Dr. Ross Greene Says Understanding Kids Works, Punishment Doesn’t


Dr. Ross Greene, a clinical child psychologist and associate professor at Virginia Tech, prefers that parents and teachers seek to understand their misbehaving children rather than punishing them.

Chris Weller of Business Insider says Greene first broached this subject in a 1998 book “The Explosive Child,” which introduced the concept of Collaborative & Proactive Solutions (CPS). Now, CPS may be poised to revolutionize the manner in which society treats its “behaviorally challenged” children.

Greene says the old standby of using carrots and sticks to earn cooperation is not effective. When children act out, sometimes in a violent way, they do this because that is how their brains are wired and they are not able to keep from doing it.

“The most important thing you can do to help your explosive kid be less explosive is to understand why he’s explosive in the first place,” Greene writes in “The Explosive Child.”

What this means is not time out or words said in an angry way, but direct interaction with the child. If a boy swears in a classroom, the teacher should speak with him after class to save him the embarrassment of being corrected in front of his peers. If a girl refuses to complete her work, the teacher should find patience enough to find a time when she can tell you why she is refusing.

It may be difficult to cease old methods that many think put children in their place, but CPS, Greene says, works. When Central School in South Berwick, Maine began to use Greene’s system during the 2009-2010 school year, punishment rates went from 146 discipline referrals and two suspensions to 45 referrals and no suspensions two years later.

This was direct consequence of the school taking a different approach to disciplining its students. Principal Nina D’Aran told Mother Jones’s Katherine Reynolds Lewis:

“[We did it by] meeting the child’s needs and solving problems instead of controlling behavior,” principal Nina D’Aran told Mother Jones. “That’s a big shift.”

This shift could end up helping millions more. The latest data shows that approximately 5 million kids have a learning disability, 16 million have a history of violence and abuse, and both of these problems are factors that can result in violent crimes. Kids may have good intentions, says Greene, but they might not have sufficient cognitive development to think flexibly, tolerate frustration, and solve problems.

Consequences have consequences. Standard disciplinary methods often just exacerbate children’s behavior problems, says Greene.

“We know if we keep doing what isn’t working for those kids, we lose them,” says Greene. “Eventually there’s this whole population of kids we refer to as overcorrected, overdirected, and overpunished. Anyone who works with kids who are behaviorally challenging knows these kids: They’ve habituated to punishment.”

The formula is to help the child figure out the reasons he had an outburst and then brainstorm with the child to come up with alternative strategies for the next time the same feeling comes up. Greene says to focus on the root of the problem and not to discipline a child for the way his brain is wired.

In India, Geetha R. Bhat writes about the gentle approach to disciplining kids in the Deccan Herald. The approach is not to get children to obey, but to help the child develop social skills for life, as unquestioning obedience is probably not at the top of anyone’s list of best adult qualities. Gentle discipline includes parenting in a warm, kind, respectful way with fair, firm boundaries and relevant, reasonable consequences. It steers away from constant nagging by choosing which battles are most important. If a child has an outburst, show concern and empathy.

When working with older children, practitioners of CPS advise assisting the child with problem-solving and listening to a child’s ideas, respecting their feelings, and praising practical solutions. Most of all, adults should talk to children every day and listen to what they say , as true, focused interest in what a child is saying goes a long way in building a child’s self-worth.