Make classroom meltdowns fade away


Globe and Mail Update
Trips to the principal's office, suspensions and detentions remain the primary tools educators use to handle troubled, disruptive children. But as many parents will attest, they can be woefully inadequate in changing kids' behaviour.

In his recent book, Lost at School: Why Our Kids with Behavioral Challenges are Falling Through the Cracks and How We Can Help Them, child psychiatrist Ross Greene proposes overhauling the way we deal with kids acting out in school.

Dr. Greene, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard University's medical school and a practitioner at Massachusetts General Hospital, began championing a new model of psychiatric care in 1998 with the publication of his book The Explosive Child. In "collaborative problem solving," parents or caregivers and children partner to solve kids' behavioural problems. Now, he says, it's educators' turn to give his theories a spin.

Is the new book "the explosive child goes to school?"

Yes. I'm trying to show how the model can be applied outside of families. So instead of a child who won't brush his teeth, we're looking at a child who is disruptive in class.

Who are these kids?

The prototypical challenging kid doesn't look challenging all the time, just some of the time. Challenging behaviour is specific to situations and conditions. The task is to figure out the particular situations that demand skills of a kid that he does not possess - and to identify the unsolved problems that are reliably and predictably triggering his challenging episodes.

If a child lacks flexibility or a tolerance for frustration or an ability to problem solve, and you give him a task he has trouble with, like writing or reading, now you have a kid who lacks the skills to adapt. So he's going to do something that lets us know he's lacking the skills to respond adaptively: He could scream, swear, spit, run out of the room. That's all challenging behaviour. The problem is that we tend to pay attention to what the kid is doing, not why the kid is doing it. We have to fix the why.

Walk me through a meltdown.

A teacher tells her class to get to work. The kid sits there doing nothing. The teacher sees this and reprimands him to "get down to work." Nothing. She repeats it and he pushes back his chair, using profanity. She calls him into the hallway and asks him what the problem is. He says, "I'm not telling you."

She sends him to the assistant principal's office and he is suspended. Yes, he should have done his work. No, he should not have used profanity. No, he should not have disrespected her. But when you rewind the tape, you realize there must be something getting in the way. ... And a reprimand and a suspension isn't going to fix whatever that is. We've been losing kids for a long time because we've been putting all our energy into consequences.

You're not concerned about whether kids have certain diagnoses such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder?

A diagnosis doesn't tell you what skills a child is lacking. I find it counterproductive to emphasize diagnoses. These are developmental delays.

Your method revolves around the difference between Plan A, Plan B and Plan C. Can you explain?

Plan A is imposing your will on a child. ... It's also what sets in motion a lot of challenging behaviour. Plan C is dropping an expectation for now. It's not giving in, but it is related to judicious prioritizing. If there are big fish and little fish, you want to fry the big fish first and Plan C is for the little fish. ...

Plan B involves a few key ingredients: Gathering information from the child about their concern or perspective on a given unsolved problem; then identifying the adult's concern or perspective on the same problem; then brainstorming solutions that will address the concerns of both parties.

How might this work in the classroom?

Here's what the first ingredient might look like. The teacher says: "I've noticed that we haven't seen much homework from you lately. What's up?"

Kid: "It's too hard."
Teacher: "Too hard? What part is too hard?"
Kid: "It's too much."
Teacher: "It's too much? What do you mean 'too much?' "
Kid: "The writing part."
Teacher: "The writing part?"
Kid: "The writing part on the science."
Teacher: "I don't quite understand."
Kid: "In spelling, I only need to write one word. In science, you want entire paragraphs. It's too much!"
Teacher: "Tell me more."
Kid: "You know I'm a slow writer. After I start writing, I forget what I wanted to say. Then I get all mad and just stop writing."

Look how far we've come from "It's too hard." It's that first ingredient where you're looking for that aha moment where you feel like you finally understand what's getting in the kid's way.

Then what?

Then you restate his concerns, express your concerns - "My concern is that if you don't do any writing, you won't get any practice, and this will always be hard for you" - and then invite the kid to solve the problem together ... collaboratively. "I wonder if there's a way to help you with the writing part being hard for you and still have you practice."

Sounds arduous.

Because people say they don't have time to do this. [But] when we consider the cumulative amount of time we spend intervening ineffectively, collaborative problem solving is actually a very efficient way to go.

So that would be your answer to the question, "Don't teachers already have enough on their plate?"

They have this on their plate already, so we haven't added anything to the plate. But the question is how do we get it off the plate. If we intervene ineffectively, it's still on their plate.

What's the parents' role?

To collaborate. Their role is to express their concerns, not blame. Their role is to be open to the concerns of the other party - the school. The role is the same for the school - not to have solutions on the table until we have concerns on the table. Whenever I see things going awry between schools and home, it's for the exact same reason things go awry between kids and adults. We didn't get two concerns on the table. We got two solutions on the table. Neither of us has really been listening to the other, so we're now engaged in a power struggle.

Some parents and teachers reading this might be thinking, "You haven't met my kid." What about extreme cases?

This has been used with kids in juvenile detention - the entire juvenile detention system in the state of Maine is implementing [collaborative problem solving] and the recidivism rate has been cut dramatically. The rate of injuries has been cut dramatically. This model has been battle-tested and has the stripes to show for it with the most difficult kids there are.



Absent minded or maybe just dreaming

His teacher (tired of being ignored)

Meanwhile, he always feel foolish in science class

He terrorized the smaller kids on the schoolyard

By the time he gets back from recess He's pretty worked up

And so is his teacher who sends him to the principal

He assumes that no one understands and then he really freaks out

In the end he is expelled and labelled as Joey the BRAT


But, alternatively

The (admittedly over worked) teacher decides to reach out

And really listen

And at first it's all negative

But gradually

He explains his fears and admits his weaknesses

He sees that the staff is with him, not against him

Turns out the just needs to work a little slower