Collaborative Problem Solving: Cool Hot Tempers and Promote Durable Behavior Change in High-Conflict Situations

Christopher Thurber, PhD
May 2009

Nate's elbow pokes violently into Kellen's ribs. He then fakes a pass, pivots, and again throws his body into Kellen, hoping the staff referees won't notice. But they do, just as Kellen winces and pushes Nate back roughly, in what looks like a chest pass without a ball. "What's up with that?!" Kellen shouts. "You wanna go?!" taunts Nate. "Let's go! Bring it!" A whistle blows and the two refs are between the boys now, separating the tangle of arms and fists.

Pop quiz: What do these boys need right now? A time out? No. Removal of a privilege? Nope. Serious punishment? Wrong again. How about a thoughtful lecture on good sportsmanship? Sorry.

Oh, come on. Aren't those your four basic choices in a high-conflict situation? Isn't a fundamental principle of behavior management the practice of punishing bad behavior? Yes and yes. But basic behavioral practices don't promote durable change because they teach something vague about what not to do. These boys need to know specifically what to do, especially when their tempers flare. Well, what about the lecture then? Wouldn't that instruct these boys about what to do? Lectures are a nice idea on the surface, but who among us is ready for a lecture when we're steaming mad? (P.S. Does anyone ever want a lecture, even when we're not steaming mad?)

Using Collaborative Problem Solving

Welcome the best new technique in your behavior management repertoire: Collaborative Problem Solving, or CPS. Developed by Harvard psychologists Ross Greene and Stuart Ablon, authors ofTreating Explosive Kids: The Collaborative Problem- Solving Approach. CPS is a straightforward way to cool hot tempers and promote durable behavior change in high-conflict situations. Here's how it works:

First, there are plenty of times when standard behavioral principles, such as reinforcement and punishment, work well. But high-conflict situations are different because anger impairs people's thinking. As if that weren't enough, young people also have under-developed problem-solving and social skills and an under-developed set of frontal lobes (the part of our brain behind our foreheads that processes decisions and thinks abstractly). Slapping a consequence or a lecture on an angry child is like yelling at your car to start when the battery is dead.

Identify Needs 
Start by reconsidering the quiz question: What do these boys need right now? Well, you won't know unless you ask, which is why an early step in CPS is to ask each child "What do you need right now?" and "What do you want?" By showing an interest in young people's concerns up front, you can disarm them and soothe their anger. Sound too touchy-feely? Well, when was the last time you had a well-reasoned conversation with an enraged child or adolescent? Exactly. Read on.

Carefully considering the answers to these unexpected questions about wants and needs will not only calm your campers, it also puts them in a better position to hear an empathic statement, such as: "You got angry when the game got rough, and what you want is for everyone to play fair." The dual soothers of putting the young person's concerns on the table and offering empathy prepare his ears for your own articulation of concerns. In this example, you might say, "I understand you want a fair game. What I need is for everyone to be physically safe." Avoid the lecture. Just state your concerns. Keep it simple to focus everyone's thinking.

Determine Triggers 
While you're sitting there calmly, privately consider what triggered the child's anger. Identifying the trigger will help you predict — and probably prevent — the next emotional explosion. Also, make a mental note of what under-developed skills that young person has. His violent outburst is diagnostic. In other words, it's telling you whether they lack executive functioning skills (making thoughtful decisions); language skills (such as labeling emotions); cognitive skills (realistic appraisal of situations); social skills (such as empathy); or emotion regulation skills (such as appropriate expression of anger). Tuck that information in your back pocket for now. Pull it out later, as part of your teaching agenda for this camper.

Ask Follow-Up Questions 
Now you're ready to ask some instrumental follow-up questions, such as: "What's the best way for you to get what you need?" and "What could I do to help?" Realize that this kind of brainstorming requires a clear head. If asking about wants and needs, providing empathy, and stating your own concerns haven't helped the child calm down enough to think through solutions, then just sit in silence for a few minutes.

Invite Collaboration 
After several minutes, invite collaboration again. (This step sounds a lot like classic problem solving because it is.) Say, "Let's think about how we can work that out. Do you have any ideas?" Listen without judgment and then invite the camper to help you list the pros and cons of the different solutions the two of you have generated. In time, you'll alight on one worth trying, with a promise to revisit your list if it doesn't work.

Warn Campers About Consequences
Before returning to the activity, you can take a moment to warn the child about the consequence of repeated misbehavior. You may even want to impose a consequence now, although it's not necessary or particularly effective. You've already accomplished your goals of: calming the camper down (by making him feel understood); summarizing his needs and your needs; and brainstorming a solution that works for everyone.

Stay Vigilant
The final chapter of CPS involves staying vigilant for triggers and teaching the under-developed skills you identified. That skill-building is the part that really promotes durable behavior change. If you spot a situation developing that you anticipate will set a child off, step right in with a confident statement, such as, "I know you can handle this" or "You know just what to do in this situation." If need be, offer some quick advice based on how that camper solved the problem before. And later, in a calm moment, pull that camper aside and praise him or her for any good behavior you witnessed. Ask open-ended questions that help guide that young person toward even more mature future behavior. Model thoughtful decision making, effective selfexpression, and smooth social skills.

Sure, there are times when you might, as the adult in charge, simply impose your will. And there are other times when you will choose to let minor conflicts go. But for highconflict situations, research on CPS strongly supports its effectiveness. Table 1 guides you through a step-by-step sample conversation so you can review the process of CPS. To take your training to the next level, design and role-play a few scenarios with your fellow staff, before the campers arrive.

Research on zero-tolerance policies for bullying and other aggressive behavior is clear: Zero-tolerance policies don't work. Although campers sometimes need to be sent home from camp for egregious misbehavior, that circumstance is rare. In all other cases, expelling a young person from school or camp after an initial instance of bad behavior misses a teaching opportunity and fails to decrease the frequency of bullying behavior. Rather than implementing myopic and ineffective zero-tolerance policies, youth development professionals need to tolerate normal amounts of conflict and use each clash as an opportunity to empathize, problem-solve, and teach new skills. That's what collaborative problem-solving is all about.

Christopher Thurber, Ph.D., is a boardcertified clinical psychologist. He is the creator of Leadership Essentials, online video training modules available at, and a DVD-CD set entitled The Secret Ingredients of Summer Camp Success, available from the ACA Bookstore. To learn more, visit or e-mail

Originally published in the 2009 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.