Collaborative Problem Solving: A guide to improving your workplace

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collaborative problem solving norms

Collaborative Problem Solving® (CPS)

At Think:Kids, we recognize that kids with challenging behavior don’t lack the will  to behave well. They lack the  skills  to behave well.

Our CPS approach is proven to reduce challenging behavior, teach kids the skills they lack, and build relationships with the adults in their lives.

Anyone can learn Collaborative Problem Solving, and we’re here to help.

What is Collaborative Problem Solving?

Kids with challenging behavior are tragically misunderstood and mistreated. Rewards and punishments don’t work and often make things worse. Thankfully, there’s another way. But it requires a big shift in mindset.

Helping kids with challenging behavior requires understanding why they struggle in the first place. But what if everything we thought was true about challenging behavior was actually wrong? Our Collaborative Problem Solving approach recognizes what research has pointed to for years – that kids with challenging behavior are already trying hard. They don’t lack the will to behave well. They lack the skills to behave well.

Learn More About the CPS Approach

Kids Do Well If They Can

CPS helps adults shift to a more accurate and compassionate mindset and embrace the truth that kids do well if they can – rather than the more common belief that kids would do well if they simply wanted to.

Flowing from this simple but powerful philosophy, CPS focuses on building skills like flexibility, frustration tolerance and problem solving, rather than simply motivating kids to behave better. The process begins with identifying triggers to a child’s challenging behavior and the specific skills they need help developing.  The next step involves partnering with the child to build those skills and develop lasting solutions to problems that work for everyone.

The CPS approach was developed at Massachusetts General Hospital a top-ranked Department of Psychiatry in the United States.  It is proven to reduce challenging behavior, teach kids the skills they lack, and build relationships with the adults in their lives. If you’re looking for a more accurate, compassionate, and effective approach, you’ve come to the right place. Fortunately, anyone can learn CPS. Let’s get started!

Bring CPS to Your Organization

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6gree teacher icons out of 10 total

6 out of 10 teachers report reduced stress.

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Significant reductions in parents’ stress.

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74% average reduction in use of seclusion.

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73% reduction in oppositional behaviors during school.

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Parents report improvements in parent-child interactions.

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71% fewer self-inflicted injuries.


reduction in school office referrals.

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Significant improvements in children’s executive functioning skills.

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60% of children exhibited improved behavior 

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Collaborative thinking: do you see problem solving as collaboration.

by Kate Nasser | 2 Comments »

When you face a problem, do you solve it collaboratively? Is collaborative thinking your norm or do you default to solo thinking? If your view of life is you calling all the shots, you may have far less success and happiness.

Collaborative Thinking: Image is interlocking hinges.

Collaborative Thinking: Do You Solve Problems w/ Collaboration? Image by Thomas Hawk

Collaborative Thinking: Is It a Struggle For You?

My inspiration for this article on collaboration thinking came from the article Why Young Men Want Wives Who Stay Home. This sudden uptick after many years of men seeing things more collaboratively caught my eye. The author of the article notes the problem these young men may be trying to solve: feeling that they lost out when both their parents were out working.

Their way of solving the problem fascinates me. They don’t think of collaborating with their future wives. The don’t consider discussing various ways to give children the attention they need. Moreover, collaborative thinking isn’t even in the picture. They have decided alone that one parent should be out working, one should stay home, and that one person will be the mother. They even believe they get to make that decision.

We could write off this non collaborative thinking as immaturity. We could assume they will change their minds.

In any case, it reminds us of the risks of defaulting to authoritarian solo thinking:

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Clearly, solo thinking and authoritarian behavior doesn’t lead to career success. Likewise, hoarding power doesn’t make you a powerful leader. All of this makes you look insecure, selfish, immature, and weak. On the other hand, collaborative thinking shows inner strength, emotional intelligence, and insight.

I wonder if the young men noted in the article see the damage their solo thinking will create in their careers. Well if not, here’s to all of us collaborative thinkers who will be leading them!

What can trap any of us into solo views vs. collaborative thinking?

From my professional experience to your success, Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™

Related Posts: The Opposite of Leader is Not Follower 20 Common People Skills Mistakes That Drive People Away From You

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Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™ , delivers coaching, consulting, training, and keynotes on leading change, employee engagement, teamwork, and delivering the ultimate customer service. She turns interaction obstacles into interpersonal success. See this site for workshop outlines, keynote footage, and customer results.


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Tags: authoritarian , Career , collaboration , critical thinking , leaders , Leadership , management , problem , Project Management , solutions , success , thinking

Posted in Careers & Jobs , Leadership

2 Responses to “Collaborative Thinking: Do You See Problem Solving as Collaboration?”

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Awesome post Kate. A great reminder not to go through this journey of problem solving alone. We are experts in our fields…. but we are not THE expert! We must keep our eyes and mind open and remember that together we are stronger. And when there is team effort, there is definitely more buy-in! I appreciate your leadership Kate!

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Thank you Cynthia. So often people revert to solo thinking even when it involves others and that creates a bad legacy. Kate

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Teaching teamwork.

NSF Awards: 1400545

Collaboration is highly valued in the 21st century workplace, but in the classroom it’s often called cheating. When students work together on projects, it is difficult to assess the contribution each student has made. The "Teaching Teamwork” project is measuring how effectively electronics students work in teams. The project addresses the mismatch between the value of teamwork in the modern STEM workplace and the difficulty of teaching students to collaborate while also evaluating them individually.

We log the students’ actions as they work on a simulated circuit consisting of four resistors in series with a voltage source. Using separate computers, linked online, the students work in teams of three. Each student can see and alter one of the resistors, but the fourth, as well as the voltage source, are neither visible nor manipulable by the students. Each student is given the goal of trying to make the voltage drop across her resistor equal to a randomly chosen value. The task is made more difficult by the fact that changes made to any of the resistors affect everyone’s voltage drop, so communication and coordination are critical to good team performance.

Team members can communicate with one another by typing into a chat window. All student actions—from chats to changes in the circuit, measurements, and calculations—are analyzed and used to produce reports that enable instructors to measure not only the performance of a team as a whole, but also the contribution of individual team members.

  • This article appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of the Concord Consortium's newsletter, @Concord.
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collaborative problem solving norms

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Paul Horwitz

HI! My name is Paul Horwitz and I’m the Principal Investigator on the Teaching Teamwork project, funded by the Advanced Technological Education Program at the National Science Foundation. I hope you’ll take the time to view our little video and then use this chat stream to give us your reactions to it. We’re tackling an important but complex problem and I’m anxious to get your feedback.

Here’s the problem: in many lines of work, particularly in science and engineering jobs, it is increasingly important to be able to function effectively in teams, often with collaborators who may be separated by continents and time zones. But when we try to teach this kind of teamwork we run into the frustrating fact that in school it is often impossible to distinguish between collaboration and cheating! As a result, our students encounter precious few opportunities to work with others in the course of their training.

The computer offers a possible solution: if we use a simulation to present a problem to students, then we can track their actions, and use that data to evaluate the relative contribution of each member of the team.

The devil is in the details, of course. We need to come up with algorithms for data analysis, based on a thorough understanding of human cognition and the development of social skills, and then use these to automate the generation of reports that can guide instruction and support the independent assessment of both content knowledge and collaborative problem-solving skills.

It’s a tall order, but we’re making progress and we’d love to share that with you!

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Victor van den Bergh

Dear Paul and your team, This is an interesting project that tackles an incredibly important, complex, and difficult problem. I have done work seeking to measure collaborative behaviors amongst young students working on a project using video recordings and can appreciate the challenges of identifying these types of behaviors (not to mention analyzing those measurements and applying any insights gained to the efficacy of the larger team). I am curious to know, what age ranges are targeted by your project? Also, do you analyze the text data that you gather? Thank you very much for sharing this work!

We are working in one technical high school, one two-year community college, and one four-year university. The subjects range in age from 16 to 40 or so, but mostly in their 20s. In addition to the performance data generated as the students attempt to solve the problem, we also give the students a survey and a photo quiz (the “Mind in the Eyes” test). We also solicit information about the students from the instructors and give the students a post-test designed to elicit their reactions to the activity and to provide an independent assessment of their content knowledge.

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Karen Purcell

Dear Paul and team, Wonderful idea. Thanks for an engaging and informative video. Can you expand a bit on how the project will broaden participation in STEM? Do you feel that promoting collaboration is the key to doing this? Finally, what are some of the challenges you’ve encountered. Have you found, for instance, that the design of the project may inadvertently create a feeling of competition among the collaborators?

We can’t be sure, of course, that our intervention will broaden participation in STEM, nor are we set up to observce such an effect if it exists. Nevertheless, the students who participate in our problem-solving activity seem to enjoy it, and to get better at it, and they are thus more likely to feel competent and able to master STEM content. And such self efficacy measures have been demonstrated to increase the likelihood of participation in STEM.

As for the challenges we have encountered, the major one so far has been our belated recognition of the fact that success at the collaborative task we have set need not correlate either with good teamwork or even with content knowledge and understanding! It is possible, in other words (and we have observed this) to achieve the goals we set while neither cooperating with the other members of the team or applying Ohm’s Law or an understanding of the circuit being manipulated! The interesting thing is, however, that we are able quite easily to distinguish between those teams that work well together and those in which the individual members remain isolated from one another, simply by looking at the log data that each team produces, even though measured by their success at the task the two teams appear identical.

Fascinating! Thanks so much for sharing.

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Brett Slezak

Paul, I think what you are doing to try and measure collaboration is fantastic. As a teacher, I know I would love to be able to assess students on this to better help cultivate collaboration in my classes. This might be a pretty lofty question for me to ask but, can you see possibilities in the future on how your model could be applied across different curriculums?

That’s the $1,000,000 question, of course, and our eventual goal. To err on the side of caution, I think it’s quite likely that we will learn from the Teaching Teamwork project, and others like it, how to analyze the actions of people who are trying to collaborate, and even more important, how to structure collaborative activities so as to elicit actions and produce data upon which to make valid inferences regarding the ability of the participants to work productively in teams. For instance, as I pointed out in an earlier response in this thread, the first problem we posed turned out to have an unexpected, efficient solving algorithm that requires neither content knowledge nor the ability to work in teams! That emphasizes the importance of planning for – and guarding against! – students “gaming the system” – employing gamesmanship (definition: “the art of winning without actually cheating”) rather than the target skills and abilities.

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Elliot Soloway

full disclosure: I am a “collaboration” believer! Moving right along… I think NSF needs to focus a program on “social learning” and Horwitz’s project is an excellent example of the kind of focused, careful research that is needed…we learn from and we learn with others… in the enterprise, social learning is paramount.. in schools… it is also, but it isn’t recognized… I hope your video makes it into the finals, Paul — that will help highlight not only your work, but the need for MORE of this type of work. Onward!!

Thanks for the support, Elliot! It’s my (possibly biased!) impression that collaboration is on its way to becoming the “next big thing” – or one of them, anyway – in education research. We’re kinda hoping that this project help to speed its arrival.

Onward, indeed!…

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Joseph Wilson

#teamPaul – I love the experience that students get of working “remotely” yet collaboratively. As someone who has teammates and direct reports in all four continental US time zones, collaboration is especially important. What other types of tasks or activities (beyond resistance measurement) do you think would give you additional insight into measuring collaboration?

We’re working on several – all, for the moment, in the general area of electronics (since that was the focus of the original proposal. One activity that’s about to “go public” involves the use of PIC microcontrollers, the task being to connect up a numeric keypad to a seven-digit LED display. Another area we’re investigating involves hooking up logic chips – specifically, NOT, AND, and OR gates to form a circuit with a specific purpse (e.g., an adder). But of course, teamwork (and especially remote teamwork) is an important skill in many areas, and our long-term goals include exploring the applicability of what we are learning on this project to additional STEM domains.

Icon for: Jill Denner

Jill Denner

This is a great project, and I agree that fostering effective collaboration is key to broadening participation. But I have found in my research on pair programming that the selection of the pairs has a large influence on how they work together—a mismatch can actually undermine learning and motivation. Do you use any system to form the teams, or do they self-select into groups?

We’re aware, of course, of the importance of the formation of the teams, but for the time being we’ve been using random assortment with an emphasis on evaluating how well the teams work together, rather than trying, through careful team formation, to maximize the teams’ performance. A next step in our project, not mentioned in the video, will be to compare both team and individual performance with exogenous measures such as the team members’ scores on the Mind in the Eyes test. Before we can embark on such a study, however, we will have to have five to ten times as much data as we currently have.

That makes sense. I expect that what you learn from the study will help us understand how to form effective teams.

That’s certainly the goal. It remains to be seen how far we will get. Frankly, I suspect that for the foreseeable future an experienced teacher is likely to be better at picking out “good” teams then any testing procedure we can come up with. But you never know…

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