Wednesday, January 17 , 2018, 2:57 pm | Fair 66º


Alana Walczak: How to Solve Problems Collaboratively

“Mommy to the red bench. Mommy to the red bench!”

Like most kids, Alix and Sydney play out at home what happens at school or in their after-school program. I am delighted that my girls attend Girls Incorporated of Greater Santa Barbara after school every day. On the weekends, I learn so much about what has happened during their weeks by playing with them.

Several months back, I could tell that the red bench was important because it loomed large in their play. When I asked them about the red bench they told me, “Mommy, if you say bad words or do bad things, you sit on the red bench.”

I know that the bench was an important relaxation tool, a space for girls to calm down and get quiet. But, I also know that my girls associated it with getting in trouble.

When I picked them up from Girls Inc. a few weeks ago, the site supervisor came running over to me. “I need to talk to you!” Yikes. Was I in trouble? Was I being sent to the infamous red bench?

No. She wanted to thank me for the partnership we have developed with Girls Inc. For the past several months, CALM (Child Abuse Listening Mediation) has been providing coaching to the staff, and I’m told that it has completely shifted their approach to working with the girls.

To understand what was happening at Girls Inc., as well as at the preschools where CALM provides consultation, I turned to our Early Childhood Consultation team manager, Jennifer Mundy.

She explained that we teach collaborative problem solving, which is a mindset that kids do well if they can. What does this mean?

It means that when children “act out,” it doesn’t mean they are just trying to be difficult. Rather, there may be a problem preventing them from complying with what is being asked of them. Maybe they are hungry, tired or scared. Or, perhaps, they just need a little more help problem solving, tolerating frustration or learning to verbalize their feelings.

Ha! Couldn’t we all use that additional support sometimes?

For the past six years, CALM has been working with local preschools on shifting teachers’ mindsets about why children are misbehaving, and building skills in how to problem solve collaboratively. It turns out that this is vitally important.

Mundy shared that in the United States, more kids are expelled from preschool than from elementary, middle and high schools combined. Think about that for a minute — what a sad and powerful statement.

Mental health consultation and support services reduce expulsion rates in half. CALM trains teachers to recognize trauma, confront cultural bias and recognize family strengths. Given our successful work in preschools, CALM expanded this work to include elementary school-age children through our recent partnership with Girls Inc.

Here, we are working on the specific skill of collaborative problem solving. This approach empowers both the teachers/care providers and the students to identify a problem with empathy, to share children’s concerns and adults’ concerns, and then work together to find acceptable solutions. Our staff work with teachers without judgment, so that they feel safe making mistakes and feel supported in shifting their mindsets.

Mundy told me about a young girl — let’s call her Monica — who had just started attending Girls Inc., and was having a very difficult time participating and paying attention. In the past, Monica would have spent many long minutes on the red bench. And, every teacher who worked with her would have felt frustrated and angry.

But, armed with a new approach, the entire staff worked together to identify what was making it hard for Monica to participate. What was getting in the way of her paying attention and following instructions? The staff believed that if she could do well, she would.

So, they adjusted seating, they worked on having one staff member build a closer one-on-one relationship with Monica. They used every tool in their toolbox. And, I’m happy to let you know that Monica has grown tremendously with these new supports, and the Girls Inc. facilitators feel successful and supported.

My kids have teasingly called me to the red bench. But, if I’m honest with myself, how often do I lose my temper when my girls are actually trying to comply? How often do I get frustrated when they “unnecessarily” cry or whine about something, when they’re actually just struggling to learn a new skill.

Sometimes they push my buttons, and I respond as though they are purposefully trying to upset me.

When I slow down for a moment, I realize they just want attention, or they’re hungry, or they’re frustrated and need support managing their feelings. After all, they are 6. They are still learning. I need to remember that. So, I am working on my own collaborative problem-solving skills.

If you’d like to learn more, here’s a terrific TEDx Talk on how it works:

(TEDx Talks video)

I’m very proud of CALM’s partnership with Girls Inc., and I am delighted that my own girls benefit from their excellent programs. And, next time I get called to the metaphorical red bench, I’m going to ask my girls to help me solve the problem at hand.

— Alana Walczak is CEO of the nonprofit CALM (Child Abuse Listening Mediation), a leader in developing programs and services that effectively treat child abuse and promote healing, as well as programs that help prevent abuse through family strengthening and support. Click here for more information, or call 805.965.2376. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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