The Collaborative Problem Solving Approach: Rethinking Challenging Kids


The Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) model seeks to alter our thinking about children’s attitudes and behavior. Rather than seeing the child as bad, willful, contrary, oppositional, etc, we see the child as lacking certain skills resulting in frustration, which in turn appears to be expressed behaviorally. It is a paradigm shift, away from extrinsic motivational models such as rewards and consequences.

By understanding and addressing the skills deficit, children can be better taught to manage tasks that were previously sources of frustration. The CPS model is collaborative in that we seek to engage the child in a process of exploration and problem solving which in turn increases and teaches the development of these cognitive capacities.

Where the CPS model has been applied in clinical settings, a common denominator with regard to the children, is a history of trauma. It is important to understand and appreciate that exposure to trauma really means being raised in chaotic and violent circumstances.

Consider social learning as a result of exposure to chaos and violence and consider the sense of safety and agency a child has internalized.

The CPS model seeks to provide a very different experience for the child through the teacher-child relationship or adult-child relationship than previously experienced, one where the adult is empathetic, non-judgemental, and supportive.

When “consequences” – code for punishment is used, it reinforces coercive behavior to which many of these students have already been exposed. It triggers a sense of danger and a lack of being valued.

The CPS model mitigates those negative triggers. It offers a sense of importance, is being heard, and is participatory in the problem-solving process. We no longer see the child as bad but as needing support for skill development. Here we view children as wanting to do well, but the issue is can they? If they can’t their frustration, despair, and upset comes out behaviorally.

Here, the CPS model assumes that if the child can do well, they would enjoy doing so. This is so different than a punishment/reward paradigm where we seek to incentivize the child externally by avoiding punishment and earning rewards. If there is a skill deficit, no amount of punishment or reward, or external incentives will provide for success.

Like any intervention, the CPS model will not be helpful to everyone. However, it does provide another very potent and different tool set to the teacher and clinician alike.

My clinical work with adult couples in conflict includes elements of this model.

Many adults I see in counseling have family of origin experiences that include elements of abuse, neglect, violence, alcohol/drug issues, and severe mental health concerns. I help adults to understand the implicit learning that took place in their family of origin and the strategies learned which were successful towards surviving as a child exposed to those elements. Many adults never realized the impact of those formative experiences in terms of determining their world views and relationship problem solving strategies.

We then look at the utility of those strategies now at a different place in time and different contexts and different sets of relationships. Do the survival strategies of childhood work now as an adult? What might be more effective now?

Then I can directly teach or instruct or guide or coach on new strategies, providing the “tools” people ask for. Couples are then provided an opportunity for practice, starting in the office and then on their own at home.

When couples return, we review progress and fine tune the instruction.

My clients typically find this a very engaging process and unlike any other therapies previously attended. It is also why in my approach to helping people I ask many questions, explain what is at issue, offer guidance and set aside so much time for our meetings. Gone are the blame and shame in favor of helping people develop positive skills to improve relationships.

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