Consequences not working? Try this.

Dr Greene maintains throughout Lost in School that “kids do well if they can; if a kid could do well, he would do well.” (p54) Challenging behaviour occurs when the demands placed on a pupil outstrip her skills to respond adaptively. To enable the precise identification of lagging skills, Greene recommends his ALSUP (Assessment of Learning Skills and Unsolved Problems). Once analysed in this way, challenging behaviour becomes highly predictable, which means that problems can be solved proactively.

If we adopt a traditional approach to challenging behaviour, we pursue what Greene dubs Plan A – as adults, we attempt to solve the problem unilaterally, by imposing our will. Plan B is Collaborative & Proactive Solutions – CPS – which allows pupil and teacher to work as partners towards mutually satisfactory solutions so that both parties’ concerns can be addressed, the problem gets solved, and lagging skills are taught.

CPS has three steps:

  1. Empathy
  2. Define adult concerns
  3. Invitation

The goal of the empathy step is to gain the best possible understanding of a pupil’s concern or perspective related to a given problem. These might be hunger, fear, fatigue,  a desire for approval, a tendency to avoid things they’re not good at, a need not to be embarrassed or humiliated, and so on. “You don’t lose any authority by gathering information and understanding a kids’ concern. You gain a problem-solving team-mate.” (Greene, p79)

You get the empathy step rolling by introducing the unsolved problem, beginning with the words, “I’ve noticed that…” and ending with the words, “What’s up?”  In between, you’re inserting the problem you want to solve. There are five possible responses to this, as follows:

  1. The pupils says something:

That’s positive! However, the initial response is unlikely to provide you with the clearest possible understanding of the concern or perspective on the unsolved problem you’re discussing, so you’ll need to probe. Greene’s eight drilling strategies are illustrated in this helpful Drilling Cheat Sheet.

2. The pupil says nothing or I don’t know:

There could be several reasons for this. Perhaps the pupil doesn’t yet trust you enough, or you have not been specific in your description of the problem, there is a communication difficulty, perhaps the pupil genuinely doesn’t know. If such possibilities have been considered and the pupil still isn’t talking, then some educated guessing can follow. However, this must be a last resort – you really want to hear about the concerns straight from the horse’s mouth.

3. The pupil says, I don’t have a problem with that:

Actually, the pupil doesn’t have to care about the problem to provide information. Drilling and reflective listening should be deployed to move beyond this.

4. The pupils says, I don’t want to talk about it right now:

In a helping relationship, the person being helped needs to feel comfortable about talking and this often doesn’t happen on demand. There’s always tomorrow. Often the best thing to say is, “You don’t have to talk about it right now.” Many pupils will start talking straight after this. Or they may explain why they don’t want to talk right now, and that can be enough to make them feel comfortable enough to start talking about what they didn’t want to talk about.

5. The pupil becomes defensive and says something like, I don’t have to talk to you (or worse):

The honest answer here would be, I can’t make you talk. Some pupils are so disarmed by adult honesty that they then start talking. But you may also want to reassure the pupil that you’re not using Plan A. “I’m not telling you what to do…I’m not angry with you…I just want to understand.” Greene reminds that helpers aren’t defensive – they have thick skin – and any subjective response that might be felt is kept in check so that it doesn’t interfere with the business of helping.

The Define Adult Concern step usually begins with the words, The thing is … or My concern is … These concerns will fall into one of two categories: How the unsolved problem is affecting the pupil and how the unsolved problem is affecting other people.

Once you reach the Invitation Step, you are ready to brainstorm potential solutions that will address these concerns. The invitation lets the pupil know that solving the problem is something you’re doing with them, rather than to them. The step begins with a restatement of the concerns that were identified in the first two steps, usually starting with the words, ‘I wonder if there’s a way for us to do something about your… and ends – Do you have any ideas?

Giving the pupil the first opportunity to think of solutions is a good strategy, especially for those who are used to having an adult’s will imposed on them, because it is a clear sign that you are interested in his ideas. Since many adults are absolutely certain they know exactly how a problem should be solved, this may take some getting used to, but using Plan B must mean understanding that the solution isn’t predetermined. Solving a difficult problem durably requires a willingness to let the process of exploring solutions unfold without the adult’s solution being prematurely invoked.

Good solutions meet two criteria; they must be realistic (meaning both parties can deliver their part of the solution) and mutually satisfactory (meaning the concerns of both parties are truly and logically addressed.) So avoid signing off a solution before giving it proper consideration against these criteria.

Over time, using this approach consistently, the pupil will learn that her concerns will be heard and addressed and skills, crucial for handling life’s social and emotional challenges, will be developed. The research evidence  supporting the efficacy of CPS across a range of settings is compelling. Here it is again, illustrated on a single cheat sheet.

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Published by Mary Meredith

Working in schools for over 20 years, I've been a Head of English, a SENCO and a deputy headteacher. I'm currently Head of Inclusion at Lincolnshire County Council. I am a sucker for the underdog. Always have been, always will be.

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