School troublemakers get problem solving, not punishment

Feb 20, 2017

A school in Grand Traverse County has been working to turn things around. Blair Elementary School is a lower-performing school with a number of challenges. Last fall, IPR reported that the school significantly improved reading scores. Now the school is tackling behavioral issues.


Rather than just punishing disruptive kids, the goal at Blair Elementary School is for teachers to collaborate with them to solve the underlying problems.

The school is using a model called Collaborative and Proactive Solutions. Child psychologist Dr. Ross Greene has been developing it since the 90’s. That’s when his book “The Explosive Child” was published.

The model’s main philosophy is kids do well if they can.

"Which is the belief that if a kid could do well he would do well, and if he’s not doing well, something must be getting in his way," says Greene. "The research that’s accumulated over the last 40 to 50 years tells us what’s getting in the kid's way: he’s lacking skills not motivation."

Behavior as communication

Ben Anderson is in fifth grade at Blair Elementary School. During class on a Thursday morning in February, Ben is singing the words "I'm a cowboy" or "cowboy" over and over again while his teacher, Sam Walter, is trying to teach a language arts lesson. This is their second year together.


"Ben was a student that I had last year that was very challenging, very impulsive," Mr. Walter says. "Like not taking a moment to think about what his actions were or what the results of those actions were."

Ben loves sports. His dream is to be a Super Bowl champion, World Series champion or Stanley Cup winner. But when it comes to school, Ben says he has trouble focusing on a number of subjects, including math, Spanish and reading.

"Cause I suck at most of those things," Ben says. "I’m not good at it. I can’t focus in them."

Ben says he doesn't like school very much.

"I don’t like to learn," he says, "cause I think it’s just a big waste of time."

Mr. Walter says school is tough for Ben.

Ten-year-old Ben Anderson goofs off during Mr. Walter's language arts lesson.
Credit Morgan Springer

"It’s hard," he says. "It’s a lot of work. I believe he’s very capable."

When a math problem or Spanish word is particularly hard for Ben he says he starts to feel frustrated or embarrassed, especially when he doesn't know the answer in front of the whole class.

Greene says when kids are lacking skills they communicate that in a lot of different ways. It could be like Ben – by disrupting class – or it could be by screaming, swearing, hitting, kicking or biting.

"It’s the signal. It’s the fever. ‘I’m stuck. I’m having difficulty meeting an expectation,'” says Greene.

The key is for teachers to focus less on that behavior and more on the reason for it – lagging skills. Greene advocates teachers and students problem solve how to fix those lagging skills together. That's what Mr. Walter has been doing with Ben almost every week since September.

Collaborative problem solving

On a Thursday at 8:15 a.m. before school starts, they meet to talk about Ben's behavior at recess. Mr. Walter says he can get aggressive or physical about once a week at recess.

Ben eats a donut stick Mr. Walter brought him. He listens to Mr. Walter, responds to questions when asked and occasionally volunteers an experience or insight. The whole time he's glancing at the clock. He wants to make sure he makes breakfast.

Fifth-grade teacher Sam Walter says his student, Ben Anderson, gets physical at recess about once a week.
Credit Morgan Springer

Mr. Walter: "So, Ben, I’ve been noticing that you’ve been having some difficulty at recess time, with like keeping your hands [to yourself] and being safe. What’s up with that?"

Ben: "Usually it’s me and my friends, we’re just playing around and tackling and stuff."

Mr. Walter: "Let’s say that I tackle you, and I tackle you a little extra hard, what’s going on your mind then?"

Ben: "I’m going to want to punch you in the face."

Mr. Walter: "And why is that your reaction?"

Ben: "Cause it gets me frustrated."

Mr. Walter asks Ben ‘what does frustrated mean?’ Ben says, "Mad. Like he doesn’t like it. Ben says he can't control himself, and that makes him feel "wild, weird, [and] cuckoo."

They talk like this for a while. Mr. Walter tells Ben his biggest concern is safety – Ben’s and the other kids. Then they talk about possible solutions.

Mr. Walter: "Solutions to the problem of being physical and not taking that moment to think about things at recess. So any ideas of what we can do to help with that problem?"

Ben: "Yeah. Kind of."

Mr. Walter: "Ok. What’ve you got for me?"

Ben: "Stop being physical."

Mr. Walter: “Ok. So you can just stop? Like, that’s a choice? You can just totally stop you think?

Ben: "Yeah."

Mr. Walter: "You think so?"

Mr. Walter tells Ben he's worried that's not realistic. Ben agrees. So they move on to brainstorming other more realistic solutions and settle on a few: walk away or go talk to Mr. Walter or another teacher if he's feeling frustrated.

Breaking from the status quo

Where Collaborative and Proactive Solutions’ main  philosophy is kids do well if they can, Dr. Ross Greene says the philosophy of behavioral modification – the kind of status quo approach to disruptive behavior – is different.

Dr. Ross Greene is a child psychologist. He began developing Collaborative and Proactive Solutions in the 90's when his book "The Explosive Child" was published.
Credit Jonathan Sachs

"[It's] the belief that if this kid isn’t doing well, it’s because he doesn’t want to do well," Greene says. "And all that leads us to do is to make kids want to do well, which is usually accomplished with rewards and punishments."

Greene says rewards and punishments aren’t as successful because they don’t solve the root problem. He trained Sam Walter and a few other educators at Blair Elementary School to use the model. A handful of Blair staff flew to the East Coast to meet with Greene. The trip was funded by the Grand Traverse Pie Company.

"Dr. Greene’s one comment [that] really stuck with me was that, 'suspended kids don’t change behavior.'" says Mr. Walter. "So you suspend a kid, and they come back, and they’re exactly the same. And that really resonated with me like, 'Wow. Yeah, we need to do something else than just send them home.'"

A number of studies on Collaborative and Proactive Solutions from around the world show Greene’s approach works and works well.

Right now Blair Elementary School is in their first year and using the model with around 10 students.

"For the students we have selected – the core students we’re working with right now – we’ve seen huge changes in those students," Says Mr. Walter. That includes Ben.


Two students wait for their fifth-grade teacher Sam Walter to call on them during a language arts lesson.
Credit Morgan Springer

Revisiting recess

The following Thursday, Ben’s again munching on a donut stick while he talks with Mr. Walter about recess.

Mr. Walter says Ben didn’t get physical at recess over the past week. That's an improvement. 

Mr. Walter: "How’s that been going?"

Ben: "Good."

Mr. Walter: "Good. What’s changed for you do you think?"

Ben: "Keeping to my hands to myself."

Mr. Walter: "Yeah. How have you been doing that?"

Ben: "Like if someone messes with me, I just chase them and then stop if they get far enough."

Mr. Walter: "Oh. Ok. So you just kind of chase them away, but you’re not putting your hands on them?"

Ben: "Uh-uh."

Mr. Walter: "What’s going through your mind like now when that happens?"

Ben: "Punch them in the face."

Mr. Walter: "That’s still going through your mind?"

Ben: "Yeah."

Mr. Walter: "But how are you able to stop yourself then?"

Ben: "Just chase them and stop."

Ben says keeping his hands to himself at recess is still hard, but he's got it more under control.

In 2014, Blair Elementary School began using some of the model’s main ideas. By the next fall discipline referrals dropped by over 70 percent. 

The school is now in its first year of formally implementing the model. Teachers like Mr. Walter are training other teachers at Blair to use it with their own students.