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Dr. Ross Greene in Conversation with Clay Whitehead

, Primary Category: SPEDAhead Webinars
headshot of Dr. Ross Greene

The final webinar in our Success for Every Learner: From At-Risk to Successful webinar series was led by author and creator of the Collaborative and Proactive Solutions (CPS) model Dr. Ross Greene. During “Lost and Found: What Works (and What Doesn’t) for Behaviorally Challenged Students,” Dr. Greene challenged listeners to change their thinking about discipline and working with their most at-risk students. After the webinar, our co-founder and co-CEO Clay Whitehead sat down with Dr. Greene to address the questions of webinar attendees about how incorporating CPS has been associated with dramatic reductions in adult-child conflict, challenging behaviors, disciplinary referrals, detentions, suspensions, seclusion, and physical, chemical, and mechanical restraints in schools around the world.

Below is a summary of their discussion.

Clay: How do we build the capacity of staff and families to shape positive behaviors?

Dr. Greene: A big part of seeing behaviors that are more positive is to not focus on behavior in the first place, but to focus on how we’re going about solving problems with kids and being collaborative with them. There are basically two things staff and families need to be good at to implement the CPS model. They’ve got to be good at using the Assessment of Lagging Skills and Unsolved Problems (ALSUP), and they’ve got to be good at doing Plan B. When we are doing a good job of identifying lagging skills and unsolved problems, and when we are solving problems collaboratively and proactively with kids, we are shaping positive behaviors, not because we’re focused on the behavior, but because we’re focused on solving the problems that are causing challenging behavior. Consistent with the “kids do well if they can” mentality, kids are going to exhibit positive behavior if they can. The reality is the vast majority of kids exhibit positive behavior the vast majority of the time.

Clay: If you are a teacher who is already implementing CPS, how do you go about evangelizing it to others in your school and really spreading the message throughout the district and getting others involved?

Dr. Greene: It usually starts in a building with a book study. The key two words on that are “start small.” You’ll find that people get very enthusiastic about the CPS model and want it to happen overnight, but because the CPS model is such a departure from business as usual when it comes to school discipline, if we try to start too big and get everybody good at it at once, it often doesn’t go very well because people aren’t getting the help they need to implement the model, especially when they’re running into trouble with it. Starting small is the key piece of advice there.

The way we usually do it is by building leaders. Create a core group, seven or eight classroom teachers, school psychologists, and a school counselor. We make sure we’ve got classroom teachers in the group. We make sure that we have school leaders in there. Those are the people who are going to be getting good at the model first, and they’re going to meet weekly, practice the ALSUP, take a look at each other’s unsolved problems, reword them, give each other feedback, and go back and do it again.

Once the core group is good at the ALSUP, they start practicing using Plan B with real kids on real unsolved problems. The most effective way to do that is by recording the Plan B, and playing it in the core group meeting for the other core group members. People give each other feedback, go back, and do it again. It is very good way to have people working on this as a team rather than having classroom teachers or other people in the building like the school psychologist or the school counselor feel like they are the Lone Ranger and they are flying solo.

After three, four, or five months, the core group members get pretty good at the ALSUP and Plan B and are ready to start helping other people in the building get good at the model. I find that’s the best way to go about it, starting small and ensuring sustainability. One thing that I tell all of the schools and other facilities that we consult with is that until there is a meaningful number of people in the building who are good at the model, it’s going nowhere. It’s a yet another great idea in a school that didn’t go anywhere because we didn’t plan for ensuring sustainability. Start small, create a core group, involve leadership, and build capacity. Those are the ways that we do it.

Clay: Could you model for us some of the questions and approaches you might use —let’s say in the Empathy stage — to give people a more tactile feel for what this is like in practice?

Dr. Greene: Sure, and there’s lots of videos in the Lives in the Balance website to help people with that as well. The Empathy step begins with an introduction. The introduction begins with the words, “I’ve noticed that,” and ends with the words, “What’s up?” In between, we are inserting the unmet expectation or unsolved problem that we want to be talking with the kid about.

Let’s say the issue is difficulty with hand raising during Social Studies discussion. Here’s what it would sound like when we introduce the unsolved problem to the kid. Once again, this is all proactive, not emergent. “I’ve noticed that you’re having difficulty raising your hand during Social Studies discussions. What’s up?”

Now we hope the kid responds. There are kids who don’t respond, maybe because they don’t trust the process yet or because they don’t know what their concerns are yet, but let’s think first about the kids who do respond. Next we need to apply drilling strategies because whatever the kid says first is not going to give us the clearest possible understanding of the kid’s concern or perspective on this unsolved problem, and we very badly want to get the kid’s concern or perspective on this unsolved problem. If we don’t, we won’t have the information we need and will wind up plunging forward with uninformed and unilateral solutions, which we very badly do not want to do.

Let’s say the kid says, “It’s too hard.” We would then kick in with a drilling strategy (there are eight of them on the drilling cheat sheet that people can also access in your resource packet). The first drilling strategy is reflective listening.

“It’s too hard.”

“I’m not sure what you mean. What do you mean that it’s too hard?”

“I won’t remember.”

I’m going to do reflective listening again. By the way, reflective listening is your default drilling strategy. Other people sometimes call it mirroring. A lot of people think reflective listening is kind of basic, but here’s what reflective listening does for us: It helps the kid feel heard, helps the kid feel understood, helps the kid clarify his concerns, helps the kid feel that his concerns are legitimate, and keeps the kid talking. As I always say, I could ask for no more from a drilling strategy.

“You’ll forget. I’m not sure I understand what you’ll mean. What do you mean that you’ll forget?”

“If I don’t call out the answer, I won’t remember what it is that I want to say.”

Ah. Now we understand, if we’re drilling. By the way, we would continue drilling to make sure that we are done drilling. Now have the kid’s concern or perspective entered into consideration. A few points about here. In terms of solving this problem, we’re not trying to find a way to help the kid remember what he’s going to say so he doesn’t call out answers during Social Studies discussions and and therefore doesn’t meet our expectations of raising his hand. If we were in pure behavior-modification mode, then we would simply be rewarding him when he raises his hand, and perhaps punishing him when he doesn’t, and we would not be solving the problem of him feeling like he’s not going to remember what it is that he wants to say without calling out the answer. If we do help him remember what he’s going to say, he’s not going to be calling out answers anyway. The carrot-and-stick approach could potentially make a dent in the kid’s behavior, but it wouldn’t solve the problem. If we solved the problem, he won’t exhibit that behavior anymore. Some people who are listening might say, “Yeah, but that’s a pretty inconsequential problem.” Well, the reality is the process is exactly the same. Whether we believe that the unsolved problem is of significant consequence or not, there are some kids out there who, if they are corrected on not raising their hand, may swear, may get up and walk out of the classroom. You never know what the severity of the behavior will be in response to the unsolved problem. What you do know is that you have a problem to solve, irrespective of what the maladaptive behavior is.

Clay: How does the Assessment of Lagging Skills and Unsolved Problems differ from a Functional Behavior Assessment? Does the ALSUP replace an FBA?

Dr. Greene: Good luck getting school systems to not require FBAs, so I’m not sure that the ALSUP replaces the FBA, although that wouldn’t trouble me. The ALSUP can be an integral part of an FBA. There are too many functional assessments that are done in a very perfunctory, algorithmic way, often driven by school-system requirements that tell the writers of FBAs what must be in an FBA and how it must be worded. So long as we’re being that formulaic about FBAs, we will continue having teachers tell me what teachers frequently tell me, which is, “Why should I read the FBA? They all say the same thing.”

If you showed me an FBA that was really heavily oriented toward telling us what skills a kid is lacking, that’s the first part of the ALSUP, and what expectations the kid is having difficulty meeting, that’s the other part of the ALSUP, I’m going to look at the FBA and say, “That is a very informative, meaningful FBA that has a great chance of guiding our intervention practices, which is why we’re doing the FBA in the first place, but we do need to consider our definition of function, because our definition of function is going to determine the direction that this FBA takes in the first place.”

The standard definition of function these days is that the behavior, the challenging behavior, is working. How do we say the challenging behavior is working? It’s working at helping the kid get, escape, and avoid. I think we do need to change that to writing meaningful, helpful, useful FBAs. I would strongly recommend moving away from the word “working” and toward the word “communicating.”

As I mentioned in the webinar, that’s all behavior is. Challenging behavior is communicating to us that the kid is having difficulty meeting a particular expectation. We really want to de-emphasize the behavior and we really want to emphasize what lagging skills and unsolved problems are contributing to that behavior. I find that we are a whole lot better off when we move away from the word “working” and recognize that all challenging behavior is is a communication mechanism. It’s the fever. It’s the signal. It’s how the kid is letting us know, “There are expectations I’m having difficulty meeting.”

Clay: Who is the adult most often working with a behaviorally challenged student to find a mutually satisfactory solution to a problem?

Dr. Greene: The ideal adult to work with a kid to find a mutually satisfactory solution to a problem is the adult who’s having the unsolved problem with the kid. Who has this expectation? Early on, when schools are still getting good at this model, that person may actually not be a member of the core group and may actually not be one of the people who’s getting trained in CPS in the beginning.

In the beginning, it will be a core group member who is practicing Plan B with a behaviorally challenged student, perhaps, with the person whose expectation it is that the student is having difficulty meeting sitting in, so as to do the Define Adult Concerns step. As time goes by, and our goal is to get everybody in the building good at Plan B and proficient at solving problems collaboratively and proactively with kids, then the ideal person to be solving a problem with a kid is the person on whose watch the unmet expectation is occurring.

Now, this requires that we stop saying that behavior and other issues that are not academic are the domain of somebody else besides the classroom teacher What we’ve been doing for a very long time is sending behavior problems to somebody else for those problems to get solved, and that somebody else is frequently the school counselor, the school psychologist, the school social worker, or the vice or assistant principal. I just want to point out why this doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because the person who’s having the problem with the kid is sending the kid to somebody else for the problem to get solved and that somebody else to whom the problem is being sent to doesn’t know anything about the problem because they weren’t there when the kid was having difficulty meeting the expectation.

You know that your school is really getting there when, even if you do send a kid to the school counselor, school psychologist, school social worker, or vice and assistant principal, you know what they can do when they can get the kid is they can do the Empathy step, but then they’ve got to send the kid back with an email to the person who sent them the kid in the first place saying, “Can’t solve this problem without you. When are we going to get together to solve this problem together with Tommy?” That’s how we know a school is getting there because now we’re not relying on somebody else to solve our problems for us. We are not relying on somebody else, as in the case of Plan A, to mete out discipline when a kid is sent to the office. Now we’ve got an entire building that is focused on solving problems with kids and not sending them to somebody who’s going to solve the problem for you.

Clay: What do you think of extrinsic versus intrinsic rewards??

Dr. Greene:I’m not a big extrinsic reward guy. In fact, I’m not an extrinsic reward guy at all. Before we talk about rewards, let’s talk about the first part of the question: motivating behavior. Since I believe kids are already motivated, kids do well if they can, I don’t think motivation is what behaviorally challenging kids need. I think behaviorally challenging kids need us to figure out what their lagging skills and unsolved problems are and help them solve those problems, and that’s in a completely different territory than motivation.

I think a mistake we’ve been making for a very long time is believing that kids are unmotivated because that leads us to strategies, extrinsic rewards, and often punishment that is aimed at motivating them. I think they’re motivated already. Also, we’re still talking about behavior. We don’t want to talk about behavior. Behavior is downstream. We want to talk about the problems that are causing those behaviors. That’s upstream.

Given all of that, as one might imagine, extrinsic rewards that are focused on motivating behavior would not be in my wheelhouse, whether it’s toys or snacks or stickers or you name it, they’re focused on behavior and they’re focused on motivation, and I’m not focused on behavior and I think these kids are already motivated.

Intrinsic rewards are better. It’s a whole lot better if this kid is feeling a great sense of self-satisfaction in having achieved some mastery in solving a problem that affects his or her life and is feeling more confident about his or her ability to solve the next problem that shows up on the radar screen. Let’s face it. The next problem to show up on the radar screen is probably only about a half-hour away.

I feel really good about a kid who is feeling a sense of self-satisfaction and a greater sense of mastery in solving the problems that affect his or her life. If we want to call it intrinsic rewards, I suppose we could. I probably wouldn’t even call it a reward. I would just say this is a kid who’s intrinsically motivated to do well, and that kids do well if they can. Doing well is preferable. Let’s help this kid feel a great sense of mastery in solving the problems that affect his or her life, and I’m going to feel really good about how that kid’s going to do.

Clay: Where do we being to train our staff on this, especially if PBIS has not shifted their thinking?

Dr. Greene: We’ve partially answered that question, and that is we begin to train staff by creating a core group, by starting small, and by building capacity in the building so that we have some people who are really good at this model and those are the people who are going to train others. The starting small theme applies to this question as well.

The big question is whether PBIS is transformative enough to shift their thinking in the first place. What the adherents to PBIS tell us is that PBIS is actually not an intervention; it’s a structure for organizing intervention. Now, there are things PBIS brings to the table, especially the view that behavioral challenges should be viewed in the same manner and with the same compassion as academic challenges.

I find that for many school professionals, PBIS hasn’t shifted their thinking. The three tiers weren’t sufficient to shift their thinking. In many places where PBIS is being implemented, one of the reasons it hasn’t been transformative enough is because PBIS, many forms of it, do still focus on that other definition of function: it’s working. In many buildings that are implementing PBIS, because they think the challenging behavior is working, they resort to punishment and reward.

In many buildings, the discipline program doesn’t look a whole lot different than it did before there was PBIS. I find that the thinking, shifting ingredients of CPS are helping us move away from motivational explanations for a kid’s challenging behavior to skill-based explanations for challenging behavior, shifting away from a focus on challenging behavior and instead focusing on unsolved problems, and and shifting away from modifying behavior and focusing instead on solving problems. If a building is implementing PBIS, and those components are not present, then PBIS is unlikely to be transformative to shift the thinking of the building about its behaviorally challenging kids.

Clay: How will CPS work with PBIS systems that we already have in place?

Dr. Greene: PBIS has three tiers associated with it, all telling us who’s going to get what based on how they responded to the tier that came before it. I guess the reason that I am not hugely oriented toward tiers is because I think you’re doing CPS at tier one, tier two, and tier three, and if you’re doing CPS at all three tiers, then the tiers are not quite as meaningful as they might have been otherwise. You can easily implement CPS in a tiered system to make sure that everybody in the building is getting CPS, that’s tier one; to make sure that kids are getting a more-intensive form of CPS that is more individually tailored to their needs at tier two; and the individualization process, of course, becomes even more intensified at tier three. I don’t think it’s difficult at all; the tiers are not the impediment to implementing CPS alongside of PBIS. It’s some of the other aspects of PBIS that sometimes interfere.

Clay: IEP rules in New Hampshire require behavior plans to be in place when a student’s behavior interferes with his own learning or the learning of others. How does the CPS model align with the behavioral intervention plan?

Dr. Greene: You can certainly write a behavioral intervention plan that is very oriented toward solving the problems that are causing a kid’s challenging behavior, but in that case, it wouldn’t be called a behavioral intervention plan, it would be called a problem-solving plan. Let’s not get caught up in semantics. The behavior plan is a plan for how we are going to try to help this kid not exhibit challenging behaviors, and how we’re going to be going about doing it if a behavior intervention plan is all about identifying a kid’s lagging skills. This is a very CPS-flavored intervention plan that is focused almost entirely on solving problems rather than modifying behavior.

Clay: We have high school students assaulting staff and stealing their cars, as well as sudden attacks. How would CPS help in this situation?

Dr. Greene: Whoa, yeah, that stuff does go on in high schools. It goes on in middle schools and elementary schools, too, and those are very severe, challenging behaviors, but they are no different than any other challenging behavior.

Challenging behavior occurs when the demands being placed upon kids outstrip their skills. I find that some of the challenging behaviors that are mentioned in this question are some of the behaviors we see in kids who feel alienated, kids who feel that their voices are not being heard, kids who don’t care, and what I find with kids like that is that CPS gets them talking, gets their voices heard, helps us solve the problems that have been affecting their lives for a very long time. If we are looking at a building that is implementing CPS, we have kids who are not assaulting staff because we have relationships with them and their problems are getting solved. We don’t have kids that are stealing staff cars because we have relationships with them, the communication is wide open, they are not alienated, they care. CPS would help in a situation like that a great deal.

Clay: What adaptations should be made to the CPS model when working with intellectually-disabled individuals that also have difficulty with behavior?

Dr. Greene: The bottom line is the key variable here that is language processing and communication skills. To what degree is the kid able to participate in solving problems collaboratively through verbal give and take? That’s what a lot of people are referring to when they’re saying “intellectually disabled.” Sometimes they’ll say “low-functioning,” which is not a term that I like very much. I don’t like “intellectually disabled” very much at all, but at least we know who we’re talking about here.

The goal here is to find ways to communicate with the kid about unsolved problems and concerns and solutions that do not involve verbal give-and-take. There’s tons of ways that we do that already with kids who are compromised in the language processing and communication realm. We can use fingers. We can text. We can use pictures. We can use adaptive technologies. These are all things we do to communicate with kids who are having difficulty communicating. On other things, we should be applying the exact same technologies to helping kids participate in the process of solving the problems that affect their lives.

Once again, just to reiterate, there’s really only three things the kid needs to be able to communicate about to participate in the process: what are the problems, what are the kid’s concerns, and what are some of the solutions we can come up with to address the concerns of both parties that both parties can actually do. In other words, can you do the three steps of Plan B completely non-verbally? Yes.

To watch Dr. Greene’s entire 90-minute webinar, click here.

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