Youth Villages stories

Youth Villages and Gestalt Community partner in Collaborative Problem Solving project. 

It’s a scorching summer day in Memphis, but Dr. Stuart Ablon, director of the Think:Kids program at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, is easily holding the attention of a gymnasium full of teachers. His message: Collaborative Problem Solving — a framework used at Youth Villages sites across the country to teach kids and their families skills they can use to deal with frustration, be more flexible, and solve problems — can work in the classroom, too. It’s not easy, though.

“Some of the hardest places to do Collaborative Problem Solving are schools,” Ablon said. “Why? Because teachers have to manage the classroom and teach a curriculum at the same time.” Struggling with an academic concept or a test or even the child in the next seat can trigger frustration in children, especially those who lack the skills they need to calm down or solve the problem. Collaborative Problem Solving teaches those skills, said Ablon.

“Conventional school discipline doesn’t work on the kids we use it on the most,” he noted, pointing out that kids who are struggling are, in fact, working much harder than the kids for whom learning comes easily. The token behavioral system familiar in many schools – handing out tickets or stars for good behavior – doesn’t do anything to assess the skills kids lack and help develop them.

Some of the teachers in the room are from the Youth Villages schools, but also taking the plunge into Collaborative Problem Solving are teachers from two Memphis middle schools run by the Gestalt Community Schools charter network.

“We have a real opportunity to stop the school-to-prison pipeline that starts in elementary school,” said Yetta Lewis, Gestalt’s Chief Executive Office and Co-founder, introducing Ablon to her teachers that hot morning. “We have the power to do transformational work, and (Collaborative Problem Solving) will provide our teachers with a toolkit to mitigate the many issues the Gestalt students struggle with.”

“The philosophy behind Collaborative Problem Solving was an immediate fit for (Gestalt) and their philosophy about challenging behavior at school,” said Susan Deason, project manager of the Youth Villages Anaya Partnership, which links Youth Villages’ in-home specialist model with school-based interventions. Collaborative Problem Solving starts with empathy, and helps both teachers and their students build skills to solve tough behavioral problems.

Gestalt will be part of studies on the effects of using Collaborative Problem Solving in the classroom, conducted in partnership with Youth Villages and Think:Kids. The two organizations hope to answer these questions: How, exactly, does Collaborative Problem Solving work, for whom, and how well?

“Collaborative Problem Solving gives teachers the tools they need to provide (students) with the best education and environment possible,” said Alisha Pollastri, Ph.D., director of research and evaluation at Think:Kids.

The study also will involve learning how to measure the effects of Collaborative Problem Solving, said Sarah Hurley, Ph.D, director of data science at Youth Villages.

Finally comes the question of measuring the actual changes in the brains of the kids who get Collaborative Problem Solving training and learn to use it regularly, which will take place not at the schools but at a Youth Villages residential treatment center in Georgia.

“In five years,” said Pollastri, “I hope the headlines read: Thanks to this research, we now understand what works to keep kids in school, to reduce teachers’ stress, and to improve problem solving skills for a lifetime of success.”