Trained as a clinical child psychologist, Ross W. Greene is perhaps best known for his influential books on school discipline, The Explosive Child and Lost at School. Over the course of his career, he has reframed school discipline issues among children with social, emotional, and behavioral issues as a matter of lagging cognitive skills rather than as a deficit of motivation. The Collaborative and Proactive Solutions (CPS) model that Greene created as an alternative to reward and punishment programs has been used in schools, juvenile-detention facilities and in clinical settings and was recently profiled in Mother Jones. Greene recently talked with The Chronicle of Social Change about his latest work and his thoughts on the country’s progress on school-discipline reform.
The Chronicle of Social Change: Where has the CPS model been used?
Ross W. Greene: The CPS model has been applied in many, many different schools, where it has been outstanding at reducing suspensions, detention and discipline referrals and also at locked- and blocked-door seclusion and restraint. It has been applied in countless inpatient psychiatry units and residential facilities across the world and at one entire juvenile detention system in Maine, where we helped take their recidivism rate from 65 percent, which it was about ten years ago, to 15 percent, which it is now. They had to close a facility—they used to have two, now there’s only one—because there were too many empty beds. Because kids were leaving and not coming back, which is the goal, of course.
CSC: Your forthcoming book is titled Raising Human Beings, a topic you presented about at the Echo Parenting and Education’s recent conference on creating trauma-informed schools. What does this mean for working with children?
RG: What I’m doing in my work these days is talking about these skills that foster the better side of human nature. The skills I’m highlighting are empathy, appreciating how one’s behaviors affect other people, resolving disagreements in ways that do not involve conflict, taking another person’s perspective, and honesty. What I’m basically saying is that when those skills are present, we tend to see the better side of human nature. When not, we see the other side of human nature.
Kids need to learn how to express their concerns. Kids learn how to figure out what their concerns are. Imagine how many incarcerated human beings in this country didn’t know how to do that and acted in violence because they couldn’t figure what was bugging them and didn’t have the wherewithal to let other people know it in a way that other people could hear.
We need to give a lot of thought to what kids are telling us, how we’re going about discipline and how we’re going about solving problems with them and whether we’re using discipline in ways that foster the skills that I mentioned. And mostly the answer is no. And that’s a problem. We’re not very good at solving problems together.
CSC: How would you evaluate the nation’s changing paradigm on school discipline and punitive practices? There’s been more attention given to alternative approaches, but many challenges remain.
RG: It’s variable out there. We still use locked- and blocked-door seclusion and restraints on kids in American public schools, which occasionally makes the media. We do this 270,000 times a year in the U.S. There are states that are out trying to get rid of corporeal punishment; 31 already have. Some of the 19 that remain are moving in that direction, but that’s traumatizing stuff, and we lose a lot of kids that way. The rates of suspension and detention are still sky high, but there are many school systems that are trying to do something about that and are coming face to face with the futility of those interventions.
If we squint our eyes, we see progress as it relates to the most of the most punitive and toxic things we do, but those are things that are being done to behaviorally challenging students primarily and kids with special needs. They need us to be at our best and most humane, but so does everybody else, all the other kids, who aren’t accessing these extremely punitive interventions, but are seeing it done and seeing it not work and losing faith in adults.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.