How Collaborative Problem Solving Can Help Your Child’s Challenging Behavior

in Spring 2018 by

Does your child repeatedly refuse to get dressed in the morning? Is a night without a homework meltdown a notable event? Do you get frequent calls from school that your child is disruptive in class, at recess, or in PE? If you answered yes to any of these questions the Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) will interest you. Even if your child does not have these specific challenges, all parents have occasional conflicts when our children are oppositional and you wonder in that moment how the heck to best handle the situation. Children’s challenging behavior can be tricky for teachers and parents.

Why are challenging kids challenging? Because they are lacking the skills not to be challenging. If they had the skills, they would not be challenging. That’s because, and this is a key theme of the approach, Kids do well if they can because doing well is preferable to not doing well. This, of course, is a dramatic departure from the view of challenging kids as attention-seeking, manipulative, coercive, limit-testing, and poorly motivated. CPS is an approach to handle the oppositional behavior children sometimes display while growing up.

What is CPS? CPS is based on the premise that challenging behavior occurs when the expectations being placed on a child exceed the child’s capacity to respond adaptively, and that some children are lacking the skills to handle certain demands and expectations. The approach focuses on identifying the skills the child is lacking and the expectations she is having difficulty meeting. Then the goal is to help children and adults solve those problems rather than trying to modify children’s behavior through use of consequences, rewards, and punishments.

This approach was first introduced by MGH psychologist Ross Greene, Ph.D. in his widely acclaimed 1998 book The Explosive Child. and has been developed by the Think:Kids Program at MGH. Good parenting is about striking the balance between a child’s characteristics and a parent’s desire to have influence. CPS makes a powerful case for rethinking typical approaches to parenting and disciplining children. Through solving problems collaboratively, parents can forgo timeout and sticker charts; stop badgering, berating, threatening, and punishing; allow their kids to feel heard and validated; AND have influence.

The goal is to foster a collaborative partnership between adults and kids and to engage kids in solving the problems that affect their lives. Framed this way, the CPS model is non-punitive and non-adversarial, decreases the likelihood of conflict, enhances relationships, improves communication, and helps children and adults learn positive skills such as: empathy, appreciating how one’s behavior is affecting others, resolving disagreements in ways that do not involve conflict, taking another’s perspective, and honesty.

What are the key skills needed to do well? When children meltdown or are oppositional it is likely they are lacking some critical skills in the areas of flexibility, frustration tolerance, and problem solving. Punishment for poor behavior assumes that a child is unaware of what she did wrong and needs time to reflect upon her behavior. If expectations are clear, even preschoolers know what is considered bad behavior. Punishments do not tend to work well in the long run because they don’t teach a skill – they simply underscore you behaved badly. The CPS approach engages the child through a very specific pattern of conversation where a child begins to learn more about their triggers and the ways to best manage difficult situations. The emphasis on empathy and connection between the child and adult is critical to the success of the approach and allows both child and adult to feel that they are working together to solve problems.


Want to learn more? The CPS presentation by parent training expert Karen Kraut, MPH at the All-School Evening (rescheduled for Monday, April 9) may provide some answers. Karen Kraut, MPH, is a parenting coach and Certified Trainer in the Collaborative Problem Solving approach based at MHG’s Think:Kids program. She coaches parents, leads workshops, and presents on CPS throughout greater Boston. Karen has helped over 700 parents become more effective and confident in their parenting.