Focus Area 3: Communications
4. Collaborative Problem Solving with Youth

Have you ever found yourself working with a young person and you feel like the two of you are in a big power struggle?

Surely every youth worker has been there! Can you completely avoid such power struggles or occasional conflicts? Nah. However, there are ways you can minimize how frequently power struggles arise.

The Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) approach was originated by Dr. Ross Greene and further developed by Dr. Greene and Dr. Stuart Ablon, and their associates at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Harvard Medical School.

It was originally developed for working with youth that have a wide range of social, emotional, and behavioral challenges. Since it has proven to be so effective, it is now being more broadly used for managing conflict in all sorts of settings including at home, in schools, in youth programs, treatment facilities, and corrections facilities. It provides a structured, relational process for understanding and helping youth in a strengths-based framework.

CPS offers a specific methodology for learning the listening, communication, and negotiating skills that are needed to successfully negotiate and resolve disagreements and tense situations.

This focus area is meant to give you a broad overview of the Collaborative Problem Solving approach as a way to encourage you to think about collaborative work with young people and how you might adopt a collaborative mindset, even if you don’t necessarily use the CPS techniques in a step-by-step way.


To understand what Collaborative Problem Solving1, or CPS, is all about you need to appreciate the two tenets that form the basis of the model:

Tenet 1:  A youth’s challenges are best understood as the byproduct of lagging cognitive and emotional skills. They are not seen as attention-seeking, manipulative, limit-testing, or a sign of poor motivation.

Skill deficits are manifested as behaviors such as screaming, swearing, defying, hitting, spitting, throwing things, breaking things, crying, withdrawing.

Tenet 2: These challenges are best addressed by teaching youth the skills they lack, rather than using reward and punishment approaches or intensive imposition of adult will to change behavior.

CPS is a departure from how adults have traditionally interacted with youth and consequently there are misconceptions about the model. The three most common misconceptions are:

1. Implementing CPS means adults eliminate all of their expectations of youth and their behaviors

  • In fact, CPS does not mean eliminating expectations at all.

2. CPS advocates are simply making excuses for youth

  • In fact, understanding a youth’s challenges and helping them overcome these challenges is a far cry from making excuses.

3. Implementing CPS means adults no longer have the authority to set limits

  • In fact, the CPS model involves setting limits, but in a way that’s a little different and typically a lot more effective. 


In the Collaborative Problem Solving model, when youth are not meeting your adult expectations, there are three options for how to respond. These are referred to as Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C.

Plan A: Impose your will

Most often, adults try to impose their will to make a youth meet expectations. While Plan A is very popular, it greatly increases the likelihood of challenging behavior. That's because Plan A requires youth to accept someone else imposing their will upon them and this acceptance requires using a variety of skills that the youth lack. This approach does nothing to teach the skills that are lacking and therefore limiting the young person’s ability to meet expectations. Even when youth have the skills to meet adult expectations, Plan A often just reinforces a negative lesson that might makes right when it comes to problem solving. Plan A does not promote teaching skills, it interferes with teaching skills since it tends to get in the way of building the kind of trust relationship that is vital to teaching skills. It’s hard to learn from a ‘because I said so’ approach.

Plan B: Collaborative problem solving

This is when adults engage the youth in the process of solving problems. The adult collaboratively works with the youth. The continuous use of Plan B will durably resolve problems that precipitate challenging behaviors. Ongoing use of Plan B will also develop and strengthen a youth’s skills that are weak (deficits). Think of it as ‘finding the middle ground.’ 

Plan C: Drop the issue, at least temporarily

This is when adults drop their expectations completely, at least for the moment of the particular situation they are dealing with. Many people immediately think that Plan C is the equivalent of giving in, but it's not. Giving in is when an adult tries to address a problem or unmet expectation using Plan A but when that fails because the youth had an aversive reaction, they immediately retreat to Plan C. Think of Plan C as more of a ‘pick your battles’ perspective. 

In CPS, Plan B is typically the most effective first response. However, if there are imminent safety issues, you may need to use Plan A.

Plan B is the heart of the CPS model. The three basic steps for Plan B are:

1. Empathy/Reassurance:

Identify and understand the youth’s concern about a given issue (e.g., completion of homework or chores, sibling or peer interactions, etc.) and reassure the youth that imposing your adult will is not how the problem will be resolved.

2. Define the Problem:

Identify your concerns as the adult/youth worker about the same issue. In the CPS model, the problem defined is simply two concerns that have yet to be reconciled.

3. The Invitation:

Invite the youth to brainstorm solutions together with you, as the adult, having the ultimate goal of developing a realistic and mutually satisfying plan of action.

After practicing CPS, many people report not having to use Plan A as often as they previously believed necessary.

You need to also remember that going to Plan C is not always the equivalent of “giving in.” In challenging situations, there are often multiple problems or concerns that need to be addressed and it isn't possible to resolve them all at once. So, it actually makes sense to put some problems or unmet expectations on the back burner while addressing problems that are a higher priority.

As with any technique or process, Collaborative Problem Solving with young people will take some practice on your part to become comfortable with the steps.

Most problems aren’t solved through a single application of this process. See it as a teaching tool. When you become comfortable using it routinely, it helps solve problems that drive challenging behavior while creating and nurturing the bond of trust that you’ve worked to develop in your professional relationship with young people.

You’ll be helping them learn thinking skills, develop a stronger sense of internal motivation, and fostering real confidence. The Collaborative Problem Solving approach is another excellent tool to have on hand. 


To use CPS, it is not necessary for you to know exactly what skills a youth lacks. If you are interested in identifying specific skill deficits, your supervisor might be a good person to consult with.

The teaching of these skills may be done in a variety of ways, but it is primarily done by helping young people learn how to resolve disagreements in a collaborative and mutually satisfactory manner.

View these videos

Each provides a fuller understanding of CPS and its use. Please click on the following links to view them now:

Three Options for Solving Problems (run time 13:52 minutes)

CPS Methods In Action (run time 4:40 minutes)

More than just being a set of techniques, CPS is a way of thinking about how your relationship with a young person impacts their prospects for productive problem-solving. The goal is for you and the young person to be partners in solving the problem or improving the situation. The spirit of the approach - working collaboratively with young people - is the most important part of CPS.

Reference Sources
1 This section on Collaborative Problem Solving was adapted from Think:Kids;
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