Lack of skill, not will

Collaborative Problem Solving at the Ranch

Lack of skill, not will

By Tim Gienger,
Senior Director of Residential Partnerships

We talk a lot about trauma-informed care here at the Ranch—it is a philosophy of care we take very seriously in both our treatment and education environments. But it can be a difficult concept to understand—both for new Ranch employees and for people outside the school and treatment world.

When I was asked recently to describe trauma-informed care in a nutshell, I said, "Trauma-informed care starts with being nice, being curious, listening, and giving kids the benefit of the doubt."

What does that look like in action? First, let's talk about our kids and why they are here. Kids are often placed at the Ranch because they are engaging in challenging behaviors in their home communities. These behaviors arise because they lack skills like frustration tolerance, flexibility, and problem-solving—often because of past trauma, past life events, and ongoing mental health concerns.

One of the ways we are further solidifying our trauma-informed philosophy and practice is through Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS). CPS is based on the understanding that children don't behave poorly due to a lack of will. In most cases, they are already trying hard, but don't have the skills they need to behave well.

CPS teaches a structured problem-solving process we can use with our kids, giving them the space to learn and practice being flexible, managing frustration, and solving problems. As our kids develop these skills, their challenging behaviors are less frequent, and they solidify skills they can use throughout their lives.

Implementing the evidence-based practice of CPS strengthens the trauma-informed practices we already had in place—giving us more tools to empower our kids to leave the Ranch with the skills they need to make decisions on their own, communicate in socially acceptable ways, and care for their physical, emotional, and spiritual health.

CPS also provides a different way to think about treatment planning. Traditionally, treatment planning focused on the child's challenging behaviors and the ways in which those behaviors are reinforced. With this model, we instead identify lagging skills and how we can help the child build and strengthen those skills. For instance, a Collaborative Problem Solving Assessment might identify certain thinking skills that are causing a child's challenging behaviors. We focus on developing those thinking skills so when a child is faced with a difficult situation, they can use those skills to deal with the frustration rather than engage in the behaviors that brought them to us.

Collaborative Problem Solving provides three options, referred to as "plans," to address a problem. Plan A, imposing adult will, only addresses the adult's concern. We use Plan A for imminent safety issues or problems that can't be solved collaboratively in the moment. Plan C, dropping it for now, only addresses the child's concern. We use this plan when we proactively decide to remove an expectation and focus on other higher priority issues.

The third option is referred to as Plan B, which solves the problem collaboratively and addresses the concerns of both the child and the adult. We do this by planning in advance to have a conversation with the child where we hear their concerns, express our own concerns, and work together to find a solution that addresses both sets of concerns. Quite simply, it is a practical approach to "being nice, being curious, listening, and giving kids the benefit of the doubt."

At the Ranch, we believe that kids would do well if they could. This model will help us to better identify, teach, and solve problems with kids instead of for them. We cannot solve a behavior, but we can solve a problem that leads to challenging behavior. CPS gives us tools to identify the lagging skills; and to engage in conversations rooted in compassion and curiosity, where kids are given the benefit of the doubt, have voice and choice, and learn skills that allow them to become their best selves.

To learn how you can implement CPS in your life, check out "Changeable: How Collaborative Problem Solving Changes Lives at Home, at School, and at Work," by J. Stuart Ablon.

This article was originally published in Ranch Voice: Summer 2022.

Read more stories like this and explore other issues of Ranch Voice here.

Share this Post: