Collaborate Problem Solving

Most parents tell me about how frustrated they feel not being able to get their children to become more compliant, less aggressive, more independent, and less avoidant. They feel that they have tried everything from praise, punishment, and setting boundaries, and nothing has truly worked. Today, I’ll introduce you to a new approach that is guaranteed to work.  Welcome to the world of Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS). It is an evidence-based, strength-based, neurobiologically-grounded approach developed by Dr. Ross Green that fosters development of executive functioning skills in children while honoring the parent-child relationship.

What is Collaborative Problem Solving:
  • CPS views children’s challenging behaviors as a result of lacking some sort of executive functioning skill .

  • CPS focuses on how to best teach children skills in order to reduce their behavioral issues and make their lives more meaningful.

  • CPS requires parents to let go of their need for control and their own agendas for their children so that they can fully and mindfully listen to their children, understand where their child is at, and work with them to find better solutions.

  • CPS provides a safe environment for children’s brain to develop by forming new and strengthening old connections.

What Collaborative Problem Solving is not:

  • CPS does not view children’s problematic behaviors as attention-seeking, manipulative, limit-testing, or a sign of poor motivations.

  • CPS does not focus on using rewards and punishments or imposing adult’s agenda on the child.

  • CPS is not always a quick fix with immediate results.

  • CPS is not solving problems for the child.

  • CPS is not avoiding and ignoring the problem.

We often only see and focus on the behaviors:

the screaming, swearing, defying, hitting, spitting, throwing things, breaking things, crying, running, withdrawing, and so forth. But these behaviors are ALL children’s ways of telling us that they are having a hard time with something. If they could tell us in a better way, I promise you they would! But they can’t, because they don’t have these skills yet. Or they may have the skills when they are at their best, but can’t access them when they are tired, hungry, anxious, sad, or angry.

“Children display problematic behaviors when the demands being placed upon them have outstripped the skills they have to respond adaptively to those demands” – Dr. Ross Green

So let’s break down the steps of CPS….

STEP 1. Find out the skills and abilities your child is lacking. The THINKING SKILLS INVENTORY and the PLAN B TRACKING SHEET, developed by Massachusetts General Hospital, will help you do that.

  1. Try to understand the problem from the child’s point of view. Share your observations with them, and ask them what they think is going on. (e.g., “I’ve noticed you’ve been having a hard time cleaning up after yourself, I was wondering what is going on?”, “I’ve noticed that you have been getting into frequent arguments with your sibling, could you tell me what’s going on?”, “I’ve noticed that you haven’t been doing your homework, and I want to know what is going on.” BE VERY SPECIFIC, NEUTRAL, AND PROACTIVE.

  2. Listen well. After you ask them a question, pause as long as you have to pause. Count in your head if you have to. Take deep breaths. If they are having difficulty answering your question, see if you can be more specific, more neutral, and more proactive.

  3. When the child gives you a response, probe them for more information by trying the following techniques. This is the most important and the most challenging part of CPS.

  4. Asking questions beginning with “who”, “what”, “why”, or “when”.

  5. Asking the child why the problem occurs at certain times, with certain people, or under certain conditions, but not at other times. (e.g., “I have noticed on the homework, you seem to be getting the math done pretty easily, but the science seems to be hard for you”).

  6. Breaking the problem down into it’s component parts (e.g., “There are different parts in getting out of bed in the morning, let’s think about which of those parts are challenging for you“).

  7. Asking the child what he or she is thinking in the midst of the unsolved problems (e.g., “What were you thinking when you were having an argument with your sister?”, “What were you thinking when I was asking you to come in for dinner when you were watching TV?”).

  8. Asking clarifying questions (e.g., “How so?”, “I don’t quite understand”, “Can you say more about that?”, “I’m confused”).

  9. Validate their emotions. Empathize with them. Let them know you can see how and why this situation is challenging for them. Validating their experiences and emotions does not mean that their behavior is okay. It does not mean that you don’t have the right to feel frustrated. It does not mean that change does not need to happen. It simply means that you can understand their point of view. And a child needs to first trust that you care about their feelings before they can trust that you can help them.

  10. Reassure the child that imposing your will is not how the problem will be resolved, and that the solution will come much quicker if it’s from the child’s own internal motivation, while getting proper support from others.

STEP 2. Identify and share your concerns about the same issue.

  • Be brief and direct. The more you talk, the less they will listen.

  • You can say “The thing is, I think it’s important that you and your brother can learn how to resolve your disagreements without hurting each other” or “The thing is, doing well in school is an important part of making sure that you will have a successful future”.

  • Children can’t focus and sit still as long as adults no matter how old they are. They aren’t as worried about their future as their parents are. Children live in the moment, and in that moment they rather be doing something else. That doesn’t make them a bad child, it just makes them a child.

STEP 3. Work together in brainstorming solutions and choosing one that is both realistic and mutually satisfactory. These are some questions you can ask them:

  • What do you think you need to resolve this issue?

  • What would be the first step in this plan so you can be successful?

  • How can I best support you in resolving this issue?

  • Who else do you think would be helpful to you to make this situation better?

  • Are you interested to hear about any of my suggestions?

  • Is there anyone you know who you think might have some possible solutions to offer to you?

  • When should we check back in to see if this solution is working?

  • If this solution does not work, do you have a plan B that you can try?

What parents often struggle with while doing CPS:

  • Letting go of their need for control.

  • Managing their anxiety.

  • Pausing long enough after they ask a question and giving the child time to come up with an answer.

  • Not interfering with the child’s solutions.

  • Seeing that there is value in letting children fail and learn from their own mistakes and experiences.

If you notice that you have difficulty engaging in CPS with your child due to any of the above things I just mentioned, you might need to first work on improving your own EF skills. Individual therapy can be very valuable in helping you do that. If your relationship with your child (or any child you are trying to help) is not strong, healthy, and safe due to a variety of reasons, you might need to take a step back and first work on improving and fostering that relationship before you can begin engaging in CPS with your child. Attachment-based family therapy can be very valuable in helping you do that. Lastly, keep in mind that neuro-atypical children, such as those with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder, or those with learning disorders or processing issues will have a much harder time learning and applying executive functioning skills simply by how their brain is wired. So a) asking them to problem solve, organize, plan, and regulate their emotions is much more challenging for them and b) they are at a much higher need for you to practice CPS with them so that they can foster better executive functioning skills.


The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children

Raising Human Beings: Creating a Collaborative Partnership with Your Child

Treating Explosive Kids: The Collaborative Problem-Solving Approach


Collaborative Problem Solving

Ten tips and a fidget or Collaborative Problem Solving: Why aren’t consequences working

Hasti Raveau is a child and family psychologist and the founder and owner of Mala Child and Family Institute. Much of her work is focused on helping children improve their emotional well-being, supporting parents on their parenting journeys, and empowering families so they can repair, grow, and thrive.
Most parents tell me about how frustrated they feel not being able to get their children to become more compliant, less aggressive, more independent, and less avoidant. They feel that they have tried everything from praise, punishment, and setting boundaries, and nothing has truly worked. Today, I’ll introduce you to a new approach that is […]

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