The Collaborative Problem Solving® (CPS) Approach

Think:Kids is the home of the Collaborative Problem Solving® (CPS) approach. For more than a decade, the CPS model has demonstrated effectiveness with children and adolescents with a wide range of social, emotional, and behavioral challenges across a variety of different settings: from families, schools, mentoring organizations and foster care agencies to therapeutic programs such as inpatient psychiatry units, residential treatment and juvenile detention facilities. This evidence based model has also been applied in transitional age youth and adult programs as well as used with neurotypically developing kids to foster the development of social emotional skills. Entire states and provinces use CPS to provide a common philosophy and language and a structured, relational process for understanding and helping challenging kids. CPS is a strengths-based, neurobiologically-grounded approach that provides concrete guideposts so as to operationalize trauma-informed care and empower youth and family voice.


The Basics: Skill not Will

As applied to challenging kids, the model sets forth two major tenets: first, that these challenges are best understood as the byproduct of lagging thinking skills (rather than, for example, as attention-seeking, manipulative, limit-testing, or a sign of poor motivation); and second, that these challenges are best addressed by teaching children the skills they lack (rather than through reward and punishment programs and intensive imposition of adult will).

Click here to watch video of Dr. Ablon describing the Collaborative Problem Solving approach.

View Dr. Stuart Ablon presenting on our model at the TedxBeaconStreet, a Tedx Event here.

While challenging kids let us know they’re struggling in some fairly common ways (screaming, swearing, defying, hitting, spitting, throwing things, breaking things, crying, running, withdrawing, and so forth), they are quite unique as individuals when it comes to the mix of lagging thinking skills that set the stage for these behaviors. This means that prior to focusing on the teaching of cognitive skills one must first identify the skills that are lagging in each individual child or adolescent. The precise skills that may be involved can be found on our Thinking Skills Inventory.

The teaching of these skills may be accomplished in a variety of ways, but primarily through helping challenging children and their adult caretakers learn to resolve problems in a collaborative, mutually satisfactory manner.

Watch Dr. Ablon’s 1+-hour CPS overview to participants at the Churchill School in New York City.  Thanks to The Flawless Foundation for sponsoring the talk and producing the video.


Sounds a bit complicated!

Collaboratively resolving problems with kids isn’t necessarily all that complicated, but it isn’t something most of us have had a lot of practice at (probably because it hasn’t been standard operating procedure with children). Sometimes it can take a while for all involved to feel comfortable with the process. Figuring out what skills a child is lacking can be a bit more complicated, however, especially if one is unfamiliar with the types of skills involved. But that’s why we’ve made available lots of materials and resources to help.

As you might imagine, because this model represents a bit of a departure from the conventional wisdom, many people have misconceptions about the model. For example, some folks believe that implementing CPS means that adults must drop their expectations (it doesn’t mean that at all), or that we’re simply making excuses for the child (understanding a child’s challenges and helping him or her overcome these challenges is a far cry from making excuses…it’s hard work), or that adults no longer have the authority to set limits (not to worry…the model does involve setting limits, but in a way that’s a little different and probably a lot more effective than what people might be used to).

What are Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C?

When kids don’t meet our adult expectations, we need a plan. Collaborative Problem Solving makes explicit that we really only have three options for how to respond to problems with kids. In our CPS approach, we refer to these as your three Plans: Plan A, Plan B and Plan C.

Most often, we adults try to impose our will (in CPS, this is referred to as Plan A) to make a child meet our expectations. Plan A is very popular because we have good expectations for kids, but pursuing those expectations using Plan A also greatly heightens the likelihood of challenging behavior in challenging kids. That’s because dealing adaptively with Plan A – having someone else impose their will upon you – requires a variety of skills that challenging kids lack. So Plan A not only often causes challenging behavior, but it does not teach the skills challenging kids lack. Worse yet, Plan A interferes with the teaching of those skills since it tends to get in the way of developing a helping relationship that is crucial to teaching skills. Even in “ordinary” kids who have the skills to respond to Plan A adaptively, Plan A is simply a lesson in “might makes right” when it comes to problem solving.

Plan C is when we adults decide to drop an expectation, at least for now. A common misconception is that Plan C is “giving in.” Giving in is when adults try to address a problem or unmet expectation using Plan A and then proceed to drop the expectation when they can’t impose their will or the child responds poorly. Plan C, on the other contrary, is being strategic. You can’t work on all problems all at once. Plan C is a way of prioritizing (i.e., treatment planning) and deciding what you want to address first. By putting some problems or unmet expectations on the “back burner” while addressing problems that are of a higher priority, some challenging behaviors are reduced. We adults are still in charge when using Plan C because we are the ones deciding what to address and what to drop for now.

Plan B is the heart of CPS when adults work together with kids to solve problems in mutually satisfactory and realistic ways.

Plan B involves three basic steps:
Step 1 – Identify and understand the child’s concern about the problem to be solved and reassure him or her that imposition of adult will is not how the problem will be resolved.
Step 2 – Identify and share the adults’ concerns about the same issue.
Step 3 – The child and adult work to brainstorm solutions together to assess potential solutions and choose one that is both realistic and mutually satisfactory.

Most problems aren’t solved in a single Plan B discussion, and Plan B usually feels like slogging through mud in the beginning, but the continuous use of Plan B helps solve problems that are precipitating challenging behavior in a durable way while building helping relationships, thinking skills, intrinsic motivation and confidence.

Watch Dr. Ablon’s 2-minute overview of the steps of Plan B view The Health Channel.

Besides challenging kids, who else can benefit from CPS?

We find that Collaborative Problem Solving approach is applicable to diverse human interactions, but especially those that can result in conflict. Our CPS model can be applied to interactions between classmates, siblings, couples, parents and teachers, and employees and supervisors. All people benefit from learning how to identify and articulate their concerns, hear the concerns of others, and take each others’ concerns into account in working toward mutually satisfactory solutions.