By: Laura Petix, MS OTR/LEPISODE 107


Image of little girl in front of a timer for an episode on collaborative problem solving for neurodivergent, highly sensitive children.

Today we’ll delve into a transformative approach that may already be a part of your parenting toolkit—though you might not have known it had a name. Join me in exploring the power of “Collaborative Problem Solving,” a method that has proven invaluable in navigating challenges with strong-willed, spirited, neuro-spicy, neurodivergent kids. Discovered and championed by Dr. Ross Greene, this approach fosters cooperation, understanding, and positive change.

Full disclosure- I have never been trained in this approach, it’s something I started doing naturally as a clinician and parent, but now that I know it has a name- will be referring to it as collaborative problem solving, but my description and tips in this episode may not be completely aligned with the original protocol.

What you’ll hear in this episode:

The Discovery of Collaborative Problem Solving

I stumbled upon Collaborative Problem Solving intuitively while working with clients facing significant challenges at home and in school.

These were children in need of support but were either resistant to existing solutions or were denied support altogether.

Little did I know that this approach would become a cornerstone of my parenting journey, helping me navigate rough patches with my own daughter, particularly in dealing with her clothing sensitivities.

What Is Collaborative Problem Solving?

Collaborative Problem Solving is exactly what it sounds like—a partnership between you and your child to brainstorm solutions for daily challenges.

The daily challenge could be anything from not getting out of the house on time, forgetting homework assignments to meltdowns after screentime, or even school refusal.

Important note before you move any further: this approach is most effective with children who can actively contribute to the conversation, requiring a cognitive level that enables understanding, communication, and participation.

Why Collaborative Problem Solving Works

As I said, I’m not going off of any specific research or evidence here other than I’ve seen it work with my own clients and my own daughter. Please refer to any of Dr. Ross Greene’s work to do a deeper dive on efficacy research.

Here’s why I think Collaborative problem solving works for neurodivergent kids.

Builds a Team Dynamic:

Collaborative Problem Solving places you and your child on the same team, fostering a sense of equality. It removes the traditional parent-child power dynamic, eliminating potential feelings of shame or guilt.

Creates Buy-In:

When your child is actively involved in problem-solving, they become more invested in the solutions. This “buy-in” increases the likelihood of successful implementation.

Develops Valuable Life Skills:

The skills developed through Collaborative Problem Solving—acknowledging problems, brainstorming solutions, and discussing possibilities—are invaluable for your child’s future, aiding them in various aspects of their personal, academic, and professional life.

Implementing Collaborative Problem Solving: A Step-by-Step Guide

Here’s an unofficial guide to starting a collaborative problem solving approach with your child.

Step 1: Choose The Right Time and Place

Select a time and place where your child is open to conversation. Avoid situations where stress or distractions may hinder communication.

Ideal moments could include bath time, bedtime, or during a shared activity like playing with Legos.

It’s helpful if you pick a time and place where you can write something down (even digitally, like on a phone notes app)

Step 2: Center Yourself

Before initiating the conversation, take a deep breath and remind yourself of your child’s inherent goodness. The goal is to identify underlying issues or needs, fostering a collaborative spirit.

Example of Collaborative Problem Solving

Scenario: Consistent meltdowns after screen time is over

Suppose your 6-year-old loves screen time but experiences meltdowns when it ends. Here’s how you might approach the conversation:

“Hey.. I was thinking about something today and I could really use your help on this. So you know how everyday after school you get to use the iPad? What’s that game you love playing again?”

“Oh yeah… you love those games! It always sounds like you’re having so much fun.”

“Yeah… so, I know you love it, and I don’t want to take ipad away from you. The problem is— I’ve noticed that after ipad time is over, it doesn’t feel good to you to let go of it and the last few nights, we’ve ended up having a pretty rough bedtime. Do you notice that too? (don’t worry you’re not in trouble! Promise!)

“So I thought we could work together to come up with some ideas about what we could do to make the end of ipad time easier for everyone. That way you could still have ipad time and we can have a smooth rest of the evening. Do you have any ideas of what we could do to make it easier? Hmm…there’s really no bad answers here, just throw out anything that comes to mind”

–give them some time–

Then it helps if you offer a few solutions that are really silly to break the ice.

“Well, we could just let you have the ipad forever and ever and skip bedtime!” (write skip bed time on the board)
“Maybe we could invent some sort of time machine that freezes time so you could play ipad as long as you want and then when you’re done it’s only been like 30 seconds and so we have all the time in the world to do bedtime!” (write time machine on the board)

Maybe they’ll start laughing and coming up with their own outlandish solutions too.
THen one by one you start suggesting some more realistic solutions (but hopefully your child’s brain has already been thinking as well)

“Hmm… maybe we could try doing bath time before ipad?”
“Or maybe we could try giving you an extra 5 minutes after the last timer is up?”
“What about if when the timer is up, you change the app to one of the meditation apps or yoga apps and we do 10 minutes together?”

You brain storm as many ideas as you can think of that are all written on the board.
Then you go through them 1 by 1.

“Well…. I don’t have a time machine, do you?” nahh— have them cross it off.
“Well.. I don’t think it would be a good idea to be on the ipad FOREVER and you never take a bath- P.U.! That wouldn’t be healthy for your body either” Cross that off.

Then you make an agreement to try it out- maybe you try one solution out for a week and then decide together if it worked or didn’t work. Maybe you keep that piece of paper or white board hanging up somewhere they can see.

Conclusion: Empowering Your Child Through Collaboration

Incorporating Collaborative Problem Solving into your parenting repertoire can significantly enhance your child’s confidence and self-esteem. By involving them in the decision-making process, you not only address immediate challenges but also equip them with essential life skills for the future. Give it a try and share your experiences—let’s unlock the potential of collaborative problem-solving together!

Episode Links

Brainstorming solutions WITH our kids, instead of for them.
Hello, everyone. Welcome back to the podcast. If I sound a little bit different, it's because I am sitting in the pickup line for my daughter, it's minimum day. And minimum days are the hardest times to get parking spots. So I get here extra early. And you know what I'm trying to make the...

Hello, everyone. Welcome back to the podcast. If I sound a little bit different, it’s because I am sitting in the pickup line for my daughter, it’s minimum day. And minimum days are the hardest times to get parking spots. So I get here extra early. And you know what I’m trying to make the most of my time here so that when I get home, I can have some time to myself rather than go back to work. So anyway, this is an episode that I’ve been meaning to make. Because I use this strategy a lot with some of the parents that I coach who have kids who are maybe a little bit more reluctant to try a certain strategy, or just don’t really get on board with something that you need, you really need them to do that you can only take them so far on and you can’t force them to do. So this is one of those approaches that I started using before I knew it existed before I knew it had a name. After I realized there was a name for it, I realized, Oh, this is one of those things I’ve already been doing. It is called collaborative problem solving. And the founder, the creator of this approach is Dr. Ross Green, who has some excellent resources that I will also link in the show notes below. But again, I was doing this before I knew it had a name. So it may deviate from the original protocol that Dr. Ross screen suggests in his training. So this isn’t directly influenced. But I did want to call out that there is an actual approach if you prefer to learn a more standardized, more like prescriptive methods, so to speak with specific, like sequence of tasks, and how to do it and scripts and all of that. But I’m just going to share with you what I do and my approach. So I instinctively turn to this approach at the clinic with some of my most, you could say strong willed clients, the ones who were needing significant support at home and at school. But were either refusing the supports in place or weren’t benefiting from the ones that were given them. Or worst, were being refused supports because teachers or other caregivers really didn’t see the need for it. So many of these kids were seen as the problem. They were seen as the ones who were the ones that needed to change. They were seen as the lazy kids, or kids who quote didn’t try enough. I didn’t know it at the time. But I started using what I now know is called collaborative problem solving. And I started doing the same thing with my daughter when we hit one of our biggest rough patches around her clothing sensitivities. So collaborative problem solving is basically what it sounds like you and your child work together as partners to brainstorm solutions for a problem that’s impacting your daily lives. So before I go any further, I do have to say this approach works best for kids who can contribute to the conversation, whatever that conversation and communication style looks like. It does require a level of cognition that allows them to understand the conversation and to be able to communicate and participate. Okay, collaborative problem solving. So it’s helpful for scenarios, when you may already know a solution or maybe multiple solutions. But your child isn’t willing to try it or go with it or you know, if you say it, it’s not going to land right. For example, if your child is constantly running late in the morning for, for getting ready for school, or you’re constantly having issues at bedtime routine. It’s also helpful at times if there’s a very real legitimate sensory trigger for your child and a specific task or environment. But you still need them to do the thing or complete the task or be in that environment for whatever reason. I’m thinking like kids who are sensitive to clothes or shoes or taking a bath or having their hair brushed. I also love collaborative problem solving when there are multiple kids involved like when you’re trying to solve something happening between siblings or Friends. Before I talk about what the approach sounds like, I want to explain to you why I love it so much. So for a few reasons, one, it puts you and your child on the same team on the same level, you’re not the one telling them what to do, you both are working together as partners, and something that you agree is an issue. So you may need to work at this point at getting them to be aware that there is an issue to begin with. So that’s important. But collaborative solve problem solving helps remove any feelings of shame, or guilt that they might feel if you were instead to just say like, Hey, can you be better at following instructions in the morning, you make us late for school and work all the time. Like instead of just putting it on them, you both are attacking a separate problem together. Another reason I love this approach is because when your child is involved actively in the brainstorming solutions process, they will be more likely to actually go along with the plan they will have by him. Lastly, these kinds of skills that it requires to talk through these solutions. First, admitting there’s a problem, then brainstorming solutions, talking about the possibility of those solutions. Those skills are incredibly value as valuable as they grow older. This is going to help them out in so many scenarios in their school life and their work life and personal life, it’s just a great skill to be able to have. So I’m going to break it down for you step by step, including an example of what it might sound like. So the very first thing that you need is to have a time in mind that you would actually do this. Ideally, you would have the space and availability to write something down. It could be something digital, like a phone note, or an iPad or like an E writing board. But you could also have a piece of paper or a whiteboard. So don’t I wouldn’t suggest doing this while you’re driving. Think of a time when your child is most likely to be open to having a conversation. So first rule out the times that you would absolutely avoid this kind of conversation. But for example, for us, usually around bath time, and when I brush her hair and getting ready for bed, my daughter’s pretty open and ready to listen. And we could talk about important things. When at other times of the day, she’s usually like, I don’t know, or she won’t really respond as much. You might consider doing this talk. Maybe when you’re building Legos, or if you’re pushing them on a swing at the park or going for a walk with the dog. Maybe it’s over a bowl of ice cream, but just have a time and place in mind and the ability to write something down. Next step is super important. Don’t skip this, center yourself. Take a deep breath, remind yourself of what’s important here, your child is a good kid, they want to be able to do the thing they want to be able to do well to listen to your instructions. They’re just lacking the skills or really needing something else. So our goal is to dig up what that something is what they need. And or come up with a solution that just works for the whole family. So here’s the example. Let’s say a six year old love screen time. But every time screen time is over, they have a huge meltdown. And the rest of the night just snowballs into one big ball of dysregulation and stress for the whole family. Sound familiar? So you already have timers in place, you remind your child when it’s time to end, and yet still really, really big emotions after screen time is done. You want to find a solution that works for the whole family that doesn’t include completely taking away screens since you do acknowledge the benefit of having screens available. So let’s set the scene. Let’s say we’re sitting around having a scream. And I’ve got a whiteboard ready. And I start out the conversation like this. Hey, I was thinking about something today. And I could really use your help on this. So you know how every day after school, you get to use the iPad. What’s that game that you love playing again? And then you let them answer? Like, oh, yeah, you love that game. It always sounds like you’re having so much fun. Right? You’re opening with something like getting them to like just talk about it. Yeah, so I know that you love that game. And I really don’t want to take iPad away from you. The problem is, I’ve noticed that after iPad time is over, it really doesn’t feel good to to let go of it. And the last few nights we’ve ended up having a really rough bedtime. Have you noticed that too? Don’t worry, you’re not in. You’re not in trouble. I promise like you have to I’m pausing. I’m coming out of the dialog for a second to remind you the parent listening to this. It’s important to let them know that they’re not in trouble. So make it a little playful, but you do have to talk about something serious. But you know, if you have a child who’s afraid they’re in trouble or feels uncomfortable, so I promise we’re just talking, you’re not in trouble, then you could say something like, so I thought that we could work together to come up with some ideas about what we could do to make the end of iPad time easier for everyone. That way, you could still have iPad time, and we can still have a smooth rest of the evening. Hmm, there’s really no bad answers here. Just throw anything out there. But like, I wonder if there’s anything you can think of that we can do to make it easier.And you might sit in silence, it’s really hard to sit in silence as a parent, and especially when you have an agenda, and you want to fill in the blanks, give them some time, take a few more bites of ice cream, and really think about it, make it make it look like you’re thinking. If it really looks like they’re not adding anything, or they might say I don’t know, then you could offer a few solutions. And I suggest offering the first few solutions, like really silly ones. So you could say like, well, we could just let you have the iPad forever and ever and skip bedtime, that’s an option. So you would write on the whiteboard, skip bedtime on the board. And you might throw out, maybe we can invent some sort of time machine that freezes time. So you could play iPad as long as you want. And then when you’re done, it’s only been like 30 seconds. And so we have all the time in the world to do bedtime, then you write down time machine on the board. Maybe I hope at this time they start laughing and coming up with their own really outlandish solutions to there’s no bad ideas write every single thing down that they say. Then one by one after you have a full list. After after you have a few things on the list, you start suggesting some more realistic solutions. And hopefully your child will catch on, you could say we could try moving bath time before iPad. So when you put like bathtime, before iPad on the whiteboard, or maybe we could try giving you an extra five minutes after the timer is up. So you get like one last five minutes to finish what you’re doing. What about if when the timer is up, you change the app to one of the meditation apps or yoga apps. And we do 10 minutes of yoga together. So you start brainstorming as many ideas as you can think of that are all end up written on the whiteboard. Then you go through them one by one, you give your child the whiteboard marker to cross it off, or the crayon if you’re writing on a paper or the phone for them to cross off a list. And then you go one by one you go, you say something like, oh, well, I love the idea of a time machine. But I don’t have a time machine do you? Huh, that was not going to work cross it off. Well, I don’t think it would be a good idea to be on the iPad for ever. And you would never take a bath or ever go to sleep pee you that wouldn’t be healthy for you or your body either cross that one off. So then you cross off some and then hopefully your child ends up underlining or circling at least one if not more options that they would be willing to try. Then you make an agreement to try it out. Maybe you try one solution for a week, and then decide if it worked or didn’t work. Maybe you keep that piece of paper or whiteboard hanging up somewhere so they can see. And then as you try a solution, you cross it off or or add something else to it. So hoping you see how this process can help boost your child’s confidence and their self esteem. I’ve used this approach for my daughter, as I said when she was starting to have a very limited closet of clothes that she was wearing. As it was starting to get colder here where we lived. I started out by having to like point out to her that she did not have enough clothes to get her through the school week. So I physically had to lay them out. And then I also had to write down how many days of the week of school there were and I showed her I said this number three is less than that. Number five. So I was like, oh, there’s a problem. I had to make the problem more objective and make the problem outside of her. I wasn’t saying You’re the problem. Your sensitivity is the problem. I said, the problem is we don’t have enough safe clothes for you to wear to school to get through a week. So it was a very objective thing that I had to point out to her. So that we also wrote down her sensory preferences with clothes and things that she dislikes and things that she prefers when it came to clothes. I acknowledged them and validated them and still showed her that we still have to wear clothes to school. And on a rainy really cold days she has to have clothes that cover her legs and her arms. So in the end, we brainstormed a bunch of ideas together and guess what she came up with a really good idea to go to the store to try on some new clothes and take video of her talking about how the clothes felt to her future self and how they felt at the store. So that will end We went home to go try them again, she would watch a video of herself doing it and talking herself through it. Eventually, we ended up being able to practice new clothes on the weekends enough to add them to our weekday closet variety. So, I hope that this episode was helpful give this collaborative problem solving a try and let me know if it worked for you. And if you’re interested, I wanted to let you know that the sensory detectives boot camp is going to start enrolling pretty soon. So you want to get on the waitlist so that you don’t miss any information on that. So head to the OT waitlist I will put a link below in the show notes again for you to get on the waitlist. Alright, thanks for listening. I’ll see you next week. If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider rating it and leaving a review which helps other parents find me as well. Want to learn more from me. I share tons more over on Instagram at the OT butterfly. See you next time.




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Laura Petix, MS OTR/L

I’m an enneagram 6, so my brain is constantly moving. My OT lenses never turn off and I can’t “un-see” the sensory and other developmental skills that go in to literally every activity. I love taking what I see and breaking it down into simple terms so parents can understand what goes into their child’s behavior and skills.

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