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The other day, not for the first time, we received a request to testify in juvenile court in an expert witness capacity.  The case involved a young adolescent boy in a residential treatment center.  A conflict with staff emerged, which escalated to the point where staff felt the need to restrain the youngster.  As often occurs, this child, already agitated himself, fought back, and injured staff in the process.  This was handled by the facility filing aggravated assault charges against the child, including assault with a deadly weapon, which is what it is called when an individual wearing shoes kicks someone.  And thus it is that a child with significant mental health issues, significant enough to warrant a residential therapeutic placement, makes their way into the criminal justice system as well.

We know from our extensive work in systems how, even with the most dedicated staff efforts, situations can get out of hand, staff can inadvertently escalate a client, and a very dangerous scenario can take shape.  Staff injuries are high in such settings, and ensuring the wellbeing of these front-line caregivers of some of the most challenging kids is an absolute priority.  At the same time, we know with absolute certainty that recourse to the criminal justice system is not where the solution to managing challenging behavior resides.  Giving staff a meaningful framework for understanding the kids in their care, and a solid, research-based approach to managing their challenges safely and productively, is best for all involved.  It is more than possible, and although the world still turns too slowly for our taste, more and more such settings are recognizing the perils and unproductive nature of a punitive stance and seeking to “think differently” about such youth.  It’ll be a great day when the last of the above such calls for help comes our way!

At Think:Kids we often wonder who our “clients” are. Are they the kids we serve? Or are they the adults who raise, teach and help them? Of course, the answer is yes!  This video from our colleagues on the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard could not make a stronger case for CPS and our work. Their theory of change is in fact the strategy we have been using to accomplish our mission. Think:Kids helps adults across settings learn a common philosophy and evidence-based process (that we call Collaborative Problem Solving) to build kids’ executive functioning, emotion regulation and problem solving skills. As Dr. Ablon has focused on in recent trainings with Dr. Bruce Perry of the Child Trauma Academy, the mindset and process of Collaborative Problem Solving also helps fosters co-regulation and builds hleping relationships between adults and kids which leads to exactly what the Center on the Developing Child advocates for: a better environment of relationships essential to improving outcomes in kids’ lifelong learning, health, and behavior.

Eminent pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton had published a short opinion piece that we thought was of interest and worth reading.

In it as seen here, he advocates, as he has done for so very long, for an investment in high-quality supports and services for babies, toddlers, and their families to foster optimal social, emotional, and intellectual development.

Here at Think:Kids, we’re aware that our work is not always automatically considered to have a role in the years of early childhood and preschool, although thankfully that’s begun to change.  We get many more inquiries from groups working with children “zero to 3,” who appreciate the role that our work can play at this age.  Brazelton’s piece makes reference to some very interesting recent research that’s documented the astonishing finding that “a child from a high-income family will hear 30 million more words within the first four years of life than a child from a low-income family.”  While, as he says, it’s crucial to listen to babies, it’s equally crucial to talk to them.

Collaborative Problem Solving may surely need certain kinds of adaptations for the younger set.  But here’s a hypothetical bit of talking that hopefully one could imagine doing with a toddler:

A child is trying to build something with blocks, having trouble, and getting evidently frustrated:

“You really want to be able to build a castle with these blocks, but they just keep falling down!”

“I really want you to enjoy this playtime and have fun.”

“Hmm, what could we do?”

“I know!  We could work on it together.  Or we could draw a castle instead.  Or we could build something different that’s a little easier!  What should we try?”

That’s 63 words right there, not counting the “hmm,” and of course it involves some real “listening,” not just talking.  Hopefully you can also “hear” the underlying structure of what we call a Plan B conversation: empathizing with a child’s concern or perspective, sharing an adult concern, and brainstorming to find a solution to the problem at hand.

We believe that if parents tap into Plan B from the earliest beginnings, it’s not only a wonderful foundation for making our children feel heard and understood, and not only an obviously advantageous exposure to our words, but also a terrific chance to institute Collaborative Problem Solving as a key aspect of one’s parenting.  No need to “wait” on getting going!

In North America is homework. And for years now many people have been questioning the utility of homework in the first place. Here is another interesting piece on the value (or lack thereof!) of homework and some potential solutions in our schools.

Like any other thorny problem, we find it critical to first identify the concerns that lead us to a solution if we are going to open up possibilities of alternative solutions that might work better. This is why when it comes to homework problems we encourage teachers to ask themselves why they are assigning homework and to be very specific about their concerns – ie, what are they hoping it will accomplish. Behind even bad solutions are almost always good concerns! When we consider teachers’ concerns alongside the concerns that many kids and families have about the burden of homework we might find some better solutions. The question then should not be whether to have homework or not or how much to have but rather why do we have it? The article above actually places homework in an interesting historical context that may help us understand why it was originally conceived and whether it has outlived it’s current incarnation and needs to be re-tooled. As we find all the time when collaborating to solve problems, most good solutions do require re-working over time as the sands shift.

Can emotional intelligence be taught? This was the topic of a recent article in the New York Times. An interesting debate that of course we have a perspective on. Not only do we think that you can teach social emotional skills, but the process of CPS lends itself perfectly to doing that naturally, that is through a relational process rather than in a formulaic way that understandably has raised criticism in this article. Like any other kind of learning, the more experiential and hands-on it is the more engaged the learner will be. Practicing social emotional skills through the process of solving problems that occur naturally during the course of the day is a far more powerful way to help kids develop skills than more didactic methods for doing so. Of course, like other approaches described in the article, implementing CPS as a vehicle for social emotional learning requires a solid plan with sufficient training and coaching to ensure its done with fidelity and effectively. While CPS is usually called upon to address urgent challenging behaviors at school, when all students and educators practice Plan B we may very well prevent behavioral difficulties from occurring in the first place by making sure that each student gets lots of practice developing their skills.

This week’s New York Times Op-Ed section contained a piece, entitled “Psychotherapy’s Image Problem,”  that any consumer of mental health services will likely read with great interest.  If someone you know is aware that you or your family member is in treatment, they’ll almost surely be sending you the link to ensure you’re “in the know.”

While we at Think:Kids are proud that our treatment approach, Collaborative Problem Solving, is and continues to be well-studied—we are ongoingly giving our work research scrutiny—and that it sits on some of the current lists of evidence-based practices, there are some crucial points that we think must be spoken to.

First of all, being a program within Massachusetts General Hospital, a major academic medical center where much important psychopharmacology research occurs, and seeing complex kids, for whom medication is often a crucial component to their effective care, we are uneasy at the pitting of psychotherapy against medication.  We’ve seen too many families caught in this cultural crossfire, when all they are doing is trying to do right by their kids.  The fact is, even while we do tend to believe that there is good enough evidentiary support for psychotherapy that it is typically worth trying first, some patients and families, for various and complicated reasons, might prefer to start with medication, and this preference should in many cases be honored.

Second, we want to support the article’s pointing out that, simply put, psychotherapy works.  It boasts very strong and long-standing evidence of being effective, with average “effect sizes” (a statistical indication of how strong an average effect of a treatment is) that surpass many well-regarded and widely accepted medical interventions.

On the other hand, virtually all of the therapy approaches that have gone to the effort to study their effectiveness have in fact been proven to be effective, leaving patient preference—what specific therapy resonates—a crucial consideration in choice of treatment approach.  In many cases, and this is in fact true of our own domain of work with behaviorally challenging kids, there are multiple available “evidence based treatments” to choose from.  Being an educated consumer and knowing what treatment goals are most valuable to you, and what treatment procedures will feel most congenial, is critical.  For instance, we here at Think:Kids value greatly the fact that our approach has the advantage of improving the helping relationship between adult caregivers (parents or teachers) and kids as one of its demonstrated outcomes.

Finally, as the noted psychotherapy researcher Bruce Wampold has stated, “Nobody needs an empirically supported therapy that isn’t working for them.” Which is to say, we still have to make sure that a particular patient is benefitting, and monitoring your treatment progress, or possible lack thereof, is an essential aspect of our involvement with patients.

As is typically the case, the reality of any situation is often more complicated than meets the eye.  Let us know your own responses to this article, and to these issues!

Inner ear dysfunction has been linked to hyperactivity. This finding is of course significant in its own right, but especially when you consider it was not long ago that poor parenting was thought to be the primary and even sole cause of behavioral difficulties. This research joins a long line of findings that remind us that its a lot more complicated than that. And throwing parents under the bus never helped anyone anyway!

This recent article got us thinking, “Why do we adults frequently express a belief that today’s youth are somehow worse than we were as kids?  Is that really true?”  We came to the conclusion that every generation thinks the next generation is worse than the one before.  Don’t believe us?  Check out this clip from the 1963 movie musical, Bye Bye Birdie.

Amazing how beliefs tend to stick around despite questionable validity. The same is true when it comes to the conventional wisdom about why kids behave in ways that some adults refer to as “bratty” (which wouldn’t be our choice of words of course!). The long held belief is that kids behave this way on purpose in order to get or avoid things. But all the research shows that kids exhibit challenging behavior because they lack the skill not the will to handle life’s problems and frustrations smoothly. So if you do happen to be concerned about your child’s “bratty” behavior, remember that behind these challenging behaviors are typically some problems to be solved and some skills to be trained.  So, why not try some collaborative problem solving?

“Hurry up!” is a phrase some parents may know all too well. We can easily imagine the scenario which triggers its initial launch. Yet, have you ever stopped to wonder, from the point-of-view of a small child, how is it being heard? What does it mean to a child? If immediate compliance were obtained as a parent might expect, what would we be asking the child to give up in place of the preference to rush?

While commands, requests, and even desperate parental pleas can roll quickly off the tongue without much thought, one Mom (and special education teacher), Rachel Macey Stafford, thought more carefully about the relative cost of these two small words.

Realizing the expense to her daughter (and to her own self), she found a way to put them aside. Life in the present afforded her the opportunity to escape the stress and frenzy associated with living for some other moment of the future.

Check out the full article posted by The Huffington Post to hear more of her story and come back to share with us your thoughts!

In a WSJ article published earlier this month, columnist Joanne Lipman expressed her surprise when late music teacher, Mr. K, received an outpouring of support from former students who felt indebted to him for the methods he employed which pushed them, beyond how they might’ve imagined, toward success. These now full-grown, successful adults were able to reflect upon the lessons they learned as youngsters which generalized to their later passions and pursuits in life beyond music class.

“Work hard.” “Practice makes perfect.” “No pain, no gain.” We’ve all heard these pearls of conventional wisdom.  Many kids, those with the skills needed to sustain focus during a group activity absent support, to ignore irrelevant noises and people in class, and to tune- out unnecessary pieces of information, might do just fine in a classroom full of students and a teacher similar in theory to Mr. K. Other kids, however, might not.

It’s the child who already noticed that he is less able than others to follow a set order who will inevitably miss the beat. It’s the child who is less able to understand spoken direction from a teacher who may not be able to tolerate hearing, just one more time, an adult who refers to him as “lazy,” when the child isn’t quickly at work on a given task. It’s the child who isn’t able to think in shades of gray who interprets Mr. K’s strict manner as a personal attack, rather than coming from a place of love. It’s the child who is unable to delay gratification, to think ahead to the future of next week, and keep in mind a possible feeling of pride they might experience next week, were they able to play a musical piece, despite the fact that their fingers are bleeding right. It is that child who will drop out.

Whether the loss of these children occurs in silence or the process unfolds by way of an active protest (i.e. a child who shouts back in his defense when referred to by a teacher as “unmotivated”), these are the children for whom a musical education (and a curious, compassionate adult in charge of helping them to learn in a way that works for them) will be most vital.

Share with us your experiences, and thoughts about the potential impact of classroom policy on our children’s ability to learn, develop their skills, and grow!

The Christmas holiday is just a few weeks away! This can be a particularly challenging time for our families. Being proactive and setting realistic expectations for you and your child are the keys to creating an enjoyable holiday.

Here are some specific suggestions that might be helpful:

1. Review your Thinking Skills Inventory noting the lagging skills and problems to be solved so that you will have a good understanding of what kinds of situations are likely to be difficult for your child and why (what skills these situations would call upon that your child is lacking).

2. If you anticipate that the holidays will be stressful for your child, think about reducing your overall expectations (more Plan C).

3. Be proactive and as collaborative as possible in thinking about the expected problems, by attempting Proactive Plan B conversations around anticipated holiday related problems.

4. Keep in mind “sensory” needs for self-regulation. Build in opportunities to meet those needs on a regular basis. In general heavy work, particularly involving the jaw or the hip are calming (carrying a backpack; wall-pushups; heavy blankets or heavy book placed in one’s lap; sucking a popsicle; drinking thick liquids through a straw; chewing gum or carrots).

5. Educate outside family members and friends about your child.

6. Try if at all possible to surround yourselves with adults that understand or are willing to learn about your child.

7. Prepare a daily schedule (whiteboard) for your child during vacation weeks/weekends. The unstructured time can be very difficult for many kids. This can also eliminate the unexpected/unpredictable situations which are the most troublesome for many of these children to cope with.

8. Try to stick to a regular sleeping schedule. Lack of sleep can increase everyone’s irritability affecting the child’s capacity for dealing with frustrations and your ability to help!

9. Determine before an activity which adult will serve as “surrogate frontal lobe”. Be sure to take turns so all adults have a chance to relax/participate in holiday festivities. Be mindful of signs that your child has had enough, and don’t attempt to push them beyond those limits.

10. Avoid at all costs comparing your child to others!!!! While he/she may have difficulty coping they likely have many wonderful qualities/strengths. Be sure to highlight these for your child, yourself, and others!

11. Take good care of yourself!!! Be sure to schedule in time for yourself and with spouse for activities that will renew your energy.

12. Make notes with your child of what worked and what didn’t for the next time. Learn with your child from mistakes (expect them to occur!).

Usually when you send your child to school you don’t expect to get a call to head to the emergency room.  A recent article in The Wall Street Journal, “Parents Protest Emergency Calls” writes about a group of New York City parents who are taking legal action to prevent public schools from using the ER to cope with their child’s severe temper tantrum.  The article states that more than 22% of the 15,130 calls for ambulances placed by NYC schools in 2011-12 were related to disciplinary infractions.  Wow, that’s a huge  number of kids (3,329 to be precise) ending up in the ER for “bad behavior”.  The attorney representing the parents feels that schools are using hospital ER’s as time out rooms.  For example, a parent says one time her son was taken to the ER for “not listening and refusing to sit on the rug.”  The attorney says the law states that “children can be transported by EMS ONLY when a child’s life is at stake or it’s clear that a small delay will jeopardize the child’s health.”

The problems are numerous with this “behavior management approach.”  It’s costly to the city, it’s hugely time consuming for parents, it threatens job security for parents, and it causes all sorts of psychological damage to the child.  The article quotes a mother who says her son is now afraid of hospitals, police officers and doesn’t want to go to school. Can you blame him?  And even more troubling to us at Think:Kids is “he feels like he is always a bad kid and he’s always in trouble.”  We aspire to help kids, parents and teachers understand the lagging skills and teach them so kids don’t have the sense they are all bad and that they are stuck in this punishment loop which leads to school failure and often severe psychological problems such as anxiety and depression.

Two questions arise; are children, preschoolers in New York City, becoming more violent, unmanageable and dangerous causing the rise in ER visits or are teachers receiving poor or little training in managing disruptive behavior?  At Think:Kids we feel it is the latter and see a huge opportunity for the Department of Education to help teachers better understand and identify why kids melt down.

For Think:Kids we see this as a huge opportunity for better training of teachers. The first step has been taken!   The New York City School Safety officers who work in the schools have a contract with Think:Kids, and are receiving CPS training on just the sort of issues that land kids in ER’s.  Hopefully, teachers will want to join in and learn a better way to manage tough kids in their class rather than hitting 9-1-1.

While conducting a training in Oregon, one of the participants shared this article from the New York Times with us: Reaching My Autistic Son Through Disney. Read it right away! And make sure to watch the video excerpt too! You won’t be able to stop. Its gripping and will bring you to tears. The dedication of these parents to understanding their child’s inner world and connecting with him is inspiring. As is their son’s determination to make sense of the world and connect with others despite his challenges.

Using Collaborative Problem Solving with many kids on the autism spectrum, here’s an excerpt that rang especially true:

“There’s a reason — a good-enough reason — that each autistic person has embraced a particular interest. Find that reason, and you will find them, hiding in there, and maybe get a glimpse of their underlying capacities. In our experience, we found that showing authentic interest will help them feel dignity and impel them to show you more, complete with maps and navigational tools that may help to guide their development, their growth. Revealed capability, in turn, may lead to a better understanding of what’s possible in the lives of many people who are challenged.”

Their story shows the power of meeting kids where they are at, of joining, of listening intently for small clues to what they are experiencing and trying to communicate, immensely challenging though it might be. We are also reminded of the critical role of shared play and imagination in collaborating with children. Amazing stuff.

Congratulations to our colleagues, Drs. Holmes, Stokes and Gathright, for their recent publication of a case series describing their use of CPS on an inpatient unit with children who have experienced complex trauma. We have been focusing a lot lately on the applications of CPS to treating traumatized children thanks to our collaboration with Dr. Bruce Perry and the Child Trauma Academy. In many ways, CPS operationalizes what trauma-informed care is intended to be:

– a compassionate and accurate understanding of the impact of trauma on brain development (lagging skills and triggering situations)

– a movement away from power and control (Plan A) to a collaborative and relational process (Plan B) that reduces the power differential, gives the child control but not sole responsibility, and helps to detoxify triggering situations slowly over time time

The authors of this recent paper also emphasize that CPS provides a common philosophy, language and process with clear, replicable guidelines that can be used by non-mental health professionals as well (teachers, foster parents etc) – a rarity amongst clinical approaches for working with traumatized children. The benefit of course is that when children like the ones they described working with leave the hospital there can be seamless transitions and continuity of care.

If this is a topic that interests you, weights you read their paper and we invite you to join us in a few weeks for an exciting 2-day conference featuring Dr Bruce Perry and Dr Stuart Ablon on just this issue – the impact of trauma on brain development and what to do about it. Learn more here!

Last week, Think:Kids hosted Bruce Perry, MD, of the Child Trauma Academy  for a joint training on how brain development is affected by trauma, and how the Collaborative Problem Solving approach addresses these neurobiological deficits. Dr. Perry and Dr. Ablon spoke for two days about the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics (NMT) and Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS), and attendees walked away with a better understanding of tools that can be used to assess and address challenging behavior in children affected by trauma.

One phrase that has stuck with me from this training, and that can be a helpful anchor for all of us when we are working with challenging children, is “Regulate, Relate, Reason.” The order here is critical! Until a child is regulated (i.e., feeling physically and emotionally settled), he is unlikely to be able to relate to you (i.e., feel connected and comfortable). And until a child is related, he is unlikely to have the mental capacity to fully engage with you in the higher level cognitive processes that are critical for problem-solving, like perspective taking, predicting the future, and considering multiple solutions. This is not just true for traumatized children, but for all children (and all adults too)! So in honor of Dr. Perry, let’s pay special attention this week to our CPS regulating tools (reflecting and reassurance) during all three ingredients of our Plan B conversations. If you take the time to make sure your child is regulated, you’ll have a better chance of relating, and then ultimately, a better chance of reasoning!

The number of agencies asking Think:Kids for site-wide training on Collaborative Problem Solving is growing. As a result, we have been talking quite a bit around the conference room table about “Implementation Science,” which is the study of how to implement a new approach successfully, once we know that the approach works.

Here’s the issue: We know that Collaborative Problem Solving, when done well, works to decrease disruptive behaviors; reduce the reliance on restrictive interventions like restraints, seclusion, school office referrals and suspensions; decrease caregiver stress; and improve child-caregiver relationships. But CPS can be complicated for an individual clinician, teacher, or parent to implement; it can be even more complicated for a whole system to implement. So how do we ensure that when we hold CPS training at a school, a residential facility or hospital, or a juvenile justice program, staff will walk out of that training not just doing Collaborative Problem Solving, but doing it well?

Implementation Science research tells us that there are just a few core components of implementation that contribute most to the likelihood of success in cases like this. Take note, if you are trying to implement CPS (or any new approach) across your organization! In addition to the selection of high quality staff prior to training, those core components are:

If you are in an organization that is trying to implement Collaborative Problem Solving site-wide, and if you feel like you need some help with any of these core components, see the tools available on our
website or ask us for help! It is important to us that CPS is being implemented well, so that your work
can have the greatest impact on children in need. We’re happy to share the tools we have developed to
increase your chances of successful implementation.

(For a very informative manual from the University of South Florida that provides much more detail on
these core components, as well as other key concepts related to Implementation Science, click here.)

Social media was abuzz last week with commentary on “Raising a Moral Child,” the cover story of the April 11 New York Times Week in Review. In a nutshell, author Wharton Psychology Professor Adam Grant highlights interesting and informative research showing that praising a child’s character, not actions, results in more generous behavior because it helps the child internalize generosity as part of her identity. Later in the piece, Dr. Grant suggests how parents should respond to a child’s “bad behavior”:

The most effective response to bad behavior is to express disappointment. According to independent reviews by Professor Eisenberg and David R. Shaffer, parents raise caring children by expressing disappointment and explaining why the behavior was wrong, how it affected others, and how they can rectify the situation. This enables children to develop standards for judging their actions, feelings of empathy and responsibility for others, and a sense of moral identity, which are conducive to becoming a helpful person. The beauty of expressing disappointment is that it communicates disapproval of the bad behavior, coupled with high expectations and the potential for improvement: “You’re a good person, even if you did a bad thing, and I know you can do better.”

To behave adaptively, it may indeed be helpful for a child to have “standards for judging their actions, feelings of empathy and responsibility for others, and a sense of moral identity.” However, according to Think:Kids extensive research, adaptive behavior requires a child to have mastery of an array of thinking skills – specifically, executive functioning, cognitive flexibility, emotional regulation, language processing, and social skills. For most children, lagging skills – not will – is the root cause of maladaptive behavior; therefore, the more effective parental response is to identify and help build those lagging skills through collaborative problem solving.

Dr. Grant’s recommended responses to “bad behavior,” while perhaps effective under certain conditions, are fraught with potential drawbacks. “Expressing disappointment” is an external motivator that is effective only if the child is already competent in the skills underlying the expected adaptive behavior and simply lacks motivation. “Explaining why something is wrong, how it affected others, and how the child can rectify the situation” has some value, but is essentially the adult problem-solving the “bad behavior” without the participation of the child, forfeiting a valuable opportunity for building the child’s skills. And finally, communicating “high expectations and the potential for improvement: “You’re a good person, even if you did a bad thing, and I know you can do better,”” without any accompanying skill building, is a set-up for failure for children with lagging skills and has the added detrimental side-effect of making those children feel bad about themselves and about the parent.

Parents aspiring to raise a moral child would do well by coupling Dr. Grant’s useful advice and framework with a more compassionate – and accurate – understanding of the root cause of most challenging behavior: lagging skills. After all, as Think:Kids believes, “Kids do well if they can, not if they want to.”

Guest blogger Karen Kraut, MPH, Certified Think:Kids mentor

Dr. Ablon was recently asked to participate in NAMIs’ Ask the Doctor program. Click below to listen to a recording of Dr. Ablon introducing the approach and then taking questions from parents and clinicians.

“I know you’re mad that I said you can’t go, but that doesn’t give you the right to speak to me like that! (SLAM!) If you slam that door one more time, I’m taking your iPad! (SLAM!) That’s it, iPad is out, and the TV is next!” (SLAM! SLAM!) 
Whoaaaa… How can your gentle, loving child seem so UNREASONABLE sometimes, and when did you turn into that kind of parent?

Think about that word: unREASONable. To be able to REASON (for example, to think, “I know I wanted to go to that event, but I guess it does make more sense that I should attend my sister’s graduation party”), your child needs to be able to access skills like controlling impulses, thinking through options, and predicting outcomes. The problem is, the access door to those skills is closed when your child is upset, or “dysregulated,” so talking to your child when s/he is already upset is nearly doomed to fail.

At times like this, remember this alliterative phrase: Regulate, Relate, Reason. Get your child calm and REGULATED first (younger kids may calm with a hug or rocking, older kids may do better with some time alone). Then try to find a way to RELATE to the child and his or her concern (e.g., “I’m sorry I yelled earlier; I know that didn’t help. I wonder if we can talk about the event that you were hoping to go to. I’d like to hear why it’s important to you.”) Then, with a REGULATED and RELATED child… you’re ready to REASON together to discuss the problem and see if there is a good solution (“I understand that you want to see your friends, and I think it’s important that we support your sister. I wonder if we can find a way to do both of those things.”).

News continues to highlight the high rates of suspension in charter schools. We have a window into this issue due to collaboration with several networks of charter schools in NYC and beyond. Historically, the “no excuses” emphasis in these schools may have seemed to foster a focus on academic rigor that contributed to impressive gains in achievement – for many students. But to some degree this may have been an artifact of zero-tolerance policies pushing the most at-risk students who didn’t have the skills to meet these high expectations out. Thus, we were thrilled to see some charter networks approach us interested in implementing Collaborative Problem Solving in hopes of meeting the needs of all kids, not just the ones with the skills to meet high expectations. Shifting the culture in our schools is not easy and takes time but charter schools do well if they can!


Looking for a New Year’s Resolution that you can keep and that will bring peace to your whole family in 2015?  Why not resolve to problem solve?  When your child asks for something, instead of automatically saying “no”, say “What’s up?.”  When you are dreading asking your child to do something, instead of threatening removal of a privilege, ask “What’s up?.”  Remember, a problem simply results when adults and children have unreconciled concerns.  Get both sets of concerns on the table and you are well on your way to a mutually satisfactory solution.  And a happy, healthy new year!

Here at Think:Kids, we have been an active part of the effort to reduce, if not eliminate, the use of restraint and seclusion in schools and other institutional settings for well over a decade.  Our approach, Collaborative Problem Solving, was implemented as the model of care at Cambridge Health Alliance’s child and adolescent inpatient units in 2000, with great success.  Since then, it has become a treatment model and a discipline model in a range of child, adolescent, and even adult settings.  And we are delighted that there has been particular growth of interest in the model in schools, where children of course spend the majority of their waking hours!

We therefore read with great excitement news of changes to the rules that govern restraint and seclusion in Massachusetts schools.

While there is still a long way to go to help schools think differently about students with challenging behavior, this is an important step in the right direction.

For further reading on the subject click here .


A Guest Post by Principal Kirk Downing, Brown School

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 than 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 CPS in their school NOW! Don’t wait thirty years.

Kirk Downing
Principal, Brown Elementary School, Natick, MA

Introductory Training | April 10th, 2015
Location: Natick, MA at the Morse Institute Library

Register Here!
Location: Natick, MA

This recent piece from the Atlantic magazine highlights the ways in which there is an increasing scientific consensus among neuroscientists and others that conventional approaches to discipline are misguided. It lends further powerful support to efforts to “think differently” about challenging kids and to take approaches to them, like Collaborative Problem Solving, that actually foster positive brain development. Take a look and tell us what you think!

Matt and Mandy began attending a monthly CPS Support Group in Feb 2014 in NJ for challenging behaviors that Matt’s 6 year son, Ryan, was exhibiting. They were skeptical at first, but came with an open mind and a true desire to help Ryan and for a more peaceful household. They had a lot of success with the model, but didn’t realize just how much and how well Ryan was absorbing the skills taught by the model until . . . Mandy’s 4 year old nephew, Sean, was visiting in Dec 2014 and having trouble listening. Ryan (who was 7 years old by then) said to Sean, “Sean something’s bothering you, what’s goin’ on? Tell me what’s up!!!!” It made Matt and Mandy smile that their hard work was not only paying off for Ryan, but that Ryan was learning important life-long skills that would benefit him as well as others.

A new report out of the Clearinghouse on Early Education and Parenting provides an interesting distinction between “academic” versus “intellectual” goals in early education settings.  Under the definitions used in this report, academic goals are, for instance, learning to read, while intellectual goals are, for instance, learning to use reasoning to predict outcomes to existing problems.

The author of this report cites longitudinal research suggesting that intellectual rather than academic instruction in preschool predicts better long-term outcomes, even in the academic realm. The author also cites research suggesting that “preschool programs are best when they focus on social, emotional and intellectual goals rather than narrow academic goals,” and when they provide “early experiences that provoke self-regulation, initiative and…sustained synchronous interaction in which the child is interactive with others in some continuous process, rather than a mere passive recipient of isolated bits of information for stimulation.”

Hmmm… self regulation, attention, flexibility, social skills, problem-solving… these are sounding familiar to us here at Think:Kids!  These are all skills that are practiced during the process of Collaborative Problem Solving.

This report is exciting to us, because it is part of a growing trend that we see, in which adults are recognizing how critical these “intellectual” skills are for setting up young children to be successful as life-long learners.  CPS is one way that you can structure your classroom interactions to build these skills.

Take a look at the report, then let us know what you think on our Facebook page.

Here it is! The NBC News report on calm rooms featuring Dr. Ablon stating that there are “proven alternatives.”

This is a guest blog post by Certified Trainer, Randy Jones.

Looking back I can now see that my families’ expedition into Collaborative Problem Solving actually began over two decades ago.

My wife and I have provided services to those living with cognitive disabilities for over 20 years now. In the beginning we worked with developmentally challenged adults and later began working with mental illness.

We have seen the systems and models of care evolve over those years, bringing with it improved quality of life for everyone. I went from providing services that “protected” the community to actually assisting people in overcoming difficulties in living and achieving efficacy. In the beginning of our careers a good day was defined by little to no negative events occurring with little concern for any practical skill building.

Over those years we have had the opportunity to provide services in many different programs and locations. We have changed locations, from Oregon to Nevada, and have worked in environments from one extreme to the other. We have been a mom and pops foster care home, we have built and operated a corporation with many homes and apartments and we have worked in secure lock down facilities for the adjudicated. We have worked as direct care, as “behavior specialists”, as consultants and as trainers.

During these times I have felt and experienced many different emotions and mindsets, including feeling burnout, overwhelmed, under-appreciated and superfluous. Often it seemed we were providing ineffectual services to people that didn’t want them anyway and then explaining why no “results” were achieved and brainstorming on how to get those served to “want and accept” the services.

In a field where five years is the expected length of most caregivers employment we have not only stayed engaged, but are still enthused to be able to provide support and assist people in overcoming the exact challenges that I assisted people with, in the very beginning of my career.

In the past mustering hope and encouraging others to do the same seemed to be the most difficult part of my day. Seeing how easily people can meet the criteria for a Mental Illness and how difficult it is to become “recovered”( in fact there is no criteria for being recovered), has ended the desire to help in many care givers.

CPS has provided the frame work in which we may articulate to everyone the true nature of being mentally disabled. I see it as the calculus of the human mind. Just as Newton gave us a means to explore our world, a way to disseminate information into its basic elements, understand the order and process of those elements, and then manipulate those elements to produce a desirable outcome; CPS does this for our minds and strengthens those elements through practice.

My family has grown over these years as well; we now have a son that operates his own foster home serving developmentally delayed with a focus on Autism. Our daughter operates a foster home serving those living with mental illness, our nephew and niece in-law are caregivers. My wife and I assist, consult and train caregivers, providers, government agencies and businesses.

Today each of us will tell others when they ask what we do for a living that, we get to assist people in overcoming challenges and difficulties in their own lives. We “get to”. After all these years we are still enthused.

We are enthused because we have seen CPS work for those whom practice it. We have witnessed people overcome their disabled status. Though they may always live with a disability they are no longer disabled. This is CPS.

The journey to this point was not always (if ever) easy. Changing minds is the most difficult undertaking a person can embark upon. Because as people, we do well when we can, and we also believe that what we are doing is well.

Just as in the early days of my career, I was doing well by protecting the community from potential impacts that those I served may cause. Thus, I spent a great deal of time proactively ensuring that the community was not negatively affected, meaning those I served were expected to follow rules, cooperate and comply with my decisions. I was very good at convincing those I served that they “wanted” to do as I directed. I was very good at “feel good” behavior plans and token economies that focused exactly on what would motivate each of those I served.

Still, our shift was less complicated than most, I think for a couple of reasons. Having already finished 16 years serving those with disabilities, having been trainers for most of that time as well, we had already stumbled onto a perspective based approach. When we were introduced to CPS our culture was fertile soil.

Secondly, our programs are family operated. Though we have employees, we use CPS as our HR model (Human Resources) and our relationship to each person becomes priority, much as it is in my family. With the mindset that all problems will eventually need to be worked out, less time is spent on deciding consequence and punishment for missed work expectations and more on building systems that foster accountability and skill development. This is CPS.

Though implementing CPS into our program had exceeded all expected times, it was still a rigorous process. We had our token economy that evolved into a “talking point” program with no focus on providing motivations. We definitely had our growing pains as each new situation arises and we practiced viewing it through a CPS lens. I believe that each of us had our own moment of realization that CPS is the way.

Mine came when I was serving an individual that began smoking in his room while living with me in my foster home. After reporting the event his support team reacted like most would, informed him that was against house rules, unsafe and unwise, and etc. We tried threats like your rep will instruct the program to divvy out your smokes and finally threatened to evict.

Staying true to our faith that we all are doing the best we can given the challenge we face and the skills we posses, we decided not to evict and rather we would discuss it as a matter of program……”so I noticed that sometimes you decide to smoke in your room, can we talk about that?”. We had already accepted that this person has difficulty with expressing himself, so we approached each event as an opportunity to practice those skills.

Despite some serious misgivings from certain supports and feeling as though “nothing was being done to address” the behavior, we were able to eventually discuss with the person that he felt belittled and disrespected, so he didn’t care to explain why he was smoking. After addressing these concerns we realized that he was using the best solution he had, as the house rules stated the doors were to be locked after 11pm and caregivers did not want him going out.

Again, I had to bring out my CPS lens and this time point it at the house rules. The homes rules were mostly agreed upon by the residents, but why 11? After a few plan b’s with everyone it was concluded that; the doors were only locked to help people feel safe, one person in particular. The final solution was the smoker could smoke when he liked and would try to remember to lock the door when he came in, and the scared persons solution was a lock on her door with a peep sight.

Because we are family owned I could easily have the program provide the lock and install the peep sight. For $25.00 and some empathy, we were able to avoid evicting a person and starting a cycle all over again.

By the way, this person completed the program, moved into an apartment with supports that he later did not require. He now lives without caregiver support, is driving again, has gotten married and is taking care of his aging parents. This is CPS.

Collaborative Problem Solving has permeated every aspect of our lives and we are better for it. From communicating with each other and our children; to operating our business and interacting with our staff. We practice CPS and strive to use it when we are at our worst, because it builds our brains.

Most of our immediate family members are Tier 2 trained and are continuing on their course to becoming consultants and trainers. We are always interested in exploring new ways to spread the culture of CPS. For example, in order to develop her skills and learn to cope with possible resistance during trainings, my wife turned to the internet.

By reposting a viral video of a child during a “tantrum” and asking for a respectful debate, she was able to start a week long discussion from our local community as to the value of punishment and what it actually accomplished. She then addressed every post through a CPS lens and began to generate support for the philosophy.

We have since began work on our website to include a link to “The Viral Video of the Week” for each of us to switch off answering posts using our philosophy and practicing our skills. Imagine a world that everyone in the community used a CPS lens to solve problems.

Thanks for your time,
Randy Jones

Jessica Lahey’s January 13th Parenting Blog post in the New York Times is an excellent example of what we call “conventional wisdom,” the common belief that when kids aren’t meeting our expectations, they are just trying to avoid something or get something. We get this message all the time, and it can make both kids and parents feel incapable.

At Think:Kids, we are trying to push parents, educators, and helping professionals to think more deeply about those situations in which a child isn’t doing what we asked.  The child described in the article could do laundry last week but suddenly is jabbing at buttons and wailing that it is “too hard…” Could he have actually forgotten the order of buttons and need a patient refresher? Could he be nervous or distracted about tomorrow’s test, and this task, menial to you but new to him, suddenly seems overwhelming today? We contend that no child would choose to wail, flail arms, and be thought incompetent by his parents if he had the ability to meet the expectation calmly and competently.  Research indicates that kids (and all of us!) seek autonomy, competence, and good relationships with others… In short, kids do well if they can!

A refreshing voice among the others in this article, Dr. Bryson calls for some perspective-taking and flexibility in cases like this.  Kudos, we say!  So how do we do that?  One way is with Plan B. We’d love to hear your thoughts on this article, whether you agree or disagree; feel free to post them to our Facebook page.

The answer is actually quite simple.  Our understanding of how to change problem behavior comes from our understanding of why the problem behavior exists in the first place. And our explanation for why people behave poorly is typically wrong! When someone doesn’t behave or perform as we would like them to, our default assumption is that they must not be trying very hard; they just don’t want it badly enough. This is true whether we are talking about a child in our home or school, our friend, relative, or partner, an employee whom we manage, or even a professional athlete on our favorite team. As a result, when people fail to meet our expectations, we typically respond with incentives intended to make them try harder in the future. Unfortunately, these conventional methods often backfire, creating a downward spiral of resentment and frustration, and a missed opportunity for growth.

But what if people don’t misbehave because of a lack of desire to do better, but because they lack the skills to do better? What if changing problem behavior is a matter of skill, not will?

Interestingly, neuroscience research has shown for decades now that people who struggle to meet others’ expectations (and even their own!) have challenges with specific thinking skills. It is time to listen to this research and accept the fact challenging behavior is the result of a lack of skill, not willskills in areas like flexibility, frustration tolerance, and problem solving.

The rest of this blog post is available on Psychology Today – “Help Anyone Change Their Behavior—Even Yourself!”


Wish your teenager would do his homework or his chores just because it was important to him instead of because you bribed him to do it? Wish people on your sales team would strive for higher numbers not just when an incentive trip is dangled in front of their noses but just because they want to be good at their job?

Parents, teachers, managers and CEOs alike all search for the Holy Grail of performance: internal motivation. How do you internally motivate someone, and is asking that very question antithetical to the goal itself? Can you actually help someone to be more internally driven?

Many people opine about the keys to intrinsic (as opposed to extrinsic or external) motivation, but let’s use empirical research here to set the record straight. There is, in fact, an entire field of research in this area. What do the data say? No, you can’t make someone internally motivated. However, it turns out that it is quite possible to help foster sustained intrinsic drive in others. The key lies in three very basic psychological needs that we humans must have satisfied if we are going to be internally driven to pursue a goal.

These three basic and essential needs are:

  1. Mastery
  2. Autonomy
  3. Connection

Self-determination theory flows from research in this area and has shown that we must feel (1) reasonably good at something (i.e., competent), (2) that we have some independence, and (3) connected to those around us if we are going to internally motivated to pursue any particular goal in a sustained way. Think about your own job. If you like your job and feel internally motivated to go to work, it is probably because you feel good at your job, feel like you have some autonomy and feel connected to your colleagues and others with whom you work. However, if you don’t particularly like your job and often feel unmotivated, it is likely because you don’t feel particularly good at it, you feel told what to do or controlled, and you feel and disconnected from those around you.

In my previous blog, I described the dangers of focusing on extrinsic motivators like rewards. One of those dangers is a marked decrease in intrinsic (internal) drive. There is a negative correlation between the two. This makes sense when you realize that using a carrot and stick approach doesn’t build skills, autonomy or connection. In fact, when you try to incentivize people to perform, you are taking away their autonomy by attempting to control or manipulate their behavior.  So instead of bribing someone, if we want to foster sustained, internal drive we need to think about how to help people feel more independent, more connected and better at the task or job at hand. But how exactly do we do that? Easier said than done for sure.

However, we’ve made some basic observations while teaching people our Collaborative Problem Solving approach for over 20 years now. When an individual is having a hard time meeting expectations, it’s important to not turn, as many of us do, to offering incentives or threatening consequences.  Those only work for the short term because the only focus on increasing external motivation.  If you really want long term change, you’ll need to invite your child, student, employee (or yes, even friend, partner or relative) to solve problems together with you, to foster connection and autonomy while also helping them practice and build their skills – skills that lead to them becoming and feeling more competent in the future. In fact, we actually see the ingredients of our Collaborative Problem Solving process as a sort of a roadmap for meeting these three basic psychological needs that lead to sustained intrinsic drive. Start by understanding and valuing their perspective on a problem before sharing yours. Then invite them to brainstorm solutions together with you, giving them first chance to suggest an idea.

So, if you want your child to get her homework done, don’t reward her with more Fortnite time whenever she actually completes it. That will just make her more motivated to play Fortnite! Instead, ask her what gets in the way of getting the homework done. Get her perspective on it. Maybe it’s a focus issue, a fatigue issue after school, maybe she often doesn’t know where to start without the teacher’s help. Whatever it is, assume she’s got a good concern and find out why before you share why the homework is important in your mind. Finish by inviting her to try to come up with solutions to the homework problem. If she’s co-author of some ideas to try, she will be much more invested in the solutions. She will also feel much more competent, independent, and connected to you while doing so.

Same deal with your colleagues at work. Start by finding out why, directly from them, that they aren’t jazzed about selling your new product. Express the obvious concern you have about sales numbers and invite them to the problem-solving table. All of a sudden, they are a part of the solution, not a part of the problem. And your team members will feel … you guessed it, more competent, independent, and connected – the recipe for fostering internal drive. If you use this process repeatedly, you are bound to see increases in internal drive—and long-term change. The data don’t lie.

Originally post in Psychology Today.


Pink, D.H. (2009) Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York: Riverbed Books.

Ablon, J.S.  (2018) Changeable: How Collaborative Problem Solving Changes Lives at Home, at School, and at Work. New York:  Penguin Random House.

Ryan, R.M. & Deci, E.L. (2000) Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions, Contemporary Educational Psychology 25.