Navigating student behavior together: The power of collaborative problem solving in schools

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools across the country have faced unprecedented challenges. One significant consequence has been a notable decline in student behavior. The disruption caused by the pandemic, including shifts to remote learning, social isolation, and uncertainties about the future, has left an indelible impact on students’ emotional well-being and behavior. As schools continue to navigate these uncharted waters, where the challenges of the post-COVID era have led to a notable decline in student behavior, it becomes increasingly crucial to explore innovative and effective approaches.

Dr. Stuart Ablon’s Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) approach emerges as one such approach, going beyond mere behavior management. It represents a comprehensive method that fosters understanding, empathy, and teamwork, offering a transformative tool to address the evolving dynamics of student behavior in these unprecedented times. Marshalltown began learning about the CPS approach following the tragic circumstances of the tornado in 2018. We wanted to find a way to support our students, staff, and families during the times when they were experiencing heightened feelings, strong emotions, or the traumatic effects of the natural disaster. We also wanted to find a more current way to work with students that was more deeply rooted in the foundations of mental health and mental wellness that any person could utilize successfully. The CPS approach offered an opportunity to support everyone.

Understanding challenging student behavior

Traditional methods often label challenging behavior in students as intentional defiance, leading to punishments in hopes of changing their behavior. However, the CPS approach argues that challenging behavior often comes from skill deficits stemming from placing expectations on someone during a time when they do not have the skills to meet those expectations. This prompts educators to explore the thinking and emotional aspects of a student’s development and then work together with the student to identify ways to build skills so they can regularly meet the expectations placed on them at school and at home. The CPS approach helped Marshalltown educators and administrators become more curious about the reasons behind the students’ actions and use guided questioning to help us understand their perspectives. By growing our understanding of the situations influencing the student’s actions we can better accurately address their behaviors proactively.

Three-step process: Empathy, share, collaborate

At the heart of the CPS method is a simple three-step process: empathize, share, and collaborate. Empathy helps everyone see the situation from the student’s point of view. Sharing makes sure everyone understands things from the adult’s perspective. When everyone gets both sides, it’s much easier to define the problem clearly. Collaborating brings students and educators together to find solutions that work for everyone, considering each student’s unique needs.

Proactive strategies for school well-being

Unlike traditional approaches which focus on reacting to misbehavior, CPS takes a proactive stance. By addressing the reasons behind challenging behavior, schools can prevent issues from getting worse, creating a positive learning environment where challenges become chances for growth and sustainable skill development.

Skills training for lifelong success

Beyond solving immediate problems, CPS actively involves schools in teaching essential thinking skills that are lacking in their students, preparing them for success in various aspects of life. This comprehensive approach not only addresses current challenges but also equips students with the cognitive and emotional tools necessary for navigating the complexities of the future, fostering a foundation for lifelong success.

Ongoing collaboration: Strengthening school bonds

A vital aspect of CPS is its emphasis on continuous collaboration. Far from a one-time fix, CPS encourages ongoing collaboration and teamwork within the school community, supporting the development of essential skills in students, managing challenging behavior, and strengthening positive healthy relationships between students and teachers.

A path to stronger school communities

CPS is rapidly becoming a preferred choice for the Marshalltown schools in addressing challenging student behavior. By prioritizing understanding, empathy, and teamwork, CPS is helping us solve immediate issues while also building stronger, healthier relationships and a more harmonious school community. As we continue to adopt this approach, we also continue to discover a path to brighter and more cooperative futures for both educators and Marshalltown students.

Matt Cretsinger is the Director of Special Services for the Marshalltown Community School District. He can be reached at mcretsinger@marshalltown.k12.ia.us. The district educates over 5,000 students to have the skills for a rapidly changing world. Learn more by visiting www.marshalltown.k12.ia.us.


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