Collaborative & Proactive Solutions in the Classroom

A red haired teenager with her hair pulled up has her head down while sitting on the couch. She is sitting next to her mother with short blond hair who has her hand on her head, blocking her face, in frustration. Both women are wearing warm clothing.

You know that “lightbulb moment” you have when an idea makes so much sense that it completely changes your perspective? Learning about Child Psychologist Dr. Ross Greene’s Collaborative & Proactive Solutions (CPS) method was a lightbulb moment for me. My views on challenging behavior are now much different than they were before.

I’ve shifted my thinking from the idea that children need rewards or consequences to meet expectations to the idea that children are already motivated but lack the skills they need to meet expectations. In other words, children do well when they can, not when they want to

In my last blog, I introduced the theories behind the CPS method. Here, we'll dive into implementing this approach in the classroom.

The CPS model involves three essential components:

  1. Cultivating Empathy: One of the most powerful things we can do as educators, parents, or in any caregiver role is to put ourselves in our children's shoes. Understanding their perspective on challenges helps build trust, promote positive relationships, and is a crucial first step in resolving behavior challenges. 
  1. Identifying and defining problems: Once you've worked on establishing a positive relationship by cultivating empathy, you can begin systematically identifying the lagging skills that are the root cause of the challenging behaviors. Remember, the behavior is the fever — the indication that something else is wrong. If a student in your class frequently yells and disrupts other students, your job is to find out why. Are they having difficulty handling transitions? Are they overwhelmed with the content they're learning? With careful observation and detailed note taking, you can narrow down the specific skills or problems the child is facing and be on the road to helping them. 
  1. Collaborating on Solutions: Collaboration is at the heart of the CPS approach. By involving students in the problem-solving process, we empower them to take an active role in finding solutions that work for everyone involved.

To illustrate the steps involved, I'll use the example of an experienced support teacher, Mr. Ng, and his student Ahmed. Ahmed entered Mr. Ng's fifth-grade classroom as a new student part-way into the school year. Right away, Ahmed displayed challenging behavior that needed to be addressed. He was a bright young boy but tended to act out unexpectedly, throwing tantrums and disrupting the class. Using the CPS method, Mr. Ng worked at getting to the root cause of Ahmed’s behaviors and worked with him to find solutions. Here are the steps he took:  

Creating a Supportive Classroom Climate

Any behavior intervention must begin with a safe, respectful environment and a solid relationship between caregiver and child. Communication is key; children need to feel comfortable being open and honest about their feelings. With this open communication and active listening, you can uncover the underlying reasons behind problematic behavior.

Fortunately for Mr. Ng and Ahmed, the fifth-grade teachers and students had been working all year to develop a supportive classroom climate. The students in Mr. Ng's class felt safe and free to express themselves without judgment. Rules and expectations were communicated clearly from the beginning of the school year and reviewed frequently. The students felt valued and respected in a classroom community that felt more like a family — a place where everyone belonged. When issues came up, they were always handled with empathy and respect. 

Mr. Ng made it his mission to get to know Ahmed and earn his trust. He read through his file from the school he came from to see if he had similar issues in the past. He asked Ahmed lots of questions and got to know his likes and dislikes (scary movies, sports), a little about his family (two brothers, one sister, and a slobbery black lab named Jack), what he did in his free time (video games and drawing). All the pieces of the puzzle that made up Ahmed helped Mr. Ng see the big picture and set the stage for collaborative problem-solving. 

Identifying and Defining Problems

With a supportive classroom climate in place, the next step in the CPS model is to identify and define the specific skills the child lacks and the problems they face. Here are the key elements involved:   

Open Communication

Identifying lagging skills starts with open communication. CPS involves working with a child to find a solution; learning their perspective on what's happening is important. It can provide important insight into their challenges and lead to a successful solution. 

During break time, Mr. Ng sat down with Ahmed after a particularly intense outburst during math class. Once he had some time to calm down, Mr. Ng asked him if he was okay and if there was something he could do to help. Ahmed told him that he hated math and that there was no point in learning long division anyway. Mr. Ng suspected his anger stemmed from frustration since Ahmed had difficulty with his practice problems. Was this just the issue today, or could this be a consistent pattern of behavior? The best way to know for sure was to do some observations and data collection. 

Data Collection

Mr. Ng knew from experience that detailed data and notes provide valuable insight into triggers and possible solutions. Up until this point, Ahmed's behavior seemed completely unpredictable, but as Mr. Ng began to track it, he noticed there was, in fact, a pattern. Although Ahmed's outbursts didn't always happen in math class, they often occurred when he was feeling frustrated or overwhelmed or asked to do something he found difficult. In his observations, Mr. Ng also noted that Ahmed had difficulty staying organized and remembering assigned tasks. For example, he wasn't turning in his assignments, even when he finished them. 

Collaboratively Defining Problems

When defining the unsolved problems you'd like to work on with a child, it's important to remember not to focus on their behavior, but on the expectation they're having trouble meeting. Defining the problems with the child helps them take ownership and feel in control.    

After school, Mr. Ng and his co-teacher sat down and listed the skills Ahmed was struggling with. They came up with several: difficulty maintaining focus, persisting on challenges or frustration tolerance, and managing emotions when frustrated, to name a few. They didn't share these skills with Ahmed, but they served as goals as they worked on helping Ahmed meet certain expectations.

Together, Mr. Ng and Ahmed decided the most pressing problems were Ahmed’s difficulty completing long division problems in math and difficulty handing in completed assignments. With the problems defined, they were now ready to develop some solutions. 

Generating Collaborative Solutions

Much like defining problems, coming up with solutions must also be a collaborative process. Here's what to keep in mind to find solutions that are most likely to be successful:

1. Choose the Right Moment: Timing is crucial when engaging in problem-solving conversations with students. Find a calm and appropriate moment to discuss issues without distractions.

2. Involve Students in Brainstorming: Empower students by involving them in generating potential solutions. Their active participation fosters a sense of ownership and responsibility.

3. Emphasize a Positive Approach: Focus on finding solutions rather than criticizing or blaming. A positive and solution-oriented mindset encourages students to approach challenges constructively.

4. Consider Peer Learning: Encourage collaboration among students to learn from one another. Peer support can be instrumental in fostering engagement and empowerment.

5. Prioritize Student and Teacher Perspectives: Balance student input with your expertise as an educator. Collaborative solutions should consider the needs and perspectives of all community members.

Another student in the fifth-grade class, Manuel, got along well with Ahmed and happened to be excellent at long division. Ahmed asked if he could sit next to Manuel during work times to get help, and Mr. Ng agreed.   

Mr. Ng asked Ahmed if he thought it might help to have a designated spot for a "homework basket" where Ahmed knew he could place his completed assignments. Ahmed agreed this was a good idea but was still worried about remembering to turn them in. Together, they created a morning checklist that included a specific reminder to turn in homework, and Ahmed felt more at ease.

Implementing and Evaluating Solutions

The work isn't finished once you have your plan in place. It's now time to monitor, evaluate and make sure it's working the way you need it to. Solutions often need to be adjusted or changed over time. Although seating Ahmed next to Manuel was very helpful at first, it gradually became more of a distraction, and another intervention was developed that Ahmed could rely on independently. Evaluating solutions is, of course, much more effective with support — especially from a well-trained teaching assistant. 

Ahmed's plan was successful largely due to Mr. Ng's expertise and availability to help. His role in establishing a positive classroom community and collaboratively identifying problems and solutions would have been significantly harder, if not impossible, with only one teacher in the room. The lower the student-teacher ratio, the more likely it is that each student will get the individual attention they need. Furthermore, teaching assistants need to be more than present; they need education and training. 

The Collaborative & Proactive Solutions method is just one part of the teaching assistant training program I’ve developed in cooperation with SENIA to educate TAs and give them the tools they need to help students succeed. If you have any questions about CPS or bringing education and support to your school’s TAs, feel free to contact me. Together, we can take steps to create positive and supportive classroom environments where students thrive.