize why he's having difficulty (he hates writing or me) -- or I could skip all the speculation and just ask Dylan for what's up (he's hungry).

Quick sidebar: If I speculate about what Dylan's problem is, I'm likely to unilaterally impose a solution which will likely solve my problem while ignoring his which will likely lead to more unsolved problems, leading me to impose more unilateral consequences. In other words, Plan A begets Plan A.

Once I had my aha! moment, I asked Dylan:

I wonder if there is a way for you to write in your journal without being hungry.

I waited.

He said nothing.

I waited longer.

After I watched him think in silence, Dylan said:
I can wait until lunch.
Sometimes kids are great at telling us what we want to hear. Sometimes this is true because they have grown accustomed to having their needs trumped by adults. Keeping this in mind, I decided that Dylan's suggestion was neither mutually satisfactory (I don't think he really believed he could wait) nor sustainable (I didn't really believe he could wait) so I said:
That's an idea, but are you sure you can wait? What if you got a super quick snack now and then came back and wrote in your journal?
His smile told me all I needed to know about whether this solution was mutually satisfactory. And it was proven durable when three minutes later he returned from his snack and went straight to his journal.

For those who say this sounds like too much work, I'll say this: while it's true that learning how to do Plan B takes a long time, this post took me longer to write than my actual interaction with Dylan.


  1. I won't say this sounds like too much work, but I will say it is harder when you have 20 (or more) students. I struggle to engage in these conversations, especially the waiting part when other students are waiting for me. That isn't to say that it's impossible, simply that it is a challenge.

  2. Dear Jenny,
    The example above shows how Plan B can be implemented right when the problem is taking place. However, many effective problem-solving conversations can be done when students aren't having the problem. For example, a teacher can talk to a student at lunch, recess, before school, after school, during silent reading, etc. In addition, Dr. Greene reminds us that not all of our students need CPS. Most of our students do not exhibit this challenging behaviour. So with those in mind, the task becomes less daunting.

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  5. Thanks for sharing - here is a blog post from another teacher showing how to table concerns when drilling down

  6. And when I've tried the waiting, and waiting, and waiting, the kid runs away, or says he has to go to the bathroom or begins to yell "this is stupid" or something else. Geez, kid. I'm trying to help you out here.


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