When kids “shut down”

One of the things Ross Greene does best in his books on school discipline is anticipating and responding to potential criticisms of his approach. You get the sense that as someone pushing a system–collaborative problem solving–that for many educators will be a radical departure from their traditional way of “doing discipline,” he has heard it all.

Perhaps the biggest knock on Greene’s system (after “who has the time?”), which focuses on getting kids and adults to come together to solve problems collaboratively, is that kids don’t/won’t talk when adults attempt to involve them in solving discipline problems. This line of thinking goes, “Well, I tried involving him, but he shut down. So I had to impose my own solution.”

I don’t fault administrators and teachers for thinking this. I’ve certainly found myself in the same position. Luckily, Greene provides a list of possible solutions for when kids “shut down” during the collaborative problem-solving process. I found these illuminating:

  1. You’re not really using Plan B; you’re using Plan A.

What Greene means is that although you may seem to be employing a bilateral strategy, something in your language or approach is telling the student that this is really just the old adult-imposed-consequences routine with a slightly different spin. Kids pick up on the fact that although we may seem to be including them, our efforts to involve them are really veiled attempts to get them to what we have already decided is the solution.

2. You’re using Plan B emergently rather than proactively.

Greene’s approach centers on addressing lagging skills and unsolved problems once we have noticed that these problems are causing students to exhibit maladaptive behaviors. He distinguishes between “emergent” (in the moment, rapid response to challenging behavior) and “proactive” (after time has passed, coolly and calmly addressing the situation in a meeting with the student). Greene acknowledges that sometimes “emergency Plan B” is necessary to defuse a bad situation, and can even be quite effective at times, but ultimately the best results will come from using the collaborative approach after the heat of the moment has faded.

3. Your unsolved problems aren’t worded in accordance with the guidelines, so the student doesn’t understand what you’re asking about or is becoming defensive

One of the few drawbacks of Greene’s system is that it does have a very specific set of guidelines for how to engage in collaborative problem solving. This is understandable, since even minor changes to the language we use when “doing discipline” can have major effects. But it does make implementing or training teachers in the model more challenging. Basically what Greene is saying is that the way we presented our view of the problem to the student is causing the student to be unsure of whether they are being invited to collaborate in problem solving or being castigated for challenging behavior. Consider the difference between, “Student A, I noticed you’re having a hard time getting started on this assignment. Whats up?” and “Student A, I noticed you haven’t started yet. I explained everything that needed to be done. What possible reason could you have for not being able to get started right now?”

4. The student doesn’t trust you yet, and is accustomed to having his concerns dismissed. Good that you’re in this for the long haul.

I guess this is kind of a catch-all response. Greene’s answer seems to be “just keep doing it until the student realizes this isn’t Plan A in Plan B clothing.” I’d like a little more here, to be honest.

5. The student needs time to think about his concerns or needs help verbalizing them. Fortunately, we’re not in a hurry.

This is huge. As someone who takes a longer-than-average time to process things before being able to verbalize, I can certainly relate. And I’m an adult who’s had a lifetime of practice! It’s simply unrealistic to ask students to be able to verbalize possible motivations behind their behavior in a moment’s notice. If we have the luxury of time, we may even want to inform a student the day before a conversation takes place just to give them ample time to think.

The “shutdown” is a breaking point for educators who are on the fence about a collaborative approach. Greene’s responses are helpful for getting teachers and administrators to see that a shutdown is not justifiable cause for throwing out the approch altogether.


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