Collaborative Problem Solving®: A New Approach to Teaching Children with Behavioural Challenges


What if you could learn a discipline approach that would reduce bullying, classroom disruption, teacher stress, office referrals, and other challenging behaviours while building a relationship with your students?

When discipline goes beyond your intuition and conventional approaches, learning Collaborative Problem Solving® (CPS) can be the winning tool that saves you from endless power struggles, disheartening moments, and lost instructional time. CPS can help restore a peaceful classroom and school environment that support kids’ and teachers’ mental health.

Collaborative Problem Solving is a revolutionary, evidence-based approach to helping children with behavioural challenges. CPS promotes the understanding that challenging kids lack the skill, not the will, to behave well—specifically skills related to problem-solving, flexibility, and frustration tolerance. Unlike traditional models of discipline, this approach avoids the use of power, control, and motivational procedures and instead focuses on teaching kids the skills they need to succeed. The Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) approach by Think: Kids is a program based in the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Boston MA.©

Our education system has seen many changes because of the Covid- 19 pandemic. The idea of remote or virtual learning, resisted by many parents and educators in 2019, is now generally accepted as having a role in the elementary and secondary school educational experience. However, educators have found that not being in the classroom regularly for two years has impacted learning for many children. Governments and school boards have put extra funding and staff in place to support kids who have lagged in their reading, writing, and math skills.

The pandemic has impacted family relationships as well. Stress within the family unit has increased dysregulation and challenging behaviour. Parents have had to make supervision arrangements, monitor learning at home, “teach” the use of technology for learning, and keep their children motivated along with their regular employment/professional responsibilities.

One of the things the pandemic has not changed is how society in general and many parents and educators view and respond to challenging behaviour (defiance, meltdowns, hitting, crying, non-compliance, unmet expectations, etc). Society has taught us that challenging behaviour is a choice made by the child to get something from adults or to get out of something they are expected to do. This is conventional wisdom. If this could be phrased as a philosophy, it would be “Children do well if they want to.” The discipline system in most schools is one that reflects this conventional wisdom. If teachers and principals believe kids choose to misbehave then they will use a program of rewards, punishment, and consequences to motivate them to comply. Consequences are then determined and imposed by adults to “teach” children a lesson and motivate them to change their behaviour. Unfortunately, the lesson they are teaching may be that adults are bigger and stronger. Our instructional practices aim to promote a growth mindset and success for all students, but our disciplinary system does just the opposite for many kids.

As a new teacher and new parent in the 1980s, I too believed that conventional approaches were the way to go to teach kids how to behave. I learned from my parents, other teachers, the media, and my instructors at teachers’ college that rewards, punishments, and consequences worked. I continued to believe in and use these operant approaches well into the 2000s. It wasn’t until 2006 that I was introduced to CPS by a grade one student and his mom. They introduced me to The Explosive Child, a book by Dr. Ross Green detailing his work with CPS. Shortly after this I was able to attend a CPS presentation with Dr. Stuart Ablon, the Director of Think:Kids. Dr. Ablon described the CPS model and how kids, families, and educators could benefit. From that point on I was a convert.

Conventional approaches (rewards, punishments, consequences) can accomplish some things although there are things they do not accomplish. Consequences can teach basic lessons like “put your hand up to speak, don’t take other people’s things, ask the teacher if you need to leave the classroom” and so on, to young children. Consequences do not teach complex thinking skills necessary to solve problems and meet expectations such as regular completion of homework, being on time for class, that things are not always “black or white,” and that school activities often require focus and avoiding distractions. Proponents of CPS feel conventional wisdom is almost always wrong.

Let’s look at behaviour from an unconventional perspective. The philosophy of CPS is that “Kids do well if they can.” If they are not doing well, something is getting in the way. Teachers and parents need to figure out what so they can help. If the kid could do well, he would do well. Doing well is preferable to doing poorly. This is unconventional thinking. When kids challenge, it is due to a lack of skill, not will. These lagging skills include cognitive flexibility, frustration tolerance, and problem solving.

Teachers can teach these cognitive skills, just as they teach reading, writing, and math, by following a similar process used to teach academic skills. First, an assessment is done to determine the problem(s) to be solved and to identify the lagging skills and challenging behaviours. The problems to be solved (PTBS) are the situations in which the child/youth demonstrates the challenging behaviours. The PTBS will be our focus for problem-solving, not the challenging behaviours.

A thorough assessment will help determine the appropriate response. Adults have three options for responding to challenging behaviour: Plan A, B, or C. Each option is useful depending on what the adult wants to accomplish. Plan A involves the adult imposing their will on the situation. Plan C is about dropping the expectation for now, not forever, and dealing with the problem at another time. Plan B is the collaborative problem-solving option where the child and the adult work together for a mutually agreed-upon solution.

Plan B involves three ingredients that must be done in the correct order and be given enough time to be completed effectively. The first ingredient of Plan B is Empathy. Here the adult tries to really understand the child’s concern or perspective about the problem. The focus is understanding, not blaming or finding fault with the young person’s response. The second ingredient involves getting the Adult Concern on the table. Almost all adult concerns are about health, safety, learning, or impact on others. The third ingredient is Collaboration where the adult and child generate, and agree on, ideas that address both concerns.

The good news is that a child’s skills are built naturally during the Plan B conversation because the focus is a real problem that is relevant to the child and the adult. Both individuals have a voice and ownership of the solution. There is more good news. Adults working with the child build their skills at the same time.

CPS is a trauma-informed approach. When teachers and parents do less Plan A this decreases the use of power and control, which can be re-traumatizing and do developmental damage. Doing more Plan B reduces the power difference, which helps to calm (regulate) the child and adult and create opportunities to build trusting relationships. Plan B gives the child more control while the adult is still responsible for the process. Building skills without overwhelming stress helps children meet expectations and confront future triggering situations safely.

School systems and educators have become more aware of the need to become more culturally responsive and support EDI (equity, diversity, and inclusion). CPS training programs provide opportunities for a deeper discussion involving equity and equality, implicit bias, providing a model to differentiate discipline, and guarding against unconscious assumptions about race, age, gender, etc.

The Plan B conversation is hard and takes time to embed in your practice. Dr. Stuart Ablon, the director of Think:Kids, tells us that doing plan B poorly is better than not doing Plan B at all. So don’t get discouraged. Do less Plan A and more Plan C. The kids, and your colleagues, are worth it. What is easier to begin embedding immediately is the philosophy that “Kids do well if they can.” This is your anchor and can make your interactions more compassionate and help to keep everyone regulated when challenging situations occur.

My hope is educators will endeavour to become more knowledgeable about CPS and how it can help support the mental health of kids/youth, teachers, support staff, principals, and parents.


Chris Alexiou
Chris Alexiou is a former Ontario school principal, parent coach, speaker, and author. Chris has served as a Board member for the Oak Park Neighbourhood Centre in Oakville and is the former Chair of the Community Youth in Action Network in Oakville, Ontario.

Chris is a “Collaborative Problem Solving” (CPS)® Certified Trainer with Think:Kids at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Chris’ latest book entitled Lessons From The Schoolyard – What the principal learned from the kids about creating a great school includes a detailed chapter on using CPS In the school. The book is available on Amazon or directly from Chris.
For more information:

Contact Chris Alexiou at
(Portions of this article were adopted from

This article is featured in Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Winter 2023 issue.

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