Collaborative Conversations for Behaviorally Challenging Students

Have a conversation with a student to collaboratively identify solutions to prevent challenging behavior
405 teachers like this strategy

About This Strategy

The conventional underlying belief about behaviorally challenging students is that "kids do well if they want to." As a result, conventional classroom behavior management usually involves a system of rewards, punishments, and consequences that are designed to motivate kids to do better.

However, contemporary research suggests that standard reward-and-punish disciplinary methods can in fact exacerbate behavioral difficulties. Two key organizations, Lives in the Balance, led by Ross Greene, and Think:Kids, led by Stuart Ablon, have introduced a new framework for working with behaviorally challenging students: that "kids do well if they can." The premise is that students who exhibit chronic challenging behavior do not lack the will to behave well, but in fact the skills (such as problem-solving, flexibility, and frustration tolerance) to behave well. As a result, if students are struggling to meet behavioral expectations, we - as adults - need to do something to help them build the skills to be successful. They suggest an alternative approach to working with behaviorally challenging students: collaborative problem-solving conversations.

This strategy will teach you to have collaborative conversations with students to solve behavioral challenges by providing a philosophy, framework, and set of tools and resources to engage in collaborative conversations with behaviorally challenging students.

Implementation Steps Part 1: Building Background Knowledge about Collaborative Conversations

45 minutes

The following steps have been adapted from resources created and distributed by Ross Greene at Lives in the Balance and Stuart Ablon at Think:Kids (part of Massachusetts General Hospital). Specific resources from these organizations are linked below, and both websites contain additional research behind this strategy and more implementation tips and resources, so check them out!

  1. Set aside some time (about 15-30 minutes) to learn about the philosophy behind the Collaborative Conversation model of working with behaviorally challenging students. Depending on your preferred learning style and available time, you can choose from the list below, all linked in the "Resources" section. Additional relevant articles can be found below in the "Additional Reading" section.

    • Videos:

      • Stuart Ablon: Rethinking Challenging Kids-Where There's a Skill There's a Way | TEDxBeaconStreet (first 11 minutes)

      • Stuart Ablon: A  #FlawlessTalk: Collaborative Problem Solving

      • Ross Greene: Kids Do Well if They Can

      • Ross Greene: What's Your Explanation?

    • Written Resources:

    • Books

      1. Lost at School: Why Our Kids with Behavioral Challenges are Falling Through the Cracks and How We Can Help Them by Ross Greene

      2. The School Discipline Fix: Changing Behavior Using the Collaborative Problem Solving Approach by J. Stuart Ablon

  2. Familiarize yourself with the steps of collaborative conversations (about 15-30 minutes). Depending on your preferred learning style and available time, you can choose from the list below (linked in the Resources section). 

Implementation Steps Part 2: Having Collaborative Conversations

15 minutes
  1. Make sure you have completed Implementation Steps Part 1 (above).

  2. Proactively identify a time to have the collaborative conversation with a struggling student. In the heat of the moment of a behavioral challenge, the student (and maybe you!) are often emotionally dysregulated. Collaborative conversations should happen at a time when you and the student are calm - not in the middle of an outburst or frustrating moment!

    • If possible, find an appropriate setting - ideally it is private from other students, and a non-threatening environment.

  3. Begin the collaborative conversation with the (most important!) first step: Empathize.

    • The goal of the empathize step is to clarify the student's concern. Your goal is to identify and understand the child's concern about the behavioral expectation they are struggling to uphold and to reassure the student that you want to solve the problem collaboratively.

      • As adults, it's important that we bite our tongue during this step and avoid sharing our concern too early!

    • Begin by inviting the student to share their perspective. "I've noticed you've had difficulty with... What's going on? What's up?"

      • As the student speaks, ask clarifying questions about what they say. "Why has starting the classwork been difficult for you? What else could be getting in the way?"

      • If the student gets stuck, you can use educated guessing to prompt them. "Is the classwork too challenging for you? Are you having difficulty focusing?"

      • As the student begins to share, make sure to use reflective listening strategies, such as nodding, repeating back what you hear, and using wait time to encourage them to say more. 

      • If a student does not often discuss their behavioral challenges, you may need to provide reassurance. "Don't worry, you're not in trouble. I bet there's probably a pretty good reason why..."

    • For more tips on how to engage in this step, consult the Lives in the Balance Drilling Cheat Sheet.

  4. Once you feel that you have spent adequate time hearing the student's concern, you may begin step 2: Share your concern.

    • In this step, you may share your concern in the situation. "You know, I want to make sure that you're learning as much as possible, and I don't want to waste even a minute of learning time."

    • When the student hears your concern, they may get upset or begin to shut down, or try to figure out what to say to end the conversation. Make sure it's clear that you haven't forgotten about their concern from the empathy step! Re-state the student's concern as needed to make sure they see that you still have it in mind.

  5. Once you have shared your concern, it's time for step 3: Collaborate. This is your opportunity to work with the student to brainstorm, assess, and choose a solution.

    • In this step, you will work with the student to brainstorm solutions together to assess potential solutions and choose one that is both realistic and mutually satisfactory.

    • Begin by inviting the student to collaboratively problem-solve. "So, I bet there's something we can do so that you're not worried about getting the answers wrong, but you can still get to work. You have any ideas?"

    • Make sure to pause and let the student take a first stab at coming up with a solution. Remember: any idea that comes back is good! It means that the student is engaging in the process with you.

    • Ask follow-up questions to discuss each possible solution:

    • "That's an idea, let's think it through. Would that work for you? Would it work for your teachers? Could we pull that off? Would it cause any problems?"

    • Continue discussing until you have chosen a solution that you will try.

  6. Repeat! Most problems aren't solved in a single discussion, but the continuous use of collaborative conversations help solve problems that are precipitating challenging behavior while building helping relationships, thinking skills, intrinsic motivation and confidence.

Collaborative Conversations with Preschool Children

Collaborative conversations may need to be adapted for younger children, but the underlying structure of the conversation can remain the same: empathize with a child's concern or perspective, share your concern, and brainstorm to find a solution to the problem at hand. Consider how you could engage in those steps using simple language that will work for a preschool-age child. Here is an example from the Think:Kids Blog

  • When a child is trying to build something with blocks, having trouble, and getting evidently frustrated, the teacher could engage in a collaborative conversation with the student by asking one of the following questions: 
    • "You really want to be able to build a castle with these blocks, but they just keep falling down!"
    • "I really want you to enjoy this playtime and have fun."
    • "Hmm, what could we do?"
    • "I know!  We could work on it together.  Or we could draw a castle instead.  Or we could build something different that's a little easier!  What should we try?"

Younger children may need some support naming their frustration and brainstorming solutions, but they can still participate in a collaborative conversation. Consider reading aloud a scripted story such as "I Can Use My Words" included in the resource section below to introduce students how to voice their feelings and have collaborative conversations with peers and adults.


Special Education Modification

Nedra MassenburgDEMO
Special Education Specialist

Using collaborative conversations to problem solve is a foundational tool teachers can use to support all students with disabilities.  In particular, it is a crucial tool in supporting students with emotional and behavioral impairments as they are often disproportionately negatively affected by punitive classroom management tools and struggle with proactive problem-solving.  In order to effectively use collaborative conversations to support all learners with disabilities, consider the following modifications:


  1. Teacher knowledge and acknowledgment of student disabilities is a key tool to have productive collaborative conversations with students with disabilities. Before attempting collaborative conversations, teachers should consult with special education department administrators or specialized teachers for information or advice on approaching collaborative conversations with students with disabilities.

  2. If you're working with a student with a significant language or communication disability, words may not be the ideal method for communicating. Many of these students can be helped to participate in solving problems collaboratively through the use of pictures. Lives in the Balance provides a sample of resources to use with these students. See the "Identifying Problems and Solutions Without Words" resource in the resource section below for more information.
  3. For particularly challenging students and inexperienced teachers, it can sometimes be helpful to have a separate trusted adult of the (school administrator, other teacher, etc.), there as an additional facilitator.  This person can pace the conversation and make sure it stays directed towards finding a collaborative solution to the problem presented. 

  4. If there is a need to perform a Functional Analysis of Behavior (FBA) for a behavior intervention plan, Think: Kids provides an FBA template for how educators can incorporate collaborative problem solving into traditional FBAs as necessary. 



EL Modification

Shannon Coyle
English Learner Specialist

This strategy provides excellent structures for involving learners in getting to the root of challenging behaviors. While collaborating with English learners requires consideration of language used, it is an effective tool in building relationships to support positive classroom behaviors. 

English learners are required to listen and respond during collaborative conversations. Learners may need to use their reading and writing skills as they work through generating solutions.  In order to support English Learners, consider the following modifications:


  1. Include language specialists or home language speaking adults. English learners at lower levels of proficiency may not have the English language skills to describe the problem. Whenever possible, include a familiar, trusted home language speaking learning facilitator as part of the conversation. Consider including a dual language speaking family member. Language specialists may also provide support as a trusted adult. See the 

  2. Keep language simple. Using the Lives in the Balance and/or Response protocol, amend language and speed as necessary to ensure learning comprehension, e.g., be concise, slow, and use tier 1 vocabulary. Consider scripting in advance. Learners at the lowest levels of proficiency may do better using visuals to identify problems and solutions. Consult learners’ language specialist to choose appropriate formats. See the "Identifying Problems and Solutions Without Words" and "Extending English Language Learners' Classroom Interactions Using the Response Protocol" resources in the resource section below for more information.

  3. Notice Patterns in Challenging Behaviors. English learners may be exhibiting challenging behaviors for a variety of reasons they may not be able to identify themselves. Keep track of challenging behaviors and seek out support from learning specialists and/or special education personnel to determine if learners require increased levels of support.  See the "When ELLs Struggle: Recognizing the Signs" resource in the resource section below for more information.

Additional Reading

If you'd like to learn more about the impacts of collaborative conversations, consider reading the articles below.