Ross Greene, Ph.D. is Director of the Collaborative Problem Solving Institute in the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, and an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He specializes in the treatment of explosive, inflexible, easily frustrated children and is the author of The Explosive Child and co-author of Treating Explosive Kids: The Collaborative Problem Solving Approach. He speaks with SK contributor Sheryl Knapp about his approach to dealing with the challenging child.
Sheryl Knapp: What distinguishes an “explosive” child from other children?
Ross Greene: I think of “exploding” as occurring on a continuum of things human beings do when they can’t think of anything better to do—in other words, things humans do when the demands being placed upon them exceed their capacity to respond adaptively.
At the easy end of the spectrum are things like whining, pouting, and crying. As you move down the spectrum, you have screaming, swearing, hitting, biting, and lying. As you move further down you get the serious behaviors that are damaging to oneself or to others—cutting, self-induced vomiting, knifing, shooting, etc. I believe all of those occur when a person doesn’t have the skills to respond adaptively to the demands that are being placed upon him.
SK: How can a parent distinguish between behavior that is the result of lagging cognitive skills and that which is attention-seeking or manipulative?
RG: I don’t put any effort into making the distinction. The guiding mentality of the Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) approach is that kids do what they can. Kids are already motivated to behave adaptively because adaptive behavior is always preferable to maladaptive behavior; it’s the kids who can’t pull it off who resort to maladaptive behavior.
SK: Do you feel that consequence-based approaches can be beneficial?
RG: Doing well is motivating all by itself. I’m not sure why we would apply more extrinsic motivation. If you believe that the kid would do well if he could do well, then why do we want the kid focused on an extrinsic motivator—some goody—when we really want him and his adult caretakers focused on what skills he is lacking, what unsolved problems are reliably and predictably precipitating his challenging episodes, and how are we going to help him learn how to solve those problems. Consequences, whether they are of the reward or punishment variety, don’t teach lacking cognitive skills and don’t help kids solve problems that are precipitating their challenging episodes.
SK: To what extent is being “explosive” developmental?
RG: CPS views challenging behavior as evidence of a form of developmental delay, and in that respect no different from any other developmental delays— reading, writing, arithmetic, spelling. In every case, the kid is lacking the skills required for proficiency in a particular area. In the case of challenging behavior, the kid is lacking the skills to be proficient in handling life’s social, emotional, and behavioral challenges adaptively. When you view challenging behavior as a form of developmental delay rather than as volitional, intentional, unmotivated, attention-seeking, etc. then the universe opens up to the skills you could be teaching and the problem you could be helping the kid solve.
SK: Yet the kinds of skills that are lacking seem difficult to teach.
RG: My belief is that the skills can be taught. I am not positive that I agree that teaching a kid to say, “I can’t talk about that right now” instead of “get out of my face” is harder than teaching reading. A lot of the skills that kids lack are taught just by helping them learn how to solve problems in a way that requires them to be specific about what their concern is; to take another person’s concerns into account; and to generate and evaluate alternative solutions, thinking about whether the solution addresses both concerns. These are all things that take place in CPS even when you’re not training a skill directly; you’re training it indirectly by helping a kid solve problems collaboratively.
The CPS model theorizes that kids exhibit explosive, inflexible behavior due to lagging cognitive skills. These skills can be taught through helping children and their caretakers learn to resolve disagreements in a collaborative, mutually satisfactory manner. This involves three basic steps:
- Identify and understand the child’s concern about a given issue and reassure him that the problem will be resolved.
- Define the adults’ concerns on the same issue. With CPS, a problem is defined as two concerns that are not reconciled.
- Invite the child to brainstorm solutions with the adult, with the goal of agreeing on a plan of action that is realistic and mutually satisfactory.
Dr. Greene is the author or co-author of numerous books including The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children and Lost at School: Why Our Kids with Behavioral Challenges are Falling Through the Cracks and How We Can Help Them. Sheryl Knapp is the founder and President of Literacy Learning and Assessment Center of Connecticut. Knapp has Associate Level certification with the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators.