Keep Your Cool: Tackling Behavioral Issues

Notes from the Backpack

Episode 23 │Keep Your Cool: Tackling Behavioral Issues

Tuesday, May 26, 2020



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Show Notes

Dr. Ross Greene

Whether it’s brushing their teeth or turning off the TV, all of our kids have something that sets off an emotional outburst. So how can we work with our kids to create less stress and conflict around daily routines? We talked with Dr. Ross Greene, psychologist and founder of Lives in Balance, about how to address a child’s toughest behaviors. He shares how taking a collaborative and proactive approach can improve your relationships with your children and bring peace to your homes!


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LaWanda: Welcome to Notes from The Backpack, a PTA podcast. I'm your cohost, LaWanda Toney, Director of Strategic Communications at National PTA.

Helen: And I'm Helen Westmoreland, Director of Family Engagement at National PTA.

LaWanda: So, it's been more than two months since schools began closing across the country, and quite a few parents in my circle, including myself, have done a lot of shifting gears and so have our kids. Beyond the logistics of keeping up with the classroom Zoom schedules, some families are also trying to help their children cope with the sudden life changes brought on by the pandemic.

Helen: That's right, and we've learned that some kids are having trouble channeling all of these emotions and grief and may in turn be acting out. Regardless of our situation and where we are today, lots of families are asking the questions of how do I help my children behave well, behave appropriately? What do I do if my child has gone through something significant, is acting out or is having issues behaving?

We know that families are looking for ways to help their children with these behavioral issues. Some children may be facing issues like fear, anger, sadness, or even grief. During today's episode, we'll learn new ways to support our children as they experience behavioral challenges.

LaWanda: Today, we're joined by Dr. Ross Greene. Dr. Greene is a Clinical Psychologist who has worked with children and families for more than 30 years.

He's a New York Times bestselling author of several books, including The Explosive Child, Lost At school and most recently, Raising Human Beings. After serving as faculty at Harvard University for over two decades, Dr. Greene became the Founding Director of the nonprofit Lives in the Balance.

His extensive research led to the development of the collaborative and proactive solutions approach, which we'll be learning more about today. He also has two kids of his own, ages 19 and 22.

Helen: Thank you and welcome to the show, Dr. Greene.

Ross Greene: Thank you for inviting me to do this.

Helen: We're really excited to dive into the conversation. And could you start off by just telling us a little bit about yourself? How did you become focused on children's issues and psychology?

Ross Greene: Oh, well, I'm a clinical psychologist and I always knew that it was either going to be kids or animals, and the fact that I'm not a big fan of blood steered me toward kids. Just have always made sense to me, especially the ones that are harder to understand.

The ones that we call behaviorally challenging. In grad school I gravitated toward those who were diagnosed with ADHD. And of course, if you're working with kids who are diagnosed with ADHD, you're also going to be working with kids who are diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder, because there's quite a bit of overlap between the two. And those are the kids who refuse to do what they're told and are so-called defiant and so-called noncompliant. And, discovered that a lot of what we do to supposedly help these kids, actually wasn't working all that well. And so, started doing things in a different way and the collaborative and proactive solutions approach was born, and I've been running with it for about the past 25 years.

LaWanda: That's great. You mentioned the collaborative and proactive problem solving with kids. Can you talk a bit more about what that means and what does it look like?

Ross Greene: What it means is that we're no longer focusing on the kids' behavior. In this model, behavior is just the signal, just the fever, just the means by which a kid is communicating. I'm stuck. There are expectations I'm having difficulty meeting. So if you're not focused on behavior anymore, you're not going to be modifying that behavior anymore with rewards and punishments and stickers and timeouts. You're instead going to be focused on the problems that are causing those behaviors. I called them unsolved problems or unmet expectations. The expectations that are predictably, that's a very important word, causing a child's challenging behavior. And here's the deal, rewarding and punishing and stickers and timeouts don't solve those problems, which is why so many parents often become disillusioned with rewards and punishments and stickers and timeouts.

They don't solve the problems that are causing the behaviors that we're rewarding and punishing and doing stickers and time outs in response to. But the other big piece here is that since those problems, those expectations that a child is having difficulty meeting and happy to give some examples of those, but since they are highly predictable, they can be solved proactively. And so, another major facet of the model is that you're not intervening in the heat of the moment like so many parents do. Once a behavior is set in motion yet again, you are instead solving problems proactively so that the behaviors aren't set in motion in the first place.

And then the other big change is that parents are now off the hook for coming up with ingenious solutions to problems. The problems are going to be solved collaboratively instead of unilaterally, which means that you're partnering with your kid. This is not adversarial. This is not enemies. You and your kid are teammates in this model. You're solving those problems together.

Helen: So I want to pick up on something you said about, you know, typically parents are sort of when their kids are acting out in this behavior management mode, right? Of consequences or stickers or reward systems. Is there a place for that at all in behavior management or is it once you reach a certain point, those solutions no longer work. What do you think?

Ross Greene: Once you are busy solving the problems that are causing a child's challenging behavior, you don't need consequences for their behavior anymore because it's only unsolved problems that cause challenging behavior, solved problems don't. So if behavior is just the signal, just the way the kid is communicating, I'm stuck. There are expectations I'm having difficulty meeting. Those unmet expectations, once again, are called unsolved problems. If you're in problem solving mode, you're probably not going to need those consequences anymore.

LaWanda: Can you provide some examples? You talked about, the proactive problem-solving approach.

Ross Greene: Well, let's give some examples first of what some unsolved problems might be, and these are going to sound fairly mundane, but these are the very expectations that are setting in motion challenging behaviors bazillions of times every day, all over the world. And it can be something as seemingly benign as difficulty brushing teeth before going to bed at night. Difficulty participating in the Zoom classroom, because of the pandemic. Difficulty turning off the X-Box to do homework, difficulty turning off the Xbox to come in for dinner. Difficulty going to bed by 9:00 PM. Difficulty sharing your toys with your brother in the playroom.

These are all of the unmet expectations that we frequently bypass because we are so focused on the behaviors that are being caused by those unmet expectations. So what would problem solving sound like? The problem-solving process consists of three steps. The first step is called the empathy step. The second step is called the define adult concern step. The third step is called the invitation. Now the names of the steps don't matter that much. The ingredients matter a lot.

The main ingredient of the empathy step, and by the way, don't forget all of this as being done proactively, not in the heat of the moment, because those unsolved problems are highly predictable, once you identify them. The empathy step is where the caregiver, this could be a parent or a teacher, is gathering information from the child, so to understand what's making it hard for the child to meet that expectation. We need info. The empathy step is where we get it.

Us caregivers are famous for thinking we already know what's getting in the child's way. The problem is that we are frequently wrong. So true story, I was doing a podcast maybe a year ago, and the interviewer was telling me about his three-year-old daughter who was having, here's the unsolved problem, difficulty brushing her teeth before going to bed at night. But he thought he knew what was making it hard for her to brush her teeth before she went to bed at night.

He was quite certain it was the taste of the toothpaste. 15 flavors of toothpaste later, she was still having difficulty brushing her teeth before she went to bed at night. So he finally tried to solve the problem collaboratively and what did he learn? He learned that when he was using the electric toothbrush to brush her teeth, it was getting water all over her face and she hated it.

As I said to him, there's a concern that 15 flavors of toothpaste could not possibly address. What I always tell people is that in the empathy step, where you discover that what you thought was getting in the kid's way on a particular expectation is not what was getting in the kid's way on a particular expectation. The define adult concern step is where the adult is entering his or her concern into consideration.

We adults have very important concerns as well. Regrettably, we frequently try to get them addressed unilaterally. In this model, you're trying to get them addressed collaboratively. Same concern, completely different approach to getting it addressed. What might adult concern be, about a kid who's having difficulty brushing teeth before going to bed at night? And by the way, adult concerns usually fall into one or both of just two categories. How the unsolved problems affecting the kid, how the unsolved problems affecting other people. What might adult concerns be? We don't want you to get cavities because number one, it hurts when you gotta get them filled. And number two, and it costs a lot of money to get them filled, very legitimate concerns.

What I'm always telling people is that kids who have their concerns, heard and addressed, are usually very willing to listen to our concerns and to try to address them.

Finally, the invitation. This is where adult and kid are collaborating on a solution. But a solution that must be realistic, meaning both parties gotta be able to do what they're agreeing to do, and it's gotta be mutually satisfactory, meaning the solution truly addresses the concerns of both parties. Here's what I've been saying a lot lately, and world history bears me out on it. If the solution is not realistic and mutually satisfactory, I promise you this problem is still unsolved.

LaWanda: Hmm Hmm. You're blowing my mind right now. I need to start my parenting journey over, for sure.

Helen: Well, I know I was relating to that too, cause we're teaching Mary Eva to, to be good about brushing her teeth. Now I'm like, oh yeah, I could see, I could see that happening. So, when you say collaborative problem solving, it sounds a lot, Dr. Greene, like you're talking about sort of a back and forth of getting information from your child, asking them what matters to them.

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LaWanda: I have a question. As much as you want to be proactive and collaborative and problem solve. What happens when you're in the heat of the moment when you really need your child to do something and they're resistant. Like, we have to go somewhere and you're not getting dressed or we're have a, we have to go to school and you're not eating your breakfast. Like, what do you do then?

Ross Greene: You ask yourself, how come I haven't solved this problem already? Because my child's been having difficulty getting ready for school for the last three years. Why am I still dealing with it in the heat of the moment? My child has been having difficulty coming with me to go to XYZ location for a very long time. Here's what I'm always telling people, once you make your list, once you identify the expectations that your child is having difficulty meeting reliably, there are very few surprises left. So what do you do in the heat of the moment? You muddle through and then you ask yourself, how come I haven't solved that yet? I've been dealing with it for three years.

LaWanda: I like it. Stop living in the moment.

Helen: I know a lot of parents can relate to that. Getting their kid out the door can be challenging.

Ross Greene: Here's the more important word. The more important word is predictable.  If it's predictable, it can be solved proactively. As I'm always telling parents, the parents and educators that I work with, I'm going to get you out of the heat of the moment.

Helen: So, could you break that scenario down a little bit? LaWanda was talking about like what, what would you be asking that child?

Ross Greene: The empathy step starts with the words, I've noticed that... and ends with the words, what's up? In between, you are inserting the unsolved problem that you wanted to be talking with your child about proactively. I've noticed you've been having difficulty brushing your teeth before going to bed at night. What's up? I've noticed you've been having difficulty leaving to go to church with us on Sunday mornings, what's up? I've noticed you've been having difficulty leaving to go to the dentist. What's up? And now you are all ears.

If you're lucky, your kid is going to say something. Let's say that your kid says something, I don't wanna, which sounds like a nonstarter, right? But what you're going to do is, use one of eight drilling strategies, that people will find on the website of my nonprofit Lives in the Balance. Lives, L, I, V, E S in the Something called the drilling cheat sheet, which has 8 drilling strategies on it so people know what to say after their kid says something. I don't want to, is not a nonstarter. It's actually the very beginning of gathering information from your kid. Safe in the knowledge, that the first thing your kid says is not going to give you the clearest understanding of what's making it hard for your kid to meet that expectation.

What I would recommend on that one is drilling strategy number one, and it's your default drilling strategy. It's the drilling strategy you're going to use most often. It's the one you're going to use when you don't know what strategy to use. Basic, simple, reflective listening, mirroring. Simply repeating back to your child, whatever your child just said to you. You don't want to, I'm sorry. I'm not exactly sure what you mean.

What do you mean that you don't want to go to soccer? I hate it. More reflective listening. You hate it, I didn't know that you hated it. I'm very glad to know that you hate it or I'm sorry to know that you hate it, but what I don't understand is what you hate. Coach always yells at me when I make a mistake. Ahh. Coach always yells at you when you make a mistake and it's embarrassing in front of the other kids cause I get yelled at the most. Are we getting some traction here? We are, and all we're using is one basic drilling strategy. Reflective listening.

Now, this does require that we hold off on our instincts to solve the problem for the kid or to reassure the kid that everything's going to be okay. Solving the problem for the kid is unilateral, it's not going to get it done. Reassuring the kid that everything's okay is going to cause the kid to stop talking to us because the kid doesn't think we're listening. Here's what reassuring the kid would sound like. You know, you're going to have all kinds of coaches. I think it's a good experience for you to have this kind of coach. It'll prepare you for a real life. Your kid just stopped talking to you. Here's what, here's what unilateral problem solving would sound like. Look, I paid $400 for you to be on the soccer team. It's nonrefundable. You're going to soccer.

 Helen: $400 is a lot of money.

Ross Greene: ...$400 is a lot of money, and the truth is $400 would enter in as the adult's concern, right? But in the empathy step, we're trying to gather information about the kid's concern, and here's the deal. I think we want to know this is the important part. Yes, I get it. We care about the 400 bucks, but if we want to solve this problem, we have to care every bit as much about why the kid is telling us he's not going to soccer and if the coach is embarrassing him in front of other kids and if he's getting lit into more than any other kid, I think we want to know.

LaWanda: Definitely. I love that, that you're asking parents and caregivers to take a beat and take a moment and be reflective with your child. I think a lot of times we rush around, and we have full schedules and it becomes more challenging to be able to have those reflective conversations, but the way that you described them, make them so simple, things that we forget about. So, I'm so happy to hear your thoughts and giving examples that parents can really understand.

Can we shift gears and talk about when kids do return back to school and if you're noticing or, if the teacher is having conversations with you about your child's behavior, how can you talk to the teacher about being more proactive problem solving and collaborative with the parents as well as the child? Is there a right approach?

Ross Greene: Sure. I would say to the teacher, what I've learned about Billy, is that he exhibits challenging behaviors when there's an expectation, he's having difficulty meeting because Billy can be an angel sometimes, and Billy can be completely the opposite at other times. What I've noticed is that the most common ingredient when Billy is not being angelic is that there's an expectation, he's having difficulty meeting. So, Mrs. Johnson I appreciate you letting me know what Billy's behaviors are, I see many of the same behaviors at home when he's having difficulty meeting an expectation.

But what I've learned is that if I can help him solve those problems, that works a whole lot better for us than paying attention to the behaviors that are being caused by those problems.

So help me understand, are there certain expectations, Billy is having difficulty meeting, that precipitate his challenging behaviors because those are problems that we can all participate in trying to solve. Those are also problems, detentions and suspensions and paddlings and restraints and seclusions and stickers and clips and red lights and green lights, are not going to solve

Helen: I want to pick up on that a little bit because, we talked about some of the unmet expectations that may be flaring up during the pandemic and, for some families, there's some real trauma, right? They may be, have lost loved ones or finding the next meal or rent or, or anything they need basic for their family is happening and they're just under an incredible amount of stress.

How would you, in an ideal world, encourage schools to be more receptive? Could you share a little bit about what we should look for as parents in schools when they reopen so that they are sensitive to some of these really, really difficult things that some kids have gone through.

Ross Greene: Well, first of all, there is no question that many people have been hit a whole lot harder by the pandemic than others, and of course, our hearts go out to them. If I'm an educator, there might be the temptation to jump right back into academics because of concern over lost learning. And that is exactly what I would not do. The most important form of empathy, the purest form of empathy is listening. And I think that, although it is tempting to worry about academics, especially, and the truth is I would say this anytime, but especially as kids are coming back from the pandemic, the first thing I would say is I would not operate on the assumption that every kid has been traumatized by the pandemic.

Some kids, believe it or not, are actually happier right now. They're happier that they're not being bullied at school. They're happier that they don't have to go to school. I've got kids that I work with who are being homeschooled and are in hog heaven right now because there's parts of school that they don't miss at all. So I don't want to operate on the assumption that every kid has had the exact same experience because of the pandemic. Nor that every kid has experienced. The pandemic is traumatizing. But, because the purest form of empathy is listening, I think what we're doing early on when the kids are coming back is we're listening and our eyes and ears are wide open for what they're telling us, about what things were like for them, and how ready they are to jump into learning again and what they need from us. Those are the things that I think we are primarily focused on.

Helen: That's really good advice. What do you think LaWanda?

LaWanda: I think these are great tools that, especially during this time where people have a little bit more time, they're actually able to observe their children. And, hopefully they'll use these tools to be more collaborative and proactive in solving some of the everyday problems that we kind of struggle with as parents. So this has been a great, great conversation.

Helen: Thank you, Dr. Greene, for this really important framework, as we're navigating these challenging times, but even beyond, when we're noticing that our kids are having trouble meeting expectations. One of my takeaways is treat, treat the problem, not the symptom and the behavior, it sounds like, is often the symptom of a bigger problem that a child is experiencing. I'm curious from your perspective, Dr. Greene, as we close out, what do you think is one thing you really want families to take away from today's episode?

Ross Greene: I've got three. What is the behavior telling you? The behavior is telling you that there are expectations your child is having difficulty meeting. Those are called unsolved problems. They are highly predictable, so that can be solved proactively. And why not include your child as a partner in that problem solving? Why be unilateral? When you could be collaborative.

Helen: Excellent. And lastly, what are your social media handles and where can listeners go to follow you in some of your work?

Ross Greene: I don't actually have social media handles myself, but everything, Twitter is on the Lives in the Balance website. Facebook is on the Lives in the Balance website. They'll find it all there.

Helen: Excellent.

LaWanda: Well. Thank you again, Dr. Greene. We really appreciate your time today and to our audience for tuning in at home or even while at work. Thank you for listening. For more resources related to today's episode, check out

We also want to remind you that to help families ease the challenges of the pandemic, National PTA has created a COVID-19 resource page for parents, students, and educators. Learn more at

Helen: Thanks for tuning in. See you next time.


Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast is made possible by funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.