COLLABORATIVE PROBLEM SOLVING
Updated: Sep 15
In my experience, both personal and professional, the majority of children respond fairly well to what I call “standard discipline.” This includes the tried and true strategies that are taught to aspiring pediatricians and new parents: natural consequence, token economies, positive discipline, and time-outs. As a mom of young children, I read and re-read 1, 2, 3 Magic by Thomas Phelan and had generally great results.
But all kids are different, and what I found to be successful both at home and in my office with most children can really backfire with some kids. Some children are not motivated by rewards, become angered beyond the capacity for reflection by consequences, and escalate instead of calming during a time out. For these kids, we need to expand the tools in our toolboxes.
Looking for ideas, I dove into my favorite parenting books, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk and The Whole Brain Child. I have learned so much about communication and emotional co-regulation from these books, and I still frequently find myself flipping through their pages to remember a strategy or recommend them to a family. However, they did not give me the framework that I needed to help me navigate the behavioral challenges I was facing both at home and at work.
I found what I was looking for in Ross Greene’s The Explosive Child. This book should be required reading for caregivers of any child that is easily frustrated or inflexible. In it, Greene lays out a straightforward collaborative problem solving technique that he calls “Plan B.” He starts off with the assumption that children will do well if they can.
That alone was a frame-shift for me. Instead of intentionally angering caregivers and exercising willful disobedience, children’s challenging and at times explosive behaviors reflect a kind of developmental delay: specifically a lack of skills of flexibility and frustration tolerance. “An explosive outburst,” Greene says, “occurs when the cognitive demand being placed on a child outstrips that child’s capacity to respond adaptively.”
Greene points to five areas that explosive kids frequently struggle: executive skills, language processing, cognitive flexibility, emotional regulation, and social skills. We won’t go into depth with each of these here but suffice it to say that all of these domains are functions of the frontal lobe of the brain, all of them can be learned and practiced, and none of them is responsive to reward and punishment programs.
Here’s where Plan B comes in. Plan B is a framework for connecting and compromising with a child in a difficult moment. The adult plays the role of being a surrogate frontal lobe for the child. The adult does the thinking that the child is incapable of doing when triggered. She then guides the child through the frustration and toward a solution.
Step 1: Empathy plus reassurance. This step is critical. It sets the stage for a connected and calm interaction. Allow the child to lay his perspective out on the table without reacting to it. Approach the situation with curiosity and without judgement. Ask clarifying questions and be an engaged listener. Do not interpret or offer solutions.
Step 2: Define the Problem. This is where the adult puts her concerns on the table. Don’t be pushy or authoritarian. Don’t offer solutions here either. Using a phrase like, “the thing is” or “the problem with that is” can help frame the concern in a non-threatening way.
Now we’ve got two concerns on the table: the child’s and the adult’s. The rest of Plan B is focused on finding a reconciliation.
Step 3: An invitation. The adult invites the child to brainstorm possible solutions. The child does not have to bear the burden of solving the problem alone, but it works well to let him take the first crack at it. Approach the brainstorm with openness and an understanding that the solution is not yet known. Write down all the solutions, even the far-fetched ones. Together, you can appraise the list and look for one that is doable (by both parties), realistic, and mutually satisfactory.
Plan B takes practice. At first it may feel awkward or forced, but stick with it. Typically you will start to see behavioral shifts pretty quickly. Your child will feel heard and valued in ways that standard disciplinary techniques do not offer. It’s often when you least want to do Plan B that is the most important to follow. It does take longer than giving a time out, but if you can build connection with your child and avoid an outburst, it is 100% worth the extra time.
Faber, Adele and Mazlish, Elaine. How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. New York, Scribner, 1980.
Greene, Ross. The Explosive Child. New York, HarperCollins, 2005.
Phelan,Thomas. 1-2-3 Magic. Glen Ellyn, ParentMagic Inc., 2010.
Siegel, Daniel and Bryson, Tina Payne. The Whole-Brain Child. New York, Random House, 2011.