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Empowering Learners with Collaborative Proactive Solutions

For everyone involved in raising a child, responding effectively to unwanted behavior is one of the most challenging parts of the job. Caring parents, teachers, and other adults want to teach children to act in ways that will help them succeed in the world. Because they are kids, often they will act in ways that are disruptive or counterproductive. And this is all the more true with twice-exceptional kids. 

In contemporary society there's been a trend to move from punitive approaches to "misbehavior" toward more progressive rewards-based approaches in which children get positive incentives to act in a desired manner. A rewards-based approach certainly will create a healthier relationship with adults and cause less harm to the child. However, such a system will often run into its own challenges. A child who is behaving because of a desired reward will naturally come to expect to continue to get that reward. When they fail to behave as expected, taking away the reward will naturally be seen as punishment. A rewards-based approach then becomes punitive! Worse, the implicit message is that the goal of the behavior is to get the reward, rather than because it is in their own best interest. 

How do we work to avoid this unintended outcome at The Lang School? Through the use of an approach developed by child psychologist Dr. Ross Greene, we seek to transform how we teach kids to act in the world. This method, called Collaborative Proactive Solutions (CPS), begins with a revolutionary idea about why kids behave in ways that are unwanted and counterproductive. This belief can be summed up in the CPS motto, "Kids do well if they can."

To understand this, consider that kids are faced every day with many expectations from others. They must get out of bed, get dressed, go to school, do classwork and homework, get along with peers they won't always like, eat meals that might not be their choice, brush their teeth, and so on. Meeting these expectations requires many different skills. Some are executive function skills, such as effectively directing attention or delaying gratification. Some are social skills, such as empathy and patience. Some are academic skills, such as writing and arithmetic. And because they are kids, they may not have all these skills. Of course, this is even more likely with a 2E child. In the terminology of CPS, these are called "lagging skills." A child faced with an expectation that requires a skill they don't have won't meet that expectation because they can't. 

How an expectation isn't met varies widely depending on the child. Some kids will throw tantrums or be physically challenging. Others will take out their frustrations on peers by teasing or bullying. Others will shut down in some way, perhaps by crawling under a table or even falling asleep. As difficult as any of these behaviors is to deal with, they distract from the main problem, which is that the child isn't meeting an expectation because they're unable to. Another CPS saying is, "behavior is communication." When Lang students act in undesired ways, they are trying to tell us something. 

When a disruptive behavior is persistent and intractable it's natural to feel that the kid just doesn't want to succeed. We feel we must give them an incentive. This is when we fall back on traditional behavior approaches. 

CPS divides responses to kids' behavior into three categories, which it labels Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C. Plan A encompasses almost all other approaches, whether punitive or rewards-based. Dr. Greene recognized that what all such approaches have in common is that they are top-down, with adults deciding on the desired behavior and the consequences for meeting it or not. This is not how the adulthood we're trying to prepare kids for will work. Most adults do not have people supervising their behavior and meting out rewards and punishment. Certainly there are consequences for our actions, but the rewards are inconsistent and delayed, and the negative consequences can be much more severe than the worst disciplinarian can imagine. We need to figure out for ourselves what actions will be best for us and the people around us, and do what we think is best through our own motivation. 

Plan B is the core methodology of CPS. In plan B the solution to unmet expectations, which we call "unsolved problems," comes through collaborating with the child to help them be successful, based on the belief that in fact that is what they want.  

When a child is behaving in a way that's keeping them from succeeding, the first step in Plan B is that adults will have a meeting in which they identify lagging skills. This is done using a process called "Assessment of Lagging Skills and Unsolved Problems," also known as the ALSUP. This meeting is very different from how adults often get together to discuss a child's behavior. The goal is to identify the unmet expectations (known as unsolved problems) as precisely as possible. Instead of saying, "Alex does nothing in class!" adults learn to say things like, "Alex has difficulty initiating arithmetic practice problems during first period." Instead of saying, "Connor won't sit still!" we say, "Connor has difficulty staying in his seat when science class takes place after lunch." 

Just as important as what adults do in an ALSUP meeting is what they don't do: they do not attempt to explain the behavior, and they do not come up with solutions. When a child doesn't behave as desired it's natural to try to explain it. Maybe it's their ADHD, or because they were up late playing video games. Such explanations are often wrong and surprisingly unhelpful. Even more natural is to try and fix the problem. While solving the problem is the goal, that step is reserved until we can collaborate with the child. 

At the end of the ALSUP meeting adults will choose one problem to address with the child. This might be the most urgent, or just the one we feel we're most likely to succeed in addressing. This can be frustrating because there often are many problems we'd like to address. But trying to solve too many problems is a reliable way to solve none of them. What about the other problems? This is where Plan C comes in, which I will discuss later.

The collaborative step begins with one of Ross Greene's favorite phrases, "I've noticed..." and ends with, "what's up?" For example, "I've noticed you have trouble keeping your hands to yourself during circle time. What's up?" You might not expect this would lead to a productive conversation. However, those who use this CPS learn that kids know very well when they're not meeting expectations and usually know why. Getting them to tell you is still a challenge. There is a methodology to these meetings that requires training and experience. But when done well, these questions will reveal the causes of the behavior.

The next step begins with the phrase, "I wonder if..." For example, the adult might say, "I wonder if there's a way you can get all your stuff in your backpack by dismissal time?" And this is where the revolutionary part of CPS happens: the child will come up with the solution. Again, you might not expect any child would do this. In fact, with some discussion and prompting by a trained adult, they almost always do. This doesn't mean we use any solution they come up with; adults will have non-negotiables. If the child's solution to not completing homework is that they no longer will be assigned any, the adult will say, "Here's my problem with that," and explain why completing homework is necessary. However, the child's way of meeting the expectation might be different from how the adult imagined it, and the adult should be thoughtful about what is negotiable. 

Of course, even if the kid comes up with a seemingly effective solution, it might not work. There might be further meetings and collaborations. However, the solutions the kids come up with are far more likely to be effective than ones made up by adults. More importantly, the child is doing something they've decided on and agreed to do, and they know why they are doing it. This is a step toward managing their own choices as adults. 

I mentioned Plan C for other problems. Plan C simply means to let a problem slide for now. This is something that most adults already do sometimes, when we decide an unwanted behavior just isn't a hill we wish to die on and so we ignore it (usually with a feeling of guilt about doing so). In CPS, however, it is not a failing but a strategy. One thing you learn is that once one problem is solved, the others are much easier to deal with. 

This might sound like a lot of work, and to be honest it is. But the work that goes into carrying out an effective strategy is far less than the difficulty of trying to apply ineffective strategies on unsolved problems and dealing with the consequences when the problems don't go away. That is why the commitment to CPS at The Lang School, for all the trouble, is worth every minute it takes.

To learn more about Dr. Greene's method, visit the Collaborative Proactive Solutions website and the site for the Lives in the Balance nonprofit.   

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