Monday, July 4, 2011

Collaborative Problem Solving (Kate Altman, M.S.)

The other day I was with a friend and her four-year-old daughter.  The little girl, Jane, started to get bored and whined that she wanted her mom to play with her.  Her mom said she would when she was finished talking.  Exasperated, Jane began to whine more.  Her mom said, "Jane, if you stop whining and let me finish my conversation I will play with you.  But if you continue to whine I will not play with you.  It is your choice.  What do you choose?"  Jane took a deep sigh, but begrudgingly muttered, "I'll stop whining."  And she did, and was rewarded with some playtime with her mom, as promised.

Witnessing this exchange led me to reflect on my work as a behavioral therapist with children and their parents.  None of the children with whom I worked--whose diagnoses included ASD, ADHD, and developmental delays--would have benefited from the approach that worked so well with Jane.  Many did not have the language or comprehension capacity necessary for detailed verbal instructions, nor the ability to self-regulate, or other executive functioning abilities required to reason through the benefits of changing a behavior to earn a reward.  Therefore, the traditional rewards/consequences approaches to discipline often did not work, at least at first.

Instead, I often used Ross W. Greene's (he is the author of the parenting book, The Explosive Child) method called Collaborative Problem Solving.  Essentially, he posits that parents of children with executive functioning problems (such as the difficulties with self-regulation, problem-solving, and verbal reasoning seen in children with diagnoses like ASD, ADHD, and developmental delays) must teach their children executive functioning on the road to discipline.  He says parents must at first "be their child's frontal lobe."  To do this, Dr. Greene suggests implementing his "Plan B" approach, in which the parent first conveys empathy to the child ("I know, you really really want that ice cream right now") and gathers information about the problem, then the parent explains his or her problem with the situation ("You see, I'm concerned because I know if you eat ice cream now, you won't eat your dinner and you need to eat your dinner to be healthy and strong."), and then the parent invites the child to brainstorm with him or her ways to solve the problem.  The approach works because the genuine empathy diffuses the child's anger and frustration, and the brainstorming empowers the child and also helps him or her to exercise the problem-solving muscle.  So the child curbs his or her behaviors and also practices using executive functioning skills that he or she is lacking.

Parents are sometimes skeptical of this approach because it seems "too soft", and it is certainly not for everyone.  But when done right, I've seen Collaborative Problem Solving used very effectively with very challenging kids.  To read more about it, go here.

Have you tried it? What do you think of this method?


  1. I greatly appreciate Dr. Greene and all of his work. I tend to think of this as teaching kids who are missing social cues what the thought processes are that go into a responsible decision - most typical kids probably know a lot of this already, but these kids either have missed a lot of the information or aren't able to access it when they are upset.

  2. Hearing Dr. Greene speak at a conference this year, caused me to further investigate the process. What he says makes sense, although when my grandson is in "the-heat-of-the-moment" (the explosive behavior), not even an empathic statement can defuse his reaction. B Plan has worked on occasion, when we "discuss" the episode at another time. Dr. Greene suggested saying "I notice when I ask you to do.... you react this way... so what's up with that?" The process is time-consuming, but it actually makes me feel more respectful and engaging with my grandson. Rewards and punishments do not work. Not even with "typical" children. Don't we all want to be understood and respected? Thank you for posting this valuable information.

  3. Dr. Greene:

  4. I had a great training in this today as a Clinical Supervisor who will be training clincial staff. Does anyone know of CPS parenting classes in the Philadelphia area. This is a great approach to use in family based programs and while it is beneficial for both parents and the children. I am wondering if this approach can be streamlined into parenting classes. Thanks for any info you may have.

  5. Yes this can be part of parenting classes. More information along the lines you are interested in can be found through