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Brown School is Doing Well!

For several years I had thought about implementing the Collaborative Problem Solving approach at Brown School, but I could never find traction to get the initiative rolling. A host of conventional thoughts prevented me from getting started; I don’t have the budget, my teachers are far too busy already, all that darn testing, how can we possibly find the time? In the spring of 2013, my school counselor attended the Collaborative Problem Solving all day workshop at a conference. She returned energized about a common sense, empathic approach to helping children solve problems. Her energy made me think of the old proverb, “The best time to plant and oak is thirty years ago. The next best time is, now.” In August of 2013 the faculty and staff of Brown School in Natick, Massachusetts began the Collaborative Problem Solving Journey.

For CPS to take hold in the school I knew I had to lead the initiative. I didn’t want the faculty and staff to think that this is an approach only for mental health professionals. I have taken several steps to demonstrate my commitment to CPS and how it could improve teaching and learning at Brown. First, Dr. Larry Epstein conducted a three hour training to begin the school year. He gave a comprehensive presentation that was energetic and engaging for the audience. Afterward, the faculty commented how valuable the training was for starting the school year. I reassured the staff that we would work on developing our CPS skills as the demand presented itself. In other words, “Don’t worry. I will help you with this initiative (reassurance).”

Later that year I attended the three day level one training with my school psychologist and guidance counselor. The training provided us the the structure and confidence we needed to begin making some deep attempts at CPS. We decided to give it a try. If our first attempts didn’t turn out so well, we would try again. That entire spring we worked with faculty and students using CPS to solve problems. We brought our learning back to the faculty and committed thirty minutes to every faculty meeting learning more about CPS.

It wasn’t long before an interesting dynamic began to happen. As teachers observed us working with students collaboratively, they began to ask more questions. Soon we were observing and coaching teachers while they worked on solving problems with students. It became more common for me to cover a teacher while she worked with a student on a problem.

At the same time I noticed that I was using CPS for difficult situations with adults. I quickly learned, “Adults will do well if they can!” It was amazing to experience the change in adult behavior when two people took the time to listen to each other. I once read a quote that said, “Are you listening to understand or listening to respond?” That quote has remained embedded in my thoughts and is present every time I sit down to have a difficult conversation. The beauty of CPS is; if you listen for understanding, your response has a much greater chance of making a difference.

Another way that CPS has impacted our school is in the child study process for academic, social, and emotional supports. Our conversations have shifted to identifying the lagging skill of the child and designing interventions that directly impact the lagging skills. Conventional talk has reduced and creative solutions for building skills has increased. The number of IEP referrals has dropped dramatically and I have only had six referrals from parents for special education in the last two years. Our IEP rate for students receiving learning center support has dropped to below 5%.

If principals really want to prepare their students and teachers for a new age then they need to teach them the problem solving skills that will help them solve problems that don’t exist today. I encourage all principals start Collaborative Problem Solving in their school NOW! Don’t wait thirty years.

Kirk Downing
Assistant Superintendent, Natick Public Schools, [former Principal, Brown Elementary School] Natick, MA

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