Creating Common Ground: Using Collaborative Problem Solving to Improve School Climate

Mon, Dec 15, 2014

Distance Learning, Uncategorized

By Susan J. Foster Ebbs
Associate Professor, M.Ed. School Counseling at American Public University

A positive school climate can foster the academic, emotional, social, career, and civic development of students. Ideally members of a school community work together to communicate and develop a set of values and expectations that ensures the growth and safety of every member and that everyone has a voice, responsibility, and accountability. Failure to ensure that this type of collaborative environment exists can cause a school community to fail to thrive, resulting in academic deficits, increased discipline concerns, lack of trust, and decreased communication.

What is Collaborative Problem Solving?

Collaborative problem solving approaches conflict through a cognitive behavioral lens. That is, issues that arise are a result of a deficit in thinking skills and often manifest in undesired behaviors by students. Additionally, a teaching and learning component exists that tasks adults with recognizing deficits and providing skill development (Greene et al., 2004).

Problems will arise and require participants to respond. Responses can produce active, productive results. Responses can also be passive, avoidant, and/or reactionary. Therefore, how problems are successfully resolved in the school setting is paramount to the school climate.

3 Major Myths about Problems and Problem Solving

1. There is always a winner and a loser in conflict.
We might assume that conflicts are always “fight to the end” or “winner take all.” When we practice this assumption, we might think that the only way to solve a problem or resolve a conflict is to become positional. Positional agreements can be inefficient and result in unwise and unproductive compromises. This type of resolution can also have lasting negative effects on relationships and experiences.

2. Students should know what is expected.
This is the “because I said so” myth. Our expectations are filtered through our own lens, just as our students responses are filtered through theirs. Using the lens of diversity and culture, we can surmise that not all individuals solve conflict the same way. Solutions that are acceptable and appropriate for one student can be culturally insensitive for another.

3. This, too, shall pass.
Waiting for problems to blow over or avoiding situations in the school setting can be detrimental to development. Those involved in the conflict can be left feeling isolated, angry, resentful, and disillusioned if stakeholders fail to address problems adequately, timely, or effectively.
Using Collaboration to Improve Climate

To solve problems collaboratively, stakeholders must:

  1. Prepare for conflict before it occurs. Learn about your students interests and forge a relationship. This level of investment might increase the effectiveness of collaboration.
  2. Be calm when approaching situations. Emotional intensity can affect the outcome.
  3. Allow individuals to voice concerns. Listen and be mindful and model appropriate body language to avoid covert messages.
  4. Brainstorm options together. When brainstorming, it is important to remain judgment free and be open to options and ideas.
  5. Agree on a solution. By compromising, everyone wins.

(Adapted from Windle & Warren, n.d.)

The “Dos” of Effective Resolution

  1. Do remain professional. Allowing conflict to become personal might reduce your ability to collaborate effectively.
  2. Do remain value and judgment free.
  3. Do avoid asking “why.” This might increase defensiveness.
  4. Do model and rehearse effective collaboration techniques with students even when conflict is not present.
  5. Do remember that listening is a skill that must be cultivated over time.
  6. Do follow through on your part of the compromise.
  7. Do believe that all conflict can be resolved.

Greene, R.W., Ablon, J.S., Goring, J.C., Raezer-Blakely, L., Markey, J., Monuteaux, M.C., Henin, A., Edwards, G., &
Rabbitt, S, (2004). Effectiveness of collaborative problem solving in affectively dysregulated children with
oppositional-defiant disorder: initial findings. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 72(6), 1157–1164.
About the Author

Dr. Susan J. Foster holds a Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision, M.Ed. in Counseling with concentration in School Counseling, and B.A. in Psychology and Biology. She is a Certified K-12 School Counselor, National Board Certified Counselor, Associate Professor at APUS, and Licensed Professional Counselor in Louisiana. She specializes in counseling and therapy with children, adolescents, and families.

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