Friday, January 25, 2013

More on solving problems collaboratively with Ross Greene

I spent the day with Ross Greene learning about solving problems with children collaboratively. Here is what I learned from Ross Greene approach:
  • emphasis is on solving problems rather than on extinguishing or replacing behaviors
  • problem solving is collaborative rather than unilateral
  • problem solving is proactive rather than emergent
  • understanding comes before helping... indeed, understanding is the most important part of helping
There is a big difference between believing that children will do well when they want to versus believing kids do well if they can.

When we argue that kids do well when they want to, we make up theories about why they are choosing to do poorly:
  • they are seeking attention
  • they are manipulating us to get their way
  • they are not motivated
  • they are testing limits
  • they avoid things they don't want to do
There are many reasons why the list above doesn't properly explain why kids don't do well. Consider this; what person on this planet does not:
  • seek attention?
  • want to get their way?
  • have trouble getting motivated?
  • test limits?
  • avoid doing things they don't want to do?
We all do these four things. We all want to get what we want.  We all seek attention. We all have trouble. We all avoid stuff we don't like. The big news isn't that kids do these things -- the big news is that while all successful adults do these things adaptively, children with challenging behaviors do all of these things maladaptively.

Why are challenging kids challenging?

At first glance, we might say that the child's challenging behavior is working for them to get what they want, or avoid what they don't want. But if we take a big picture examination of their challenging behavior, we will see that in fact it is not working for them because they are likely constantly in trouble. Ross Greene puts it this way:
Doing well is always preferable to not doing well.
The desire to do well can not be used to differentiate between successful children and children with challenging behvaviors. All children would prefer to do well. The difference between successful children and children with challenging behaviors are skills or lack of skills.

The Assessment of Lagging Skills and Unsolved Problems details a lengthy list of the most common skills challenging children tend to lag. More generally, these skills can be organized into these categories:
  • Executive skills
  • Language processing skills
  • Emotion regulation skills
  • Cognitive flexibility skills
  • Social skills
Keep in mind that these categories are so overlapping that to think about them as independent would be foolish.

Some people like to lean on a diagnosis to explain why children are challenging, but this is potentially dangerous. Using a diagnosis to explain a child's challenging behavior is circular thinking. For example, little Johnny is losing his nut because he has Oppositional Defiant Disorder and he has Oppositional Defiant Disorder because he loses his nut. We do not want to use a diagnosis as a gate keeper for giving kids the help they need.

When are challenging kids challenging?

No child with challening behaviours are challenging all the time. They are only sometimes challenging. Children with challenging behaviors are only challening when their environment demands their lagging skills which creates unsolved problems.

Ross Greene puts it this way:
Challenging episodes occur when the cognitive demands being placed upon a person outstrip the person's capacity to respond adaptively (best conceived as "incompatibility episodes").
Why are there more behaviourally challenging kids now than there have ever been? The answer is complex, but consider this -- we are demanding more sophisticated and more mature skills from children earlier and sooner than we had in the past. We demand very young children to use their words and sit still for very long periods of time. Diagnosis implies that the problem resides inside the child, scares off people from helping and distract us from focusing on identifying and teaching the skills the child lags.

What do challenging kids do when they're challenging?

This question is not as important as we might think. Focus too much on a child's behavior and we'll never find the unsolved problem that is causing the child so much difficulty.

So what now?

Ross Greene tells us to:

1. Identify lagging skills

2. Identify unsolved problems

3. Solve problems and simultaneously teach skills

Stop wasting our time

Too many good intentioned professionals sit in long, boring meetings where they talk about things that they can do nothing. Too many meetings are consumed by theorizing, storifying and hypothesizing. Caring, good intentioned professionals love their theories, stories and hypotheses  The problem with spending our limited time, effort and resources on theories, stories and hypotheses is that they do nothing to help the people who work with challenging children.

You can find all of my posts on rethinking classroom management and working with children to solve problems here.


  1. I am currently a student majoring in education. You have made some great points! Putting these skills into work could truly make a difference. I feel many people do lean on disorders as an excuse for a child's behavior. Thank you for pointing out that is a problem.
    Ms. Mullinax
    My blog:
    EDM310 Class blog:

  2. Our school did a book club on "Lost at School" ( year and this year they are doing webinars on Dr. Greene' approach. It just makes so much sense! We're teachers: if children are struggling with behaviour, we need to teach them the skills to cope. Just sitting down with a child and asking "What's up?" instead of imposing consequences is powerful.

  3. Just to elaborate on point 3 Solve problems and simultaneously teach skills - the lagging skills are taught indirectly by using the cps process. The process teaches the skills as opposed to directly teaching skills which may be needed or helpful. The important lesson is that skills must to taught in the context of the child's concerns and unsolved problems

  4. This reminds me of my schooling...I was always told that I could only do better if I tried yet I believe I had ADD and maybe some other undiagnosed learning issues. Who was into that then? and there are unfortunately still schools that just keep telling kids they have so much potential if only they wanted...etc

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