REACH teachers help community parents with parenting tool for empathy and collaboration

When it comes to parenting, children don’t come with a manual. Most parents learn from experience, copy repeat generational behaviors and seek advice from friends and family. That can be enough, but at times when kids display challenging behaviors, having some advice from experts is helpful.

REACH teachers are trained in the Collaborative Problem Solving® (CPS) approach, which is proven to reduce challenging behavior, teach kids skills they lack, and build relationships with adults in their lives. Seeing this approach work so well in the classroom has led REACH teachers to offer parenting training in this method as well.

In a three-part CPS series, Tamar Shames and Bryna Towb from REACH, certified by Think:Kids in the CPS approach recently introduced the parenting approach to parents in ATT schools on Zoom. Classes were spread out over three weeks so that participants could test out the approach and come back together to troubleshoot or reiterate.

The Collaborative Problem Solving approach

Collaborative Problem Solving is an evidence-based approach developed by Think:Kids, a program in the Department of Psychiatry at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, MA, that is proven to reduce challenging behavior. The goal of CPS is to teach kids the skills they lack and build relationships with the adults in their lives.

Those following conventional parenting wisdom typically assume that kids do well if they want to. When kids act out, it’s because they haven’t been trained well enough to behave. CPS instead says that kids do well if they can. They act out because they don’t have the skills to handle difficult situations. The difference in assumptions means focusing on skill building instead of punishing for problematic behavior.

The assumption behind CPS is “Behind most challenging behavior: a problem to be solved and some skills to be trained.”

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Parenting with Collaborative Problem Solving

At the heart of the Collaborative Problem Solving approach are three steps:

  1. Show empathy
  2. Share concern
  3. Collaborate

These three steps take time to master for both you and your child. And a cycle may need to rock back and forth depending on the reaction of your child. For example, you may show empathy and then move onto sharing a concern only to have your child become dysregulated again. When this happens, you return to showing empathy before moving onto collaboration.

Step 1: Showing empathy by listening to your child

A parent or teacher using CPS at the time of a problematic behavior starts by showing empathy to the child. Bryna offers the following concrete ways to show empathy:

  1. Listen fully
  2. Avoid drawing conclusions
  3. Don’t parrot – use your own words
  4. Stay non-judgmental
  5. Contain your emotions

If sharing their concern makes your child upset, you can try using reassuring language to calm them down. Phrases like the following are helpful:

  • “I’m not saying no”
  • “I’m not saying you have to”
  • “I’m just trying to understand”
  • “I know there must be an important reason why”
  • ”You’re doing great”
  • “Take your time”

Once your child feels heard is a more opportune to share a concern. Together, you and your child can collaborate to find a solution. It’s a process that sometimes takes several rounds to resolve, but repeating the cycle can de escalate and resolve problematic behavior.

Bryna explains how this works in practice: 

Start with empathy by reflectively listening to understand your child’s concern or perspective. To do this, actively listen to why and how your child is feeling or struggling. It helps to reflectively listen, by repeating back to your child what you hear. Use a phrase like, “What I hear you saying is…”

You can move onto the stage of sharing your concern once you can answer the following questions:

  1. Do you have a clear, specific understanding of the child’s concern or perspective?
  2. Do you feel like you’re at a point where you could suggest a solution?
  3. Is your child calm and accessible now?

If you answer yes to these questions, you’ve likely done a good job at empathizing and reflectively listening. If, on the other hand, it took a lot for your child to express their concern or perspective, you might want to save the rest of the conversation for later. “It is totally okay to stop the conversation there and say, you have given me awesome information. Thank you. I’m going to remember this and tomorrow at the same time, let’s continue the conversation,” says Tamar. “Don’t feel like you have to force the whole conversation.”

Part 2: Ensure the adult’s perspective is on the table

The next step is to share your concern. At this point, there’s a chance that your child might get dysregulated again when they hear what’s bothering you. This is why it’s so important to start from a good place. It’s then that you can move on with the conversation.

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A good way to start this stage of CPS is by asking your child, “May I share what’s important to me?”

Once your child agrees, follow up with a response like, “My concern is that…”

Tamar recommends keeping your concern short and specific because you don’t want to lose your child’s attention. You can do this by relating your concern to a meaningful theme, such as health, safety, learning or impacting others.

It’s important to drill down to your actual concern so that you can articulate it in a way your child can hear. “I recommend thinking in advance how you’re going to say what your concern is,” says Tamar.

This process of CPS gets easier over time, a process called dosing. The idea is to expose children to small doses of stress so that they become better at handling it.

By sharing your concern as a parent to your child after first expressing empathy, you’re asking your child then to hear your perspective as well.

It’s possible at this stage your child can become dysregulated, especially when CPS is new to your child. If that happens, go back to expressing empathy before doubling down on your concern. 

It’s okay if your child doesn’t share your concern. The point is to have both perspectives heard and on the table. 

Part 3: Collaborate: Brainstorm, assess and choose a solution to try

Collaborating with your child to come up with a solution that addresses both concerns is part three of Collaborative Problem Solving.

The conversation sounds something like this: “I wonder if there’s a way that we can address your concern ______ and my concern of ______ so that both of those concerns are addressed.“

This way you are making sure to state both concerns again to demonstrate to the child that both concerns are on the table.

Next, you ask your child first if they have any ideas. It’s okay if the child can’t think of one, but giving them a chance to offer a solution is part of building problem solving skills. “It’s important to wait for what might seem like an eternity but give it however long you or your child can handle it to see if they have any solutions,” says Tamar.

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The goal is to brainstorm. When your child comes up with an idea, try to respond with a neutral statement, such as “That’s an idea.”

You can offer ideas as well and then once you come up with a solution that works for both of you, let your child know that you both can test it out for a while.

Doing this lets your child know that you can revisit the issue and adjust the solution. “This sends  a message to the child that we’re not going to fail because we’re going to keep working at this. This is what problem solving really is all about,” says Tamar.

When practiced, Collaborative Problem Solving helps you and your child reach a  mutually satisfactory and realistic solution, as well as a follow up plan. If that fails to work you start over and revisit the problem.

For more resources on collaborative problem solving, check out