Monday, October 22, 2012

Collaborative Problem Solving - a summary of The Explosive Child

“Children do well if they can,” explained Ross Greene in his book, The Explosive Child. Children do not choose to be explosive. Explosive outbursts occur when the cognitive demands being placed upon the child (or person) outstrip that person’s capacity to respond adaptively. Explosive children need to develop flexibility and frustration tolerance. Mastery of these skills is crucial to a child’s overall development. In order to adapt and interact in the world, children require the ability to solve problems, work out disagreements, and control the emotions experienced when frustrated.

Most parenting books work on the belief that “children are capable of behaving appropriately; but they don’t want to”. And the usual explanation is “their parents are poor disciplinarians”. Popular strategies aimed at motivating compliant behaviour and “teaching the child who’s boss” won’t lead to a productive outcome. In fact, behaviour management programs actually increase the frequency and intensity of a child’s explosions and cause interaction with the child to worsen. Why? Because reward and punishment programs don’t teach the skills of flexibility and frustration tolerance. They actually teach inflexibility! Being inflexible yourself (by sticking to a behaviour management program) doesn’t help your child be more flexible. And getting punished and not receiving an anticipated reward makes kids more frustrated, not less.

Your child is already very motivated to do well; he/she needs to develop new skills. Dr. Greene calls these skills “pathways”. These are specific thinking skills, the absence of which leads to explosive behaviour. These skills need to be trained; without reward and punishment programs; no sticker charts and time-outs. The skills required for flexibility and frustration tolerance are executive skills, language processing, emotion regulation, cognitive flexibility, and social skills. A list and description of these skills is available in Table 1: Pathways. Note that there are no diagnoses on the list and inept parenting and poor discipline aren’t on the list either!

Table 1: Pathways
Thinking Skills
Executive skills
Shifting cognitive set- from one mind-set to another
Organization and planning – organizing a coherent plan to deal with a problem or frustration
Separation of affect – separating your emotional response to a problem from the thinking you need to do to solve the problem. And guess what, these skills don’t actually develop until age 10! So expecting your child to have a skill that he/she isn’t developmentally ready for is just asking for more explosive outburst and sets the stage for low self-esteem and low-confidence.
Language processing skills

Language skills are important in helping humans reflect, self-regulate, set goal, and manage goals.

The three specific language skills:
  • Categorizing and expressing emotions (frustration)
  • Identifying and articulating one’s needs
  • Solving problems

Emotion regulation skills

“Many children’s irritability and anxiety can be traced back to chronic problems that have perpetually gone unsolved.” Dr. Greene
Children who are in an irritable, agitated, cranky, and fatigued mood most of the time (for whatever reason) are compromised in the capacity of flexibility and frustration tolerance.
Cognitive flexibility skills
Children think in black and white and only as they develop do they learn that, in fact, most things in life are “gray”. Some children do not develop this as readily as we might wish.
Social skills
Social interactions require flexibility, complex thinking, and rapid processing. Social interactions are frustrating for children who lag in these skills.

How do we train our children to develop the skills necessary for flexibility and frustration tolerance? The first step is understanding that a child’s behaviour is not planned, intentional, goal-oriented, and purposeful. We stop labeling children as stubborn, willful, manipulative, attention-seeking, controlling, out of control, and defiant. We must also understand that the behaviour is not the problem; it is a symptom of the underlying problem. We are not looking to solve the behaviour. We need to solve the problem. By solving the problem, we will ultimately change a child’s behaviour. Dr. Greene suggests that the problem is the triggers or events that precipitate explosive outburst.
Most explosions are highly predictable and Dr. Greene suggests that parents identify these triggers or events that precipitate explosive outburst. Problems or unmet expectations can be solved three ways; using Plan A (by imposing your will….and we know that will just heighten the likelihood of an explosion), B (collaborative problem solving), or C (dropping the expectation). Table 2 contains brief explanations for Plan A and Plan C. Parents need to avoid Plan A, consider using Plan C to reduce explosions and help stabilized your child and, finally, use proactive collaborative problem solving (Plan B).

Table 2: Three plans for problem solving
Plan A
Plan B
Plan C
Handling a problem or expectation through the imposition of adult will. So if your child isn’t meeting a given expectation, you respond by imposing your will; saying things like, “No,” “You must,” or “you can’t”.

Plan A greatly heightens the likelihood of an explosion.
Collaborative Problem Solving
Plan C involves dropping an expectation completely and helps prevent an explosion. Many kids can be stabilized and helped to be more available by temporarily reducing expectations through the use of plan C.

Plan C is not the equivalent of giving in. Giving in is what happens when you start off by using Plan A and end up using Plan C because your child made your life miserable. When you intentionally use Plan C, you are proactively deciding to drop a given expectation.

With Collaborative problem solving, the parent (or adult) and child discuss and work out mutually satisfactory solutions to the problems that have been causing the child to behave maladaptive.  Your role is to do the thinking for your child that he/she is incapable of doing on his/her own; serve as your child’s tour guide through frustration. In this way, you will help him/her learn the skills (that your child is lacking from Table 1) to successfully navigate frustrations and demands for flexibility.

Collaborative problem solving can be used two ways; emergency Plan B and Proactive Plan B. Emergency plan B is used when a child is becoming frustrated. But this is not the best way to approach plan B as few of us do our clearest thinking when we are heated up. The best way to do Plan B is proactively. Since most explosions are highly predictable, identify triggers and solve the problem proactively; before it comes up again.

Collaborative problem solving requires three steps; Empathy (plus reassurance), define the problem, and the invitation. In order to successfully accomplish Plan B, all three steps must be completed in the order described. Table 3 summarizes each step and contains an example on how it’s used on a common trigger.

Table 3: The three steps in Plan B
Define the problem


Empathy keeps the child calm and ensures the child that his concern is on the table. You empathize by repeating the child’s concern back to him, sticking closely to his exact words (i.e. reflective listening).

Child: the medicine is making me sick to my stomach
Adult (empathy): the medicine is making you sick to your stomach.

Usually the child will not verbalize his concern; he will simply state his solution, “I am not taking my medicine.” You need to find out what the child’s concern is by asking, “what’s up?” Also, try not to make assumptions about what the child wants. If he asks for Pizza, don’t assume he’s hungry. And sometimes empathy isn’t enough to calm him down; offer reassurance.

Child: I want pizza
Adult (initial empathy): You want pizza. What’s up?
Child: I’m hungry
Adult (refined empathy, plus reassurance): You’re hungry. I’m not saying you can’t have pizza.

Try to use Proactive Plan B as much as possible:
Adult (empathy, Proactive Plan B): I know that your medicine has been making you sick to your stomach and that you are not too happy about that.

Adult places his or her concern on the table. The problem is the two concerns (the child’s and the adult’s) that have yet to be reconciled. Note that adults are just as prone to placing solutions on the table (instead of concerns).

Adult (empathy, Proactive Plan B): I know that your medicine has been making you sick to your stomach and that you are not too happy about that.
Child: Yeah.
Adult (define the problem): I’m not too happy about it either. The thing is, I’m a little worried about what will happen if we just yank you off the meds without talking to the doctor. Plus, the medicine seems to be helping you control your temper a little better.
The child and adult brainstorm potential solutions to the problem. It is called the invitation because the adult is actually inviting the child to solve the problem collaboratively.

Adult: “Let’s think about how we can solve this problem” or “Let’s think about how we can work that out.”

The invitation lets the child know that solving the problem is something you’re doing with him, rather than to him.  After he’s been invited, give him first crack at generating a solution, “Do you have any ideas?”

The solution must be mutually satisfactory, doable and realistic.

Note: If you already know how the problem is going to be solved before the discussion takes place, then you are not using plan B – You’re using plan A.

If your child doesn’t have the skills to participate in Plan B, you can guide him through the process. Table 4 addresses some of the skills your child may lack and how to address them.

Table 4: Three Skills Needed to participate in Plan B
Identifying and Articulating Concerns
Considering a range of possible solutions
Reflect on the likely outcomes of solutions and the degree to which they are feasible and mutually satisfactory
Some kids truly don’t know what their concern is; others simply do not have the language skills to articulate their concerns. Try to help your child identify his concern.

Adult: I’ve noticed that the labels in your clothing bug you a lot.
Child: Yeah.
Parent: And I’ve noticed that it’s not so easy for you to say that the labels are bugging you.
Child: It’s not?
Parent: Well, when the labels are bothering you, sometimes you scream and say words that aren’t very nice.
Child: Oh, yeah.
Parent: So I was thinking that maybe we could come up with a way for you to say that the labels are bugging you without you saying words that aren’t nice. Can you think of any ideas for what you could say?
Child: No
Parent: I have an idea. Would you like to hear it?
Child: OK.
Parent: How about “The label’s bothering me.”?
Child: Uhm…OK.
Parent: Do you think you might be able to say that instead of the other things you usually say?
Child: I think so.
Parent: If you forget, how about I remind you?
Teach you kids that the solution to most problems fall into three categories:
  1. ask for help
  2. meet halfway/give a little
  3. do it a different way.

So when a child (or adult) gets stuck and cannot think of a solution, ask “can we solve the problem by asking for help” or “can we meet halfway?” or “can this problem be solved by doing things differently?”
You can help the child with these skills by describing the likely outcomes of the solutions that have been generated: “well, here’s what I think would happen if we choose that solution, and here’s what I think would happen if we choose the second option. Which of those outcomes do you think would work the best?”

If the child is having difficulty thinking about whether solutions address both concerns, adults can respond as follows: “I know that solution would make you happy, but it wouldn’t make me very happy. Let’s try to think of a solution that would make both of us happy.”

Table 5 addresses other issues that may compromise the collaborative problem solving technique.

Table 5: Other things to consider
Language Processing Skills
Basic vocabulary of feeling words: Happy, Sad, frustrated (or angry, mad, upset if he can’t say the word frustrated). Once a child becomes comfortable with and begins using this rudimentary vocabulary, more sophisticated feeling words can be added.
Fair does not mean equal!
So do not be concerned if the explosive child requires a larger share of the parents’ resources. Help siblings understand why their explosive sibling acts they way he does, why the behavior is so difficult to change, how to interact with him in ways that reduce hostility and the likelihood of aggression and explosion, and explain what you are actively doing to try to improve things.

Children do not choose to be explosive. Explosive outbursts occur when the cognitive demands being placed upon the child (or person) outstrip that person’s capacity to respond adaptively. Children do well if they can. In order to adapt and interact in the world, children require the ability to solve problems, work out disagreements, and control the emotions experienced when frustrated. Parents can help them develop these skills with collaborative problem solving. 

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)

Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects at least one in twenty children. Children with SPD don't process or experience sensory information the way other typical children do; therfore, they don't behave the way other children do. They struggle to perform tasks that come easier for other children. Consequently they suffer a loss of quality in their social, personal, emotional and academic life.

The Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation is dedicated to continue their research into the knowledge and treatment of SPD, so that, as Lucy Jane Miller writes in her book "Sensations Kids", "the millions of sensational children currently "muddling through" daily life will enjoy the same hope and help that research and recognition already have bestowed on coutless other conditions that once baffled science and disrupted lives."