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Dr. Ross Greene - What Works & What Doesn’t for Behaviorally Challenged Students

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

Last April, the final webinar in our Success for Every Learner: From At-Risk to Successful spring 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. You can review that discussion here.

Dr. Greene’s webinar sparked so many questions that we simply could not address them during the 90 minute webinar. This summer, we caught up with him to continue the discussion started in the spring with more questions from the audience. Thank you, Dr. Greene, for an informative discussion!

PresenceLearning: Dr. Greene, are there suggested modifications to using this approach with very young students or those who have delayed or limited language skills?

Dr. Greene: The interesting thing is that I don’t really base what solving problems collaboratively is going to look like on the chronological child. I’ve worked with 3 year olds who were better able to participate in a process than many 17 year olds. Chronological age is not really a deciding factor. Language processing and communication skills are a very important deciding factor, especially if we are trying to solve problems collaboratively in words and through verbal give and take, which is of course the adult preference.

Chronological age is really not as big a deal as many people think it is. But secondly, irrespective of the age of the kid, if the verbal give and take skills are not sufficient to participate in plan B, then we’re going to have to find another way to communicate with the kid about 3 basic things. What’s the unsolved problem? What are the kid’s concerns about the unsolved problem, and what are some solutions that would address the concerns of both parties? That can be done in pictures and that can be done using sign language and that can be done using fingers, with the kid using thumbs up or thumbs middle or thumbs down.

I often say 5 the finger method can be used for getting any kid’s concerns, it’s almost only if the kid doesn’t have the language processing skills to let us know what his concerns are. I usually say 5 fingers means very true, 4 means pretty true, 3 means sort of true, 2 means not very true and 1 means not true at all. Then I will make statements, when adult theories actually sometimes come in handy. I’ll make statements and the child will let me know the degree to which the statement is true, either through thumbs or through fingers. Ask any speech-language pathologist if you can communicate with a non-verbal kid and the answer will always be yes. If the answer is always yes, then you can solve problems collaboratively with almost any kid as well. You just may have to get a little bit creative about what the communication looks like.

PresenceLearning: A viewer asked, “We have a student who has a meltdown every time iPad time in the class ends. We give him a timer, a countdown and so forth, when his time is almost over. Is that the expectation that we’re not meeting? How do we look at that?”

Dr. Greene: Let’s first think about what the unsolved problem is: difficulty putting away the iPad when iPad time in class is over. That’s the unsolved problem, but what’s interesting here is we adults often come up with our own solutions and wonder why they’re not working. We have some adult solutions in this question as well, a timer, countdown so he knows when the time is over. Those would be outstanding interventions if the issue is that he doesn’t know when his time is over. But we really don’t know what’s getting in the kid’s way because we haven’t done plan B with the kid yet. Once again, a reminder here, what we’re looking for are solutions that we are collaborating with the student on.

The first step of solving a problem collaboratively is the empathy step. That’s where we are gathering information from the student about what’s actually getting in the way. In this case, putting the iPad away when iPad time is over. What we adults frequently do is, we come up with solutions anyway even though we have no information whatsoever. What I call those are uninformed solutions. Uninformed solutions almost never work because we adults are frequently wrong about what we think is actually getting in the kid’s way. The first thing we’ve got to do is the empathy step with this student to find out what’s getting in the way or what’s hard or what’s interfering with the student putting the iPad away when iPad time in class is over.

The second step is where the adult is entering his or her concerns into consideration on the same unsolved problem. The third step, called the invitation, is where adult and student are collaborating on a solution. This really points out the difference between adults coming up with solutions about problems they really haven’t inquired with the kid about yet, and adults and kids collaborating on solutions based on information both parties have provided. It is a completely different enterprise, collaborative versus unilateral problem solving.

PresenceLearning: Perfect. Dr. Greene, although I understand removing a child from a class should not be part of a plan, often the kind of behaviors that the child has are unsafe to the other students or maybe even to themselves. What are we supposed to do while we’re teaching the replacement skills?

Dr. Greene: That’s a very interesting question. First of all, we’re not actually teaching replacement skills. We are solving the problems that are causing the student to exhibit the behaviors that are unsafe to the student themselves or others that are causing us to remove the child from class. Everything that’s being described in this question is the aftermath of specific, unsolved problems that aren’t solved yet. If they were solved, the student wouldn’t still be exhibiting unsafe behavior in response to them and we wouldn’t still be removing the student from class. We’re also still very focused on the student’s behavior in this question, and we really, really want to be focused on the problems that are causing those behaviors. If we wait for the behaviors to occur it is too late in the game.

I get it, there are going to be times in schools where we do have to remove a student for unsafe behavior. We just have to realize that we’re very late in the game when we do that, and if we need to be using the Assessment of Lagging Skills and Unsolved Problems to identify the students proactively so that we can solve them proactively. Solved problems don’t cause students to exhibit behaviors that are unsafe to themselves or others, and therefore we’re not removing students from class anymore. That’s the whole point. A lot of school discipline programs are almost totally oriented toward what we do once the behavior occurs. In this model, we are being very proactive in identifying and solving problems proactively so the unsafe behaviors don’t occur in the first place.

PresenceLearning: Here’s a question from a teacher. “Ross, you know my biggest challenge as a classroom teacher is the time I have in the day to work with my students. Having time to collaborate with an individual child? My goodness, how do I find time with as many as 30 kids in my classroom?”

Dr. Greene: You’re going to have to prioritize, of course, which students want to be collaborated with first. In schools in which the CPS model has been implemented, the typical scenario is that people are most interested in helping the kids who are most disruptive and most behaviorally challenging first. Initially, you’re not going to be solving problems collaboratively with all 30 kids in a classroom. You’re probably going to be solving problems collaboratively first with what we call your frequent flyers, the kids who are flying frequently out of the classroom and into the school discipline program.

First of all, we have to prioritize, and even within those kids we need to prioritize because many frequent flyers have many unsolved problems. Why do the frequent flyers have so many unsolved problems? Because we’ve primarily been focused on their behavior and then we’ve been primarily focused on trying to give them the incentive to exhibit good behavior and punishing them when they don’t. We don’t solve any problems that way, which is why, and this goes to the heart of the question, the frequent flyers are the most time consuming kids in the building. When we are dealing with behavior because the problems that are causing those behaviors are not solved yet, that takes an enormous amount of time. Way more time than it would take for us to be solving the problems that are causing those behaviors.

While I get it, every school that we’ve worked with over the last 10 years is worried about time when they are first learning about the CPS model. 3 or 4 months in, their motto is: plan B saves time, and it’;s true. When they add up all the time that they are spending dealing with challenging behaviors because the problems are not yet solved, plan B never takes that much time. Once we get our most challenging students squared away, those unsolved problems that we have now solved aren’t taking up time anymore and we can start to turn our attention to the other students whose problems always get neglected just because those problems aren’t causing classroom disruption or unsafe behavior.

But there’s another level to this question and that is, this has to be organized at a school-wide level. An unsolved problem for every school is that we don’t have time to solve problems with the kids in our building. That’s a school unsolved problem. We’ve had so many initiatives thrown at us and we’ve been so pressured to focus almost exclusively on academics that we’ve begun giving short shrift to one of the most important roles teachers have always played in the lives of kids, and that is socialization agents.

Teachers play a crucial role in our society in the socialization of our kids. When we turn teachers into test prep robots, as we have with high stakes testing, or discipline robots, as we have with zero tolerance policies, we take the humanity out of the job and a lot of the problem solving goes along with it. This has to be organized at a school-wide level so that the principal and assistant principal and other people are providing coverage for teachers who want to solve problems collaboratively with kids. Teachers are providing coverage for each other with finding times in the day when we can solve problems with kids. But for that to happen, this has to be a priority and we have to formally carve out the time.

Let me go back to the original theme. You’re not going to be spending more time when you’re solving problems collaboratively with your students. You’re going to be saving a lot of time.

PresenceLearning: It’s a classic example. We have a student who doesn’t want to begin work in the class, but the student will begin working when given a token. The extrinsic motivator seems to have moved the child to begin his work, so clearly there’s no lack of skill here, just lack of motivation, which we found out with the motivator. What do you say to that?

Dr. Greene: First of all, I would say that there’s lots of things a kid will do for a token, but the fact that we are still giving the kids tokens to try to get them to do work is actually proof positive that this is not an issue related to motivation. Merely giving the kid a token is not solving whatever problem it is that’s causing the kid to resist starting work in class.

What’s interesting is that the scenario actually proves to me the opposite of what the person who asked the question thinks it proved. Just because a token gets a kid to start working doesn’t mean it’s an issue related to motivation. It tells me, the fact that we are still giving tokens to get the kid to work, that we still don’t know what’s getting in the kid’s way.

We’re not going to solve that problem with a token because there is no problem, there is no concern that the kid has about getting to work, that is going to be addressed with a token. Believing that the token proves the motivation theory is actually still pure speculation. I’ve got a much better idea that’s circulating: why don’t we ask the kid what’s getting in the way of him starting on a specific assignment. Here’s what we always find: Every once in a blue moon I’m still tempted to go with a motivational strategy, but then I ask the kid, “What’s really getting in your way here?” When I finally hear what’s getting in the kid way, it’s always something that a token is not going to fix. Things like, “I don’t understand the assignment,” — a token is not going to fix that. “It’s too hard,” — a token is not going to fix that. “It’s boring,” — a token is not going to fix that. “The other kids are making fun of me when they see the work that I’m doing,” — a token is not going to fix that. I can’t think of anything a token will fix, and so long as we’re having to give this kid tokens to get him to work, we still don’t know what’s getting in his way and his problem is still not solved.

PresenceLearning: Dr. Greene, do you recommend solving just one problem at a time, or is it possible to work on multiple lagging skills and problems at one time? I realize some lagging skills may be tied to the same problem, but maybe not always. What are your thoughts on that?

Dr. Greene: Great question. In the CPS model, you are working on no more than 3 unsolved problems at once. But adult theories about which unsolved problems are related to each other are often fallible. Even unsolved problems that seem totally related to each other often aren’t. You really are working on 1 unsolved problem at a time, but you have 3 high priority unsolved problems that you may be working on at any particular point in time. That’s crucial because once we adults get the hang of this problem solving stuff, we often get so enthusiastic that we start trying to solve every problem at once, thereby guaranteeing that we solve none of them at all. We really want to stick to our 2 or 3 high priority unsolved problems.

In the CPS model, we operate on the assumption, and this is backed up by research, that when you are solving problems collaboratively and proactively, you are simultaneously but indirectly teaching the kid the skills he or she is lacking. In other words, just by mere virtue of solving problems collaboratively and proactively, by mere virtue of that process, skills are being taught but indirectly. There are other people’s work, and I’m thinking here especially of Michelle Garcia Winter’s social thinking model, in which the primary focal point is actually the teaching of skills, the direct and explicit teaching of skills. I think those are fine models as well, just recognize that, in the CPS model, the primary focal point is problem solving. The data tells us that when you are problem solving in the ways that this model instructs us to do, collaboratively and proactively, skills are simultaneously being taught.

Yes, don’t work on too many unsolved problems at once. It is possible that a particular lagging skill could be contributing to many unsolved problems. Yet, are you going to be able to figure that out ahead of time? Not always.

PresenceLearning: Dr. Greene, have you had success using your approach with children who have autism? Primarily, the way that we deal with them is to use rewards and consequences.

Dr. Greene: Rewards and consequences are a very popular approach with students diagnosed with autism, and the research tells us that that approach does work with students on the severe end of the autism spectrum. But that doesn’t mean that, even with students at the severe end of the autism spectrum, we are limited to the sole use of rewarding and punishing as our way to try to help this student.

Autism is a very commonly diagnosed category, but it’s an extraordinarily broad category and, within that category, we have very diverse ranges of functioning and also very diverse ranges of things that a student needs from us in terms of intervention and what’s going to work with an individual student.

If all we’re using is rewards and punishments, then we are excluding the student from participating in solving the problems that affect his or her life and that is always, irrespective of the level of functioning of the student, irrespective of the diagnosis that is being applied, that’s always a shame. I find that even students on the severe end of the autism spectrum are able, often not in a real extensive way in the beginning but this is something we can build on, to participate in solving the problems that affect their lives. If we leave them out of the loop on that perpetually, then we’re basically writing this kid off as a potential participant in solving the problems that affect his or her life. We never, ever want to do that with any student.

With some students, involving them in the process of solving problems collaboratively is going to be a slow process. Even though many of them, people think, are lacking the language processing and cognitive skills to participate in that process, it’s not true. This is something that can be built over time. All progress is incremental and I think it’s a real shame that many autistic kids have been relegated to merely having rewards and punishments be the only intervention that’s applied to them. Even though the research tells us that works, I’m never enthusiastic about an intervention that leaves a kid out of the loop on solving the problems that affect his or her life, and now I’m talking about any diagnosis.

PresenceLearning: What’s your opinion regarding the use and purpose for positive behavior intervention and supports, PBIS systems, for all students?

Dr. Greene: I think that PBIS has moved the ball forward for behaviorally challenging kids in very important ways. I think that, in telling us that behavioral challenges should be viewed in the same way and treated in similar ways as academic challenges is a major step forward. I think many schools and people who work in schools have found PBIS to be extremely useful to them in organizing their efforts to help behaviorally challenging kids. But we have to remember that even the originators of PBIS tell us that it is a structure, not an intervention. The structure that they are referring to is 3 tiers, tier 1, tier 2, tier 3, in which we are, at tier 1, doing things for every student in the building. At tier 2, we’re doing things for students who have not fully benefited from what we’re doing at tier 1, and at tier 3, we’re intervening even further for students who have not benefited fully from what

we’re doing at tier 2. I know that many people have found that to be a very useful organizational structure, but what I’m talking about is not an organizational structure.

I’m talking about how we help behaviorally challenging students, regardless of what tier they’re at, meet expectations that they’re having difficulty meeting. I’m talking about how we solve problems with those kids. A lot of schools have implemented PBIS in a way that has their school discipline program looking almost exactly the same as it did before they started implementing PBIS. If their school discipline program was very oriented toward rewards and punishments before PBIS, I find that in many school systems that hasn’t changed a bit even though they’ve introduced PBIS and they have 3 tiers and they’re doing a lot of the things that PBIS would have them doing. For that reason, I sometimes say that PBIS has not been

transformative enough to help especially the most challenging students in a building.

I also find that many people, many schools that are implementing PBIS, are still running with the traditional definition of function. The traditional definition of function of challenging behavior that is working, it’s working in helping the kid get, escape, and avoid. In CPS, we have a very different definition of function. Challenging behavior is communicating. What are challenging behaviors communicating? That a child is lacking the skills to meet certain expectations. If we believe that a student’s challenging behavior is working, I think we’re going to be pointed toward interventions that are proving to the kid that his challenging behavior is not going to

work, punishment, and trying to elicit or encourage replacement behaviors that we adults believe will work better. That’s usually accomplished through use of reward.

Notice here we are still primarily focused on behavior, not the problems that are causing that behavior, and we are still focused on incentivizing good behavior and punishing negative behavior. That’s a big detour from the CPS model, where we are focused on problems and solving them, not on behaviors and modifying them. Challenging behavior isn’t working, challenging behavior is communicating. If challenging behavior is communicating, and the kid is lacking skills to handle certain expectations, then the assessment process isn’t focused on behavior, but rather on identifying those lagging skills and unsolved problems so we know what we’re working on.

Can you implement CPS within a school that’s doing PBIS? Of course, because PBIS is a structure not an intervention. Has it turned out that way for a lot of schools? No, as I’ve already said, in a lot of schools PBIS has not transformed their discipline program and behaviorally challenging kids are not being treated in ways that are fundamentally different than they were before PBIS was implemented. That’s a problem.

PresenceLearning: How does the traditional functional behavioral analysis process fit into the CPS model?

Dr. Greene: I think that a very informative, meaningful, impactful FBA is one in which we are being explicit about a student’s lagging skills and unsolved problems. But that is not the typical FBA, and that comes back to the fact that the traditional FBA is based on a definition of function that a kid’s challenging behavior is working. In CPS, the definition of function is when a kid’s challenging behavior is communicating. Once again, what’s it communicating? That a child is lacking the skills to meet certain demands and expectations.

If we go with communicating, then a functional behavior assessment is very explicit about the skills a student is lacking and the expectations that a student is having difficulty meeting. That propels us into the process. First of all, that’s very informative. Secondly, it propels us into the process of solving those problems.

But if we’re using a definition of function that the student’s behavior is working, then we are going to get what a whole lot of FBAs look like. First of all, an excessive description of the child’s behaviors, not the problems that are causing those behaviors, and adult theories about the function of those behaviors, mainly that those behaviors are working in helping the kid get, escape and avoid. Because many FBAs provide only that information, and because many FBAs, therefore, kind of say the same thing for every kid, that probably explains why so many teachers have said to me, “Why bother with the FBA? They all say the same thing.”

But if we’re using analysis to identify the kid’s lagging skills and unsolved problems, our FBA is going to get written for us because that’s going to be information that’s very meaningful for a teacher, very informative, very impactful. It points them directly to what they could be doing next. It’s not like an FBA is something we should be allergic to. What we should be allergic to is FBAs that all say the same thing and that are written according to the more traditional definition of function, that the challenging behavior is working. Those FBAs always point in one direction.

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

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