Emphasizing Empathy: Jennifer Bashant and Shari Keller Re-think School Discipline

February 12, 2015

Engaging with the most promising research concepts in the field of education and helping schools implement them into their pedagogical practice is a central tenet of CASDA’s mission. The Collaborative Problem Solving Pilot, developed by Jennifer Bashant and Shari Keller is currently being introduced at Lincoln Elementary School in the Schenectady City School District in an ambitious project running through most of the 2014-2015 academic year.


Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) is a research-based methodological framework for engaging students who consistently exhibit challenging behaviors. Developed by Ross W. Greene and J. Stuart Ablon at Harvard, CPS represents a radical paradigm shift in the way that educators understand student behavior. For years the prevailing view insisted that “kids behave badly to ‘have their way’ and need incentives – or disincentives – to conform to adult wishes and expectations”. Dr. Ablon asserts that “challenging kids’… lack the skills, not the will to behave well.” The focus of the CPS process is to reframe instances of difficult behaviors as “teachable moments” to develop skills rather than occasions for traditional punishments. These interactions allow students and teachers to solve problems collaboratively.


The most important component of these collaborations is empathy, which, according to Dr. Green, involves “gathering information from the student to achieve the clearest possible understanding of his or her perspective on a given unsolved problem.” Dr. Bashant emphasizes the significance of empathy: “…(these interactions) present challenges for both teacher and student. Many adults have never considered asking for a kid’s perspective on a behavioral issue. It is just as strange for the kids. They are accustomed to being punished rather than being asked to express their feelings about their behavior.” Once an empathic, safe environment is established, adults can express their concerns about challenging behaviors without assigning blame and students are invited to offer possible solutions to curtail these behaviors. Through this process students can gain greater awareness of their emotions, learn to think from multiple perspectives, understanding how their behaviors impact their teachers and fellow students and develop their language and communication skills. Dr. Bashant states that “through the repetition of the problem solving process, over time, the child’s cognitive thinking skills are built and developed, and the occurrence of problematic behavior is reduced.”    


Dr. Bashant and Ms. Keller’s work with Lincoln Elementary began in October with assessments in which teachers completed a series of rubrics detailing behaviors exhibited by their most challenging students. Dr. Bashant and Ms. Keller then undertook a series of observations to learn how these behaviors manifested themselves in the classroom and how the instructors responded to the challenges. After these initial observations, they commenced a comprehensive course in the Collaborative Problem Solving method. This includes several one-on-one sessions with teachers in which Dr. Bashant and Ms. Keller gauge progress and offer insight into individual cases highlighted in the assessments. Dr. Bashant reports that “some of the teachers have really taken to Collaborative Problem Solving and their success is very encouraging.”


This school-year length project demonstrates that cutting edge academic research in the hands of CASDA’s talented and experienced faculty has the potential for transformational impact on a school community. Dr. Bashant and Ms. Keller are engaging in work that insists on helping students who are often disregarded by even the most well-intentioned teachers. Dr. Bashant soberly states that “Collaborative Problem Solving does not offer a quick and easy fix for these kids. The process is the solution.”  Through repeatedly engaging with challenging students and insisting that their voices be heard without assignation of blame, Dr. Bashant and Ms. Keller are helping create a space in which students can develop the skills necessary for academic achievement and success well beyond the classroom. 

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