Program Profile

Impact Feature Issue on Fostering Success in School and Beyond for Students with Emotional/Behavioral Disorders

Implementing Problem-Solving in Colorado: Wellington Junior High


Suzanne Kemp is a lecturer in the Department of Special Education and Communication Disorders at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

One of the most important social tasks facing children is for them to develop problem-solving skills. The inability to resolve conflicts and understand and negotiate successfully the complexity of an expanding social world often results in social isolation, aggression, and school failure. Training in problem solving is a way to enhance children’s relationships and adjustment. These interventions typically involve three steps: a) conceptualizing conflict situations, b) developing solutions, and c) implementing selected strategies. Examples of conflicts include reacting to a bully’s threats, entering an ongoing conversation, making friends, being falsely accused of misbehaving, wanting to spend time with someone, suspecting a classmate of stealing, and being teased. Children’s ability to resolve these types of conflicts appropriately and successfully helps them shape their feelings about themselves and the school experience as well as enhance the quality of their peer relationships. This article describes one school’s experience with a problem-solving model for addressing problem behavior.

Wellington Junior High School is located in north central Colorado and has a student population of 350. It is a “multi-categorical” school, which means that it serves all students with disabilities in all settings. Students with disabilities are included in the general education classroom and curriculum and, if necessary, receive modified instruction in reading, math, and social skills. The teachers, students, and administrators at the school fully embrace a problem-solving approach as consistent with the school’s inclusionary philosophy and practices. The decision to implement a formal problem-solving model began as an intervention for a few students who were identified as having emotional disorders (ED), and now, five years later, all of the student body are actively engaged in this process. All staff teach problem solving to every student, not just those with ED. The use of school-wide problem solving functions as a common approach for all staff across all environments, thus eliminating confusion between teachers and students and enhancing consistency.

The school does not adhere to a specific problem-solving curriculum. Rather, it bases its program loosely on the social problem-solving training framework described by Gesten, Weissberg, Amish, and Smith (1987). This framework provides a structure for the staff to use when deciding on what problem-solving components may best fit their student population and school community. The framework provides guidance in the areas of program design and structure, assessment issues and strategies, and teacher training and selection. General education teachers are the primary staff to engage students in problem solving. The multi-categorical teachers are the secondary staff who provide more intensive problem-solving training for students with the most challenging behaviors. A referral to an administrator would only occur as a last resort if these two levels failed to produce changes in a particular student’s behavior.

Teachers agree to be flexible in the specific language they use to communicate with students during problem solving so as to best capitalize on the personalized rapport they have established with particular students. However, all staff consistently follow some basic steps. The first step of problem solving is often the most difficult to complete: early identification of the potential problem. Jennifer Highstreet, a multi-categorical teacher at Wellington Junior High, explains that one of the areas in which general education teachers require the most training is identifying early warning signs before a student’s inappropriate behavior escalates. Early identification is important because students are more responsive to following directions when they still have some control over their behavior. The second step is to move the student to an established “safe” spot. The goal here is to provide the student with a quiet place where he or she can regain control before returning and problem solving with the teacher. Students are instructed to re-enter the classroom silently, take a seat, and resume engaging in the current activity. As soon as the teacher is available, he or she begins the problem solving dialogue by asking the student two questions: a) What was going on that caused you to go to the safe spot and b) how are you going to address the issue in the future? The wording, length, and detail of the discussion are flexible and based on teacher discretion. However, all teachers spend time helping the student identify their own frustration triggers. The goal is to have students recognize when they are experiencing increased frustration and be able to remove themselves before staff need to intervene. According to Ms. Highstreet, the goal is to have the entire problem solving process last 10 minutes or less. The majority of students, including many identified with ED, are able to meet this goal.

The inability of some students to benefit from this process – either because they are repeat offenders or exceeding the 10-minute timeframe – results in a more formal collaborative process between the general education teacher and one of the multi-categorical teachers. This discussion focuses on identifying possible antecedents to the problem, what occurs during the problem-solving process, outside issues, and other pertinent topics. A new behavior intervention plan is collaboratively developed to address the student’s problems. It may also be determined at this meeting that an assessment of the behavior and situation is warranted. The assessment answers the question of why a child behaves a certain way, so that educators can modify some aspect of the curriculum (e.g., instruction, materials, tasks) or environment (e.g., providing cues for students to engage in appropriate behaviors and reinforcing them). It results in positive, rather than punitive, techniques to resolve student problems. It is possible to identify what purpose a student’s behavior serves by observing and recording events that precede the behavior (antecedents) and events that follow the behavior (consequences). For example, a teacher tells Mary to stop talking to Judy (antecedent), Mary whistles (behavior), and the teacher tells her to stop whistling (consequence). It is reasonable to assume that Mary’s whistling serves the function (or purpose) of getting her teacher’s attention. The more Mary misbehaves, the more attention she gets from her teacher. As this example illustrates, some children find it preferable to get negative attention rather than no attention. Based on this information, the teacher can make immediate changes in the environment or curriculum to remedy the misbehavior.

Ms. Highstreet has conducted a variety of inservice training sessions helping general education teachers to independently conduct this type of informal assessment. As a result, the general education teachers have learned to identify antecedents, describe consequences they are employing, manipulate the curriculum or environment, and understand the most common functions of behavior (e.g., attention and escape). Therefore, they are often the ones who collect this information and process it with a multi-categorical teacher in order to develop a behavior intervention plan that allows the student to experience increased success in their classrooms.

The general education teachers at Wellington Junior High School have successfully implemented this school-wide problem-solving model with collaboration from the multi-categorical teachers. This approach has resulted in teachers spending more time teaching academics and less time managing students’ inappropriate behaviors. The inclusion of all teachers learning how to identify antecedents, consequences, and purposes of behavior for students with particularly challenging behaviors has prevented the need for specialists conducting formal multi-faceted functional assessments and reduced the need for involving school administrators in the disciplinary process. Students have indicated that they feel more in control of their behaviors and are better able to manage themselves. Through these proactive behavioral and academic interventions many previously failing students are experiencing success in school.


  • Gesten, E. L., Weissberg, R. P., Amish, P. L., & Smith, J. K. (1987). Problem solving training: A skills-based approach to prevention and treatment (C. A. Maher & J. E. Zins, Eds.). New York: Pergamon.