It was the first week of Third Grade when I found my son, Owen, curled up under a tree in his school playground. We’d agreed to meet there during recess, a particularly overwhelming part of his day for him. From his ragged breathing, silent sobs, and shaky hands, I knew that my son was having a panic attack.
The deck is stacked against Owen. He has ADHD, learning disabilities, and an anxiety disorder — all of which affect how he learns and interacts with his classmates. He also has significant sensory processing differences. The typical classroom environment can be too much for Owen, leading to the panicked state I found him in during recess.
Given all of Owen’s needs, we knew his recess meltdown that day wouldn’t be the last of it. We desperately needed to come up with a plan to help him advocate for himself and thrive in school despite his daily challenges. But how could we empower Owen to make this change when survival alone was so depleting?
The Explosive Child: Dr. Ross Greene’s CPS Model
The answer was in The Explosive Child — a favorite read in neurodivergent parenting circles. In this book, Dr. Ross Greene outlines his collaborative and proactive solutions (CPS) model, which rests on this important concept: Kids do well if they can.
Problematic behaviors and other issues arise when children struggle to adapt to meet what’s expected of them. The key is for adult and child to collaboratively problem-solve (i.e., work with your child, not against them or without them) so that the child can get back to doing well.
[Free Download: Required Reading for Parents of Kids with ADHD]
From tiny setbacks to seemingly impossible troubles, problems emerged just about every day during the school year. Our family made it a point to stick to Dr. Greene’s model: Let Owen talk about his challenges in school and the reasons behind them; speak about our concerns together; and brainstorm solutions as a family for that particular problem.
What we learned after a straight year of following this model altered the course of our family for the better.
Collaborative Problem Solving: What We Learned
1. Truly listening to your child conveys your trust in them and builds self-advocacy skills. When we invited Owen to share his experiences every day, he understood that we saw his perspectives as inherently valid and important, which allowed him to connect with us and feel like an active partner in the problem-solving process. What’s more, we could only collaborate on successful solutions to the degree that Owen knew himself and could identify his own problems. The more we listened to Owen, the more he began to trust himself and increase his self-knowledge.
2. You’ll uncover your true hopes and desires as a parent. There’s room for parents to air their concerns, too, in the CPS model. Issue after issue, we learned that we valued our son’s mental health and happiness over staying on grade level, completing assignments, meeting attendance requirements, and other non-essentials. Having this clarity and focus was pivotal for us in moving forward with countless decisions relating to school and beyond.
[Read: 6 Truths About Child Behavior Problems That Unlock Better Behavior]
3. Neurodivergent creativity gets a chance to shine. The CPS model is inherently creative, as every new problem requires fresh solutions. My son’s creative ADHD brain became our most valuable asset during every problem-solving session, as it allowed him to quickly generate unexpected, delightfully surprising solutions to his challenges.
Where’s Owen Now? Flourishing
While we turned to the collaborative process to help our child thrive in a traditional school setting, it actually led us to the choice to homeschool him – a creative solution Owen came up with himself. Owen had developed enough self-insight to realize that traditional schooling might not be the way for him. With our priorities clear, we were inclined to leave the standard schooling path if it meant Owen’s happiness. After a year of trust-building and collaborative problem-solving, we knew that we’d be able to solve whatever challenge we encountered on this unfamiliar path.
I cherish the child emerging before my eyes — self-assured, bravely creative, collaborative, and wide open to exploring the road-less-traveled. We’ve come a long way from the panicked boy in the school playground. My son now has his shoulders back and his head high.
The Explosive Child and ADHD Parenting: Next Steps
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