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Lost At School

Updated: Sep 3, 2023

Ross W Greene

Why are our kids with behavioural challenges are falling through the cracks and how we can help them. So many students and teachers are being lost due to the way we view challenging students and how we handle them. It is time to change both our thinking and how we work with students.

This book outlines a different approach to supporting students in being successful in school. As it is quite different to what we have experienced in the past, to read the book we require an open mind and a heart to both understand the issues students are coming to school with and a willingness to step out of our comfort zone to try something different. This new approach is non-adversarial, non-punitive, proactive, collaborative and relationship-enhancing. As we start to use this new approach, we find that all students thrive when they are heard and are engaged in solving the problems that affect their lives. As educators, we have an important role in helping students to be successful in life and learn to solve their own problems.

In schools where students have social, emotional, and behavioural challenges, there is often incredible frustration as teachers do not understand and/or are not taught or supported in dealing with students with behavioural challenges in their care. Many schools have systems in place that treat students in a way that leads to greater stress and problems and often do not address the real issues. School policies not only fail in making schools safe or more effective in handling the behaviour of students, but they also actually increase student drop-out and the number of behaviour problems experienced. We see too many students who have lost faith in the adults in their lives and do not believe that they will listen to them and address the real issues they face. The focus on 'education' has caused schools to overlook how to best help students who are needing support to develop the behaviours needed to be able to learn.

The author admits that working with students with social, emotional, and behavioural challenges is messy, time-consuming and often difficult. It requires teamwork, patience, and tenacity as often what needs to be done causes us to question conventional wisdom and practices. The book has three main parts: -

1. Information and examples to understand challenging students.

2. How to implement the CPS model

3. How to work collaboratively towards the common goal of helping struggling students more effectively

To begin with we need to be clear about how kids come to be challenging. When understanding this, we need to ask whether what we do to discipline these students address the issues they are facing both emotionally, socially, behaviorally, and academically. The first thing we need to do is to understand what we think about challenging students. Are they manipulative, attention-seeking, coercive, unmotivated and limit testing? Have these behaviours been caused by passive permissive inconsistent, noncontingent parenting? If we believe this then this will lead to a behaviour plan that is rigid, firm, consistent and contingent on adult-imposed consequences which include rewards and punishment.

In most schools, there are ten to twenty students who require repeated support for their behaviour. If this is the case, what is being done is not working. This is because goal-imposed consequences only help us teach students the right ways to behave and give them the incentive to do the right thing. As we focus on these two areas research has shown that:-

1. Most challenging students already know how to behave.

2. Most challenging students want to behave the right way. They are already motivated to do the right thing. They do not need stickers or consequences; they need something else.

The key premise of the book is that kids with behavioural challenges lack important skills. These skills include regulating emotions, considering outcomes of behaviour and the effect of their behaviour on others, being able to express in words what the matter is etc. (The list is in the book) The struggles the students face is a developmental delay that requires specific support and training so the students can be successful both in school and in life. Is it fair students are punished for not having the skills to handle life's social, emotional, and behavioural challenges? Can we have a different approach to supporting students with behavioural issues? As a school, we need three major shifts: -

1. We must stop focussing on primary challenging behaviours and instead focus on the problems that are causing these behaviours and solving them. The behaviour is communicating there is a problem and is not actually the issue.

2. Problems need to be solved collaboratively instead of unilaterally.

3. Problem-solving needs to be proactive instead of reactive.

When we work hard, take time and work together there are three positive outcomes: -

1. Problems get solved.

2. Challenging behaviours durably subside.

3. The skills kids are lacking are taught.

As we go on this journey classroom disruptions are reduced, relationships and communication improve, and our most vulnerable students are no longer alienated.

Will Kids Do Well If They Can?

When we understand that students with social, emotional and behavioural challenges lack important skills, we can work to address the issues differently. If we believe kids do well if they want to, if they are not doing the right thing, we then believe it is our job to make them want to do well. We reward, give incentives, and even punish them when they get it wrong. But there is a different understanding that is immensely powerful.

The second understanding is that students do well if they can and assumes that if a student can do well, they will. They want to do well more than not do well. To be successful, though, they need to have the skills needed to be successful. This leads to a change in the role of the adult in the life of the students. They must: -

1. Assume the student is already motivated, knows right from wrong and has been rewarded and punished enough.

2. Figure out what skills the student is lacking so it can be determined what is needed for them to be successful.

When we do some investigation and find the skill the student is lacking, it can be determined why they are challenging, and it is then possible to view the student through more accurate, compassionate, and productive lenses. In fact, the student will become more predictable. A key understanding is that a key challenging behaviour is most likely to occur when the expectation placed on a child exceeds the skill they have to respond.

There are many reasons we give for why a student displays behaviour that is disruptive, but when we understand a student is struggling because they lack important skills, we can have a discussion that is both healthy and proactive. In the book on page 14, there is a list of skills that many students struggle with that have behaviour challenges. Two of these are: -

· Difficulty handling transitions, shifting from one mindset or task to another. This lagging skill is referred to as a shifting cognitive set, which is required to move from one task to another. It is important to teach the skill of shifting gears to move from one environment to another. The student may not in fact be testing limits, being manipulative or controlling.

· Difficulty considering the likely outcomes or consequences of actions (impulsive). Many kids do know what is frustrating them and when their problems do not get solved, they become more frustrated. Helping them identify the source of their frustration and identifying the likely outcomes or consequences of actions helps reduce this frustration and helps them make better decisions.

It is important to note here that there should be no discussion of diagnosis, but on the skills, the student is lacking. This makes the conversation proactive and helps set clear and realistic ways of moving forward to support the student.

Unsolved Problems

As we start to understand the possible skills that are lagging in students and possibly causing behaviour challenges, we can be more accurate and less judgemental in the way we understand and communicate about behaviourally challenging students. When working with challenges, we find that there are unmet expectations which are referred to as unsolved problems. They are unsolved because they are still causing challenging behaviours. When we work with the student to solve their problems, the challenging behaviour will subside.

The book recommends a tool to assess and keep track of the lagging skills and unsolved problems that are setting the stage for challenging behaviour. The tool is known as the Assessment of Lagging Skills and Unsolved Problems (ULSUP)and should be a discussion guide that helps adults discuss the skills lagging and not on the challenging behaviours presented. The meeting should have all adults present who are working with the student including the student's parents. This will allow both clear communication and the potential of what is being done at school to be supported at home. When we are all on the same page and efforts are coordinated, we will be more successful. There are two basic versions of the ULSUP: -

Guidelines for Writing Unsolved Problems

Guideline 1: The wording of the unsolved problem should contain no challenging behaviour.

As we know challenging behaviour simply communicates there is an unsolved problem. When writing the problem start with the word, "difficulty". This is a neutral reference to the behaviours and will allow students to see it is not an attack helping them know they are not being attacked and they will be more open to participating in the problem-solving process. The wording must be 'kid-friendly. Difficulties could include:-

· Difficulty completing the map of Australia in geography.

· Difficulty ending computer time

· Difficulty getting into line after recess

· Difficulty waiting in turn for handball games at recess

Guideline 2: The unsolved problem should contain not adult theories about the cause of the unsolved problem.

Inserting adult theories are often distracting and stop the student from giving the information you require.

Guideline 3: The unsolved problems should be 'split' rather than 'clumped'.

As problems are separated, it is much easier to understand and solve. Eg: Difficulty with writing stories could be; Difficulty starting story writing, difficulty editing work, difficulty understanding instructions. When there are a number of unsolved problems they can then be prioritised: -

1. Safety - This is the highest priority.

2. Frequency - Look at the problems that occur the most often.

3. Gravity - The unsolved problems that have the greatest negative impact on the student or others.

Guideline 4: The unsolved problem should be as specific as possible.

Two things need to be looked at to ensure they are specific: -

1. Detail about with whom, over what, where, and/or when the unsolved problem is occurring.

2. Ponder what expectation the student is really having trouble meeting. If we are not clear about what the expectation is then the student will definitely have issues understanding what is expected.

When we understand the skills the student is lacking, their challenging behaviours then become much more predictable. This allows the adults to work more proactively to deal with unsolved problems before they become behaviour issues.

Are Consequences Logical?

If students are not able to gain the skills to be successful at school, then the school discipline programs that have adult imposed consequences to modify behaviour will not be effective for all students. Even with natural consequences, if the student does not have the skill to meet the expectation, then they will fail no matter how hard they try. By adding more consequences to a student who has failed due to a lack of skills will this help them to be successful in the future? They need something else from the adult. They require the development of important skills through the support of adults that can help identify the unsolved problems and know how to solve them collaboratively and proactively, so the issue does not continue or the likelihood of the challenging behaviour happening is greatly reduced.

Three Approaches To Addressing Unsolved Problems

There are basically three options for addressing unsolved problems. Even though I will outline plans A and C briefly, I will focus mainly on the key plan which is Plan B.

Plan A is the most popular in schools.

This is where the adults solve a problem by imposing a solution. Even though it looks easy, and the adult should be able to see that the child is not meeting the expectation and impose a solution to fix it, there are often are counterproductive side effects. When an adult says "I've decided that" is a good indication that this Plan A is being used. There is no partnership with the child and there is a power imbalance as there is no opportunity for the child to work with the adult to solve the problem. This plan does work for most students BUT does not teach any skills or solve any problems.

Plan C is the one where the teacher can prioritise by setting aside the unsolved problem temporarily.

If a student has numerous unsolved problems, then it is impossible to deal with all of them at once. It is important to prioritise and work on the higher-level concerns first. This reduces challenging episodes and stabilizes students who are highly reactive and even volatile. The teacher will need to be comfortable with differentiated instruction and personalized learning and so treating students differently according to their needs.

Plan B is a process where the problem is being solved collaboratively.

This plan helps adults clarify and understand what is causing the student to meet an expectation and gives the space for the adult to share their concerns about the problem. Through guided discussions the concerns of both parties are addressed and when the problems are solved challenging behaviours discontinue. Problems are addressed through teaching and practising new skills. There are two ways Plan B can work: -

1. Emergency B - this plan is used exactly when the student is having trouble meeting an expectation. As the child is normally upset and the teacher has other students to attend to, it is hard for both parties to think clearly and work through the problem effectively.

2. Proactive B - This is when the adults and students identify the problem and learn to deal with the issue before it happens again.

As teachers start to use Plan B, they find that the student can practice using the new skill till they are confident and therefore will not need this help for the rest of their life.

How To Get Started

There are three key steps to moving forward with Plan B which are the empathy step, the define adult concerns step and the invitation step. Each step is essential in bringing to the table crucial elements that are needed to resolve the unresolved problems at hand.

Step 1: The Empathy Step

The goal of this step is to understand to the best of your ability why it is difficult for the student to meet the particular expectation. As many students are used to not having their concerns listened to, they are often reluctant to share. This is not about bending to the child's wishes but obtaining the information and trust needed to start the collaboration process. Understanding the problem from the student's perspective is very powerful. It is important to introduce the empathy step by beginning your sentence with "I've noticed that…" and end with the words "What's up?". Eg: "I've noticed that it's been difficult for you to come back into the classroom when recess ends. What's up? There are 5 different possibilities when you choose to use the Empathy Step: -

Possibility 1: The student says something

Often the student says something, but it is not enough information for you to understand what is making it difficult for the student to meet the expectation discussed. More drilling is needed to get to the problem. There are eight drilling strategies: -

1. Reflective listening combined with clarifying statements - Repeat what the student says and encourage them to give more information using words such as how so, I do not quite understand, I am confused, can you say more about this? This is your default strategy.

2. Ask about the who, what, where or when of the unsolved problem. Eg: Who was making fun of your hairstyle?

3. Ask about the situation variability of the unsolved problem. Why is it difficult to meet the expectation sometimes and not others?

4. Ask the child what he was thinking in the midst of the unsolved problem. It is not what he is thinking about it now, but what he was thinking at the time. This will help lead to solutions.

5. Break the problem down into its component parts. Often it makes it easier to explore little chunks instead of the whole big problem. Instead of trouble completing the writing task, explore each component of the writing task to see where they are having trouble.

6. Discrepant observant. This is risky but can be powerful. It involves the adult making an observation that is different from what the child is saying. The child may stop talking if they think you believe they are lying.

7. Tabling and asking for more concerns. This involves shelving some concerns raised and looking for any more concerns that have not yet been identified.

8. Summarising and asking for more concerns. This is slightly different to Step 7 n that you are summarising what has been heard in the Empathy Step and then asking if there are any more concerns.

Possibility 2: The Student Says Nothing or "I Don't Know".

These responses are common. They occur especially when the adult is resorting to Plan A. Plan A stops conversations. On page 82 there are good examples of why students will not talk.

Possibility 3: The Student Says, "I Don't Have A Problem With That" or "I Don't Care".

Even though this sounds scary for adults, the student does not need to care about the unsolved problem to provide information about what is making it hard for the student to meet the expectation. You could say, "What do you mean by I don't have a problem with that?”, "If you let me know I may possibly be able to help you with the problem.

Possibility 4: The Student Say, "I Don't Want To Talk About It Right now."

This is frustrating as adults want the student to talk then so the problem can be dealt with straight away. It is important to resist the temptation to be put out by the student refusing to talk and try too hard to get the student to talk now. If you do, you may reduce the likelihood of the student talking in the future. The best thing to say is, "You do not have to talk about it right now". This often gets students talking.

Possibility 5: The Student Becomes Defensive and Says Something Like, "I Don't Have To Talk To You" (Or Worse)

When we learn to solve problems using collaboration, it is essential that we are honest, transparent and allow students the freedom to talk and not to talk. It is easy to say to the student that they do not have to talk right now and you cannot make them talk. Reassure them that you are not using Plan A and you could say "I am just trying to understand you". Often, prioritising the problems with the student is very powerful.

Step 2: The Define Adult Concerns Step

It is essential here to define your concern about the unsolved problem and not your solution. Concerns must be related to why it is important for the student to meet the expectation. The conversation normally starts with, "My concern is…" There are two categories: -

1. How the unsolved problem affects the student.

2. How the unsolved problem affects other people.

Step 3: The Invitation Step

Only when you have two sets of concerns on the table can you brainstorm potential solutions that will address these concerns. This must be an invitation to the student to solve the problem collaboratively. This means it is a process that is done with the child and not for the child.

To begin with, the concerns are re-stated from the first two steps. Then the student is invited to be first in presenting their ideas. This shows them that you are interested in his ideas. It is essential that the solution is not pre-determined. The adult's solution can only be shared and discussed not imposed on the student. Good solutions have three characteristics: -

1. They are mutually satisfactory - The solution MUST be agreeable to both parties. The student and adult's concerns must be both addressed.

2. The solution is realistic - This is not a wishful thinking exercise, but it must be a way of moving forward that is workable.

3. The solution causes the problem not to continue to occur. By implementing the strategy, the problem either does not occur or the intensity decreases, and a way forward is reached.


  1. Assessment of Lagging Skills and Unsolved Problems (ALSUP)

  2. ALSUP Guide:

  3. Drilling Cheat Sheet:

  4. Plan B Cheat Sheet:

  5. Problem-solving Plan:

  6. Plan B Training Skills Infographic:

  7. Five Fingers Method:

  8. CPS model One Pager -

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