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Everyone has had that person at work whose behavior frustrates you. It might be your colleague, your boss, a report of yours or even your CEO. Difficult behavior in the workplace strains team dynamics, damages workplace morale and culture, and leads to enormous losses in productivity. If the behavior doesn’t cross the line into something that can be reported to HR, is there anything besides beside grin and bear it?

Thanks to the latest in neuropsychological research, the answer is yes! But the key is understanding why some colleagues behave in a challenging way in the first place. Contrary to conventional wisdom, they aren’t behaving that way because they are simply not trying hard enough to get along with their team members or because they like the attention their behavior brings them. They aren’t difficult because they want to be. They lack the skill, not the will to behave better. What skills? Skills like flexibility, frustration tolerance and problem-solving. Some of these employees can be incredibly talented in other ways, contributing unique gifts to their work, but their behavior can also threaten team dynamics so it must be addressed.

Collaborative Problem Solving is an approach that operationalizes these key findings from brain science to address some of the most challenging behavior in some of the most challenging settings. The method has been battle tested. It works. The lessons learned from helping people in places like correctional facilities and psychiatric facilities apply just about anywhere we struggle to manage someone’s behavior. You can put them to use right away in your workplace.

The approach starts with a simple mindset which helps us maintain some empathy and patience for our colleagues who can be pretty challenging to work alongside at times. Begin by assuming that underneath their difficult behavior your colleague probably has reasonable concerns, but they lack the skills to express and pursue those concerns more reasonably. Next use the following proven problem-solving roadmap that not only reduces challenging behavior and solves problems but will also help your colleague (and maybe even yourself!) build the skills they may struggle with.

The roadmap has three simple steps: Continue reading this article in Psychology Today

By: Dr. Stuart Ablon, Director of Think:Kids

As a psychologist specializing in working with kids and adolescents with very challenging behavior, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to help kids stay “regulated,” which in essence means calm in the midst of frustration or over-excitement. I have the great fortune of doing a lot of teaching with my good friend and colleague, Dr. Bruce Perry, who often reminds us that dysregulation is contagious! Nothing like a dysregulated kid to get the adults and other kids around them dysregulated too. As a parent or teacher, I’m sure you have experienced this firsthand. When a child becomes dysregulated, they invariably lose a slew of IQ points, and we are quick to follow. At that point, we then have two humans not operating at their best which can lead to some pretty ugly moments. It would stand to reason then that one of the best ways to keep kids calm is to remain calm ourselves. Easier said than done, right? Well, one of the most effective strategies isn’t what you think it is. It’s not deep breathing, mindfulness or some other technique per se. It’s our mindset.

Mindset matters because how we think about things impacts how we feel about them. For example, if you believe that a child is purposefully escalating in order to try to get you to give in, then it makes sense that you would feel angry and resentful. And, of course, feeling angry and resentful breeds that physiological state we refer to as dysregulation. However, if on the other hand, you viewed the child escalating through a more compassionate and understanding lens, you would be less likely to escalate yourself. This is why we spend a lot of time teaching adults a basic philosophy that underlies all of our work: “Kids do well if they can!” This philosophy is simply meant to mean that if a child could do well, they would do well. If they could handle a situation without escalating, they would. No child wants to become dysregulated. It is not a lack of desire to remain calm that gets in their way. Rather, it is a lack of skill at being able to do so. Reminding yourself that dysregulation is a matter of skill, not will, may be the most effective way to help yourself stay calm when a child is struggling to do just that. We often encourage adults to view kids’ difficulties staying regulated as akin to a learning disability. This mindset also has the advantage of not only being more compassionate but also being more accurate! 50 years of neuroscience research has shown this to be true. Bearing this in mind will help you manage your own emotional reaction.

Teaching this mindset to adults caring for, teaching and protecting people who exhibit some of the most challenging behavior in some of the most challenging places in the world has repeatedly shown dramatic results. So we know that focusing on your mindset can work in your home, classroom or workplace as well. The next time you feel yourself teetering on the edge of dysregulation, remember and repeat to yourself the simple mantras of “kids do well if they can” and “skill, not will.” And if you forget and lose your cool too, don’t be too hard on yourself. Adults do well if they can too!

As originally posted in: www.psychologytoday.com

Research explains what (not who!) is really to blame for challenging behavior.

J. Stuart Ablon Ph.D.

As a child psychologist, who specializes in helping kids with challenging behavior, I hear how often we parents take the blame for our kids’ behavior, whether the behavior happens at home, at school or anywhere else. I can’t really blame folks for fingering parents because the blame should really reside with my field. Psychology and psychiatry has a long history of blaming parents (or more specifically, mothers!) for things we later learn they have less to do with than we thought. Take the example of what was referred to as the “schizophrenigenic mother” whose parenting style was thought to cause schizophrenia! Fast forward to the 21st century and we realize what an absurd notion that is (Neill, 1990). And there are examples that are just as astounding and have persisted even longer. The phrase “refrigerator mothers” was coined to describe cold, unempathic moms who were thought to cause ….. autism (Kanter, 1943)! Really. Of course, now we know that autism spectrum disorders are complicated neurodevelopmental challenges. Sorry moms for throwing you under the bus for decades!

My experience tells me that challenging behavior may be the latest example of the damage done when we inaccurately blame parents. We think that parents being passive, permissive and inconsistent leads to their children exhibiting challenging behavior because the kids learn that they can get things or get out of things by behaving this way. But is it really that poor parenting causes challenging behavior? Or is it actually the reverse – namely that challenging behavior causes us parents to look pretty bad?

Over the years in my clinical practice, I’ve noticed some patterns that suggest maybe the latter is more accurate. Many families come to see me for help with one of the children who exhibits severely challenging behavior, and I often observe that those very same families frequently have other children who not only aren’t particularly challenging, they are actually incredibly well-behaved! How do we explain that? Same parents, but different kids. I often say that if I could take a kid from my practice with very challenging behavior and transport them into the home of the ideal parents, those same parents quickly would start to look a lot less consistent and a lot more lenient. Likewise, show me a parent who is described as being too lenient and inconsistent and give them a really well-behaved kid and all of a sudden they will start to look a lot more consistent and less permissive. But unfortunately when we parents have well-behaved kids, we assume that it must be what we are doing that is working so well. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that probably has less to do with us as well! Easy kids are easy to parent. Kids with challenging behavior are really challenging to parent.

So who is really to blame then for challenging behavior? Or more accurately, what is to blame? Skills deficits – (Pollastri, 2019; Wang, 2018). Tons of research in the neurosciences have shown beyond the shadow of doubt that kids who exhibit challenging behavior struggle with skills in areas like flexibility, frustration tolerance and problem-solving. To be more specific and technical, they have a hard time with things like language and communication skills, attention and working memory skills, emotion and self-regulation skills, cognitive flexibility and social thinking skills.

So just like we’ve come to understand autism more accurately through a neuro-development lens, its high time to do the same when it comes to challenging behavior. Let’s learn from past mistakes and stop playing the blame game. Let’s start having empathy for parents whose job is already tough enough. They could use our support, not our judgment.


J. Stuart Ablon Ph.D.


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Science tells us why spray and pray training doesn’t work.

I’ve spent the last 20 years traversing North America and beyond conducting trainings for all kinds of organizations. Some are one-day trainings, others intensive three-day workshops.

When I started doing this, the field now known as implementation science didn’t even exist. But since then, much research has been done to study whether trainings like this are effective by examining whether people actually do anything different after learning new things. We’ve done our own empirical research as well. And the jury has been back in for a while now: spray-and-pray training doesn’t work! Trainers like me swoop in and spray training over a group of people and head back

But don’t worry–there is good news! Best practices from implementation science provide a clear path forward that mirrors what I’ve learned the hard way over the past couple of decades. You need to pay attention to four key things if you want training to stick: home praying that what we’ve taught will stick. The data going back almost twenty years now suggest that people’s knowledge of the content taught will definitely increase if they like the topic and presentation is interesting. However, very few people will actually do anything different. One study from 17 years ago in schools showed that only 5% of participants do anything different even though they learned a lot. Imagine all of the time and money we waste on professional development seminars that fall prey to this reality!

1.     Start by assessing readiness

I’ve seen so much valuable time and resources wasted over the years by organizations jumping headfirst into training when they really weren’t ready yet to take on something new. If they had attended to some of things getting in the way before launching, it would’ve gone much better. Sadly, if someone or someplace isn’t ready, their experience will be negatively impacted and they will think the training “doesn’t work” or “isn’t worth it,” and it may be hard to come back to it successfully again later.

2.     Get Training AND Coaching

The good news here really shouldn’t be a surprise to us. When we try to teach ourselves to do new things, what we are really attempting to do is change our brains. And we’ve actually learned a lot in the past few decades about how to change the brain. We know that we must follow the principles of neuroplasticity which tell us that one massive dose of information (like a whole day) in an artificial environment (like an auditorium) without opportunity for real-time practice can’t possibly change the brain. On the contrary, we need to provide ourselves with lots of small doses with spacing in between and opportunities to practice in the actual environment in which we are trying to utilize the new skills we have learned.

Fortunately, that same research I cited above showed that if you follow training with access to regular coaching where people are practicing in their real environment, 95% of people start to implement what they’ve learned. Amazing! So, whether you are a leader who seeks out professional development for your staff or an individual looking to learn anything new, make sure to follow your initial dose of learning with opportunities to practice repetitively in small doses with guidance and feedback from an expert.

3.     Monitor How It’s Going

If you are trying to learn to do something new, you better have a way of monitoring how well you are doing it. In implementation science, we call this “fidelity monitoring.” It’s amazing how often we spend lots of time and money trying to teach people new things but don’t invest in any way of evaluating whether it’s working, i.e., whether and how well people are doing that new thing. So, make sure you have a way of assessing how well people are doing it so you can adjust your training and coaching plan accordingly.

4.     Become Experts

One of the most frustrating things I’ve witnessed in our work is how hard it is to make something stick for the long haul. Sustainability. We’ve had situations where we work with programs for years to get them really good at our approach, and then the leader retires, the second in command moves to another organization and all of a sudden all the progress fades away. The secret to sustainability is making sure you create a team of culture carriers who are your local experts and carry the torch long after the initial training and coaching are done. We accomplish this through our certification program where we ensure organizations end implementation with a team of certified experts.

Implementation Science and You

You can apply these lessons to anything you want to learn or any behavior you want to change. It is especially important to be mindful of these factors with the hardest things to make stick.

So, the next time you want to learn something new or change your own behavior, keep these four keys in mind. And if you are trying to do the tough work of changing a whole system, it’s even more important to follow these guidelines. Good luck!


Fixsen, D. et. al (2005), Implementation Research: A Synthesis of the Literature

Joyce, B., & Showers, B. (2002). Student Achievement Through Staff Development (3rd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Pollastri AR, Ablon, JS, Hone M, eds. Collaborative Problem Solving: An Evidence-Based Approach to Implementation Across Settings. New York, NY: Springer Science + Business Media, 2019.

As originally featured on the Changeable blog in Psychology Today