Collaborative Problem Solving

Conventional wisdom about behavior reward and punishment

Conventional wisdom leads us to believe that because of poor (passive, permissive, inconsistent) parenting, kids learn to use challenging behaviors to get what they want. Therefore, the logical solution is to motivate compliant behavior through intensive, consistent programs of rewards, punishments and ignoring. Examples include listing target behaviors, creating charts of rewards/punishments and setting up currency systems. But the question is, do these generally tend to work?

Limitations of rewards and punishments

Setting up rewards systems like these can affect children in a number of ways. They can teach basic lessons, facilitate extrinsic motivation and clarify expectations. What they can not do, however, is help kids stay regulated, work long-term, facilitate intrinsic motivation (they can actually de-motivate kids), or teach thinking skills. Furthermore, reward and punishment systems can actually be consequential. If we are constantly telling our children that they are not trying hard enough or that they don’t care, eventually they will look like and act like they don’t care. Additionally, our chronic misbehaviors may actually be trying harder than anyone else to behave. So how then, do we deal with challenging behaviors? First, we must change our perspective.

How to deal with challenging behavior

Research in neuroscience has shown that challenging kids are delayed in the development of crucial cognitive (thinking) skills or have significant difficulty applying these skills when they are most needed. Areas of lacking skills include: Flexibility/adaptability, frustration tolerance and problem solving. If that’s the case, we must look at challenging behavior the same way we look at learning disabilities. The simple philosophy behind this logic is that KIDS DO WELL IF THEY CAN. If they are challenging us, it is because something is getting in the way. It is our job as parents to figure out what that is so that we can help them! 

Intrinsic Motivation

While it often seems that kids aren’t motivated or don’t care, motivation is generally not the culprit for our children’s misbehavior. By understanding what builds intrinsic motivation we will be able to help our misbehaving children feel invested and excited about their day to day lives. According to the Self-Determination Theory, there are three components to feeling intrinsically motivated.

1. Competence: Our children need to feel competent with the tasks they are given. If they are lagging skills they need for a certain daily task (i.e. getting dressed independently or doing their math homework), chances are we will see some challenging behavior.

2. Autonomy: Our children need to feel a sense of independence in their lives as well as opportunities to make choices.

3. Relatedness: Our children should feel they have a close and trusting relationship with us, their parents. With these ideas in mind, we begin to rethink they way we think about challenging behavior.

Skill not Will

Challenging kids lack SKILL not WILL. They are misbehaving because something is missing. Behind most challenging behavior is: a problem to be solved and skills to be trained. Here’s a good equation to keep in mind:

Skills > Expectation = Adaptive Behavior

Skills < Expectation = Challenging Behavior

Lagging skills alone do not cause challenging behavior. Challenging behavior occurs when someone is presented with a problem or situation they lack the skills to handle well. Through this lens, it is our job to both assess which skills are lagging and then help our children learn these skills in an incrementally appropriate fashion. How do we begin to do this?

Ways to help kids solve problems

Look for triggers:

The first thing to look for when trying to help your child manage his/her challenging behavior are triggers. What are the demands that your child is having a hard time meeting? You want to do a situational analysis. Ask yourself the following questions: What is happening before the challenging behavior? What are the contexts/situations which lead to challenging behavior? Who is the child with? What time of day/where is your child when these behaviors occur? Once you have more information you will be able to begin to identify patterns and glean a better understanding of why your child is having a hard time. 

Use empathy:

Once you have a better understanding of what your child’s triggers might be, you can begin to have a conversation with him or her. The key to a successful collaborative problem solving conversation is EMPATHY! The goal of the conversation it to gather information from our child and better understand his or her perspective. When we empathize we are not judgmental, but rather open and curious and even if we don’t agree with it, are willing to accept our child’s perspective. 

Drill down:

What do we do if our child won’t talk? How do we get him or her to talk more? There are four “drilling down” tools which are helpful when it comes to getting our children to be active participants in a conversation.

  1. Clarifying questions: Start open-ended and then narrow in
  2. Educated guessing: Play 20 questions or Hot/Cold
  3. Reflective Listening: reflect in your own words to make sure you understand
  4. Reassurance: “I’m not saying no”, “I’m just trying to understand,” “I know there must be an important reason why…”

Explain your concern

Once we feel that we better understand our child’s perspective and have given them a meaningful chance to be heard, it is our turn to explain our perspective. Rather than start the conversation with ”I hear you but…”, start by stating your concern. Make sure your child understands your concern. If your child escalates at this point, go back to the empathy step. Once you have two sets of concerns/perspectives on the table and your child is calm, it is time to come up with some solutions. collaborative solutions

Collaborate on soutions

When it comes to solving problems, let your child take the first stab at it. It is crucial that you come up with a solution that works for the two of you. If your child doesn’t have any ideas, come to the conversation prepared with a few of your own. Very often you will need to “test” a solution for a week or two see if it works and then re-group to assess. The first solution seldom solves the problem durably. Don’t feel discouraged if you don’t get it right away, this process takes time!

Build Skills

When you engage your child in a collaborative conversation and make him or her your partner in solving problems you are simultaneously helping them build fundamental skills. Empathy, perspective-taking, flexibility, and problem-solving just to name a few. With these skills, we are setting our children up for the task of solving problems independently as they grow and mature.

Important reminders

Some important things to keep in mind as you go through with this process with your children:

  • This is not a “one shot solution.” It takes time and practice! But the good thing is, you can’t really mess up, because in the process you are building a stronger relationship with your child.
  • It is very important to not rush through the stages and to be prepared for each one.
  • Expect the unexpected and avoid any preconceived ideas of solutions.
  • Difficult problems require revisiting, go slow to go fast!