The Explosive Child

Growing up with foster children, living in and around “children’s homes” and working as a teacher have all exposed me to working and living with challenging children and teens. Some people have described these kids as being “difficult, willful, manipulative, attention-seeking, limit-testing, contrary, intransigent, [and] unmotivated” (Greene, 2010), but I challenge you to be a little open minded and read on…


I just finished reading (literally 1 hour ago) The Explosive Child by Ross Greene, Ph.D and am totally blown away by the insightfulness and understanding in which he writes about “Explosive” children and the people who live and interact with them daily. Greene characterizes explosive children not as the description in the previous paragraph, but as kids who lack the developmental capability to be flexible, tolerate frustration, and solve problems as other, more developmentally advanced children can. The simple theory is posed that all children will do well if they can. Just as some kids don’t do well in certain areas of mathematics/writing/science, etc… because they can’t (yet), explosive children don’t handle frustrations, aren’t flexible, and don’t solve problems well (as simple as they may seem to us) because they can’t (yet).

Without rewriting whole chapters here, I’ll briefly outline the “method” that
Greene poses. Instead of imposing your will onto an explosive child (you will/will not do X) or totally avoiding the situation, use the Collaborative Problem Solving strategy in which you and the child sit down when they are calm and able to think reasonably and identify each other’s concerns and try to come up with mutually satisfactory solutions.

This process is broken down into 3 steps:

1) The Empathy step: gather information from your kid to achieve the clearest possible understanding of his/her concern or perspective on a given un-solved problem

Adult: “I’ve noticed that you aren’t finishing your homework lately. What’s up?”
Child: “My homework is too hard.”
Adult: “So you’re saying that your homework is too hard…what part?”
Child: “The writing part is too hard. I write too slow and my teacher is making me write whole paragraphs. It takes too long and so I forget all my ideas so I’m not going to do it.”

2) The Define the Problem step: enter your concern or perspective into consideration

Adult: “So you’re telling me that you don’t want to do your homework because the writing part is too hard because it takes you a long time to write a paragraph and so you forget your ideas, so you’re not going to do it. My concern is that if you don’t do your writing homework, you’re going to fall behind in writing even more and it will only get harder.”

3) The Invitation step: lets the child know that solving the problem is something you’re doing with him/her rather and to him/her.

Adult: “How about we think of a way that you will be able to get your writing homework done faster and remember your ideas and still do it so that way you don’t fall behind any more.”
Child: “Well, what if I have you write my paragraphs for me?”
Adult: “That is a possible solution, but we tried that before and your teachers wanted you to write them yourself. Could we think of another idea?”
Child: “ Well, sometimes you use a tape recorder to help you remember your ideas for work. Maybe I could use it to record my ideas when I want to write paragraphs.”
Adult: “That sounds like a great idea. I don’t need it when I’m not at work, so you can use it for your homework. Why don’t we try this idea and see if it works. If it doesn’t, then we can talk about it again.”

Obviously there is more to being successful than what I wrote here…especially if the child or teen you are working with has difficulty having a rational conversation…reading the book is a valuable use of your precious time (took me about 3-4 hours) and I cannot wait to put this new way of working with explosive children into practice at my school. If you have an explosive child or if you work with even 1 explosive child, PLEASE, PLEASE read the book and apply the practice to your daily interactions with him/her. Your life and theirs will greatly improve and you will only be setting them up for success.

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23 responses to “The Explosive Child

  1. Special Ed Teacher – No disrespect, but you’re a hoot! Reread what you just wrote. In essence you are doing what the book is recommending. Yes, you are the absolute authority. It sounds as if you are very good from what your last reply states. You, in essence, are problem solving for your kids. You are taking their data, their likes and dislikes, and I’m assuming their strengths and weaknesses into consideration and making/helping them with a plan of action to make them the best they can be. Yes, you are the absolute authority. You are listening to their needs and going forward. Keeping them on track. Yes, you are the absolute authority. Johnny can’t stay focused to write a paragraph, let’s try a recorder for him. Suzie can’t see very well, let’s try enlarging the pages for her or moving her to the front of the room. The book does not state that we throw all the rules out the window. Rules/absolutes are there for safety and fairness to one and all to achieve the best school/home environment as possible. Yes, when the rules are broke, yes there are consequences. BUT, when it is all said and done, you, sped teacher, opened a dialogue to find their likes, dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, and made a plan of action.


    • Trebor’s Mom: With due respect, I am not doing what the book recommends. I am the consummate professional educator who knows how to collect and process behavioral data to create a hypothesis and treatment plan. Greene would have you believe that his “feel-good” CPS and Plan B dialog with the child will convince the child to stop exploding. Greene’s rhetoric is bunk. Behavior modification is about positive reinforcement AND negative punishment AND it works!

      I give a lot of praise when students display appropriate behaviors, but I also take away priviledges (detentions) when students display socially inappropriate behavior. I believe that Greene does not support this and that is okay because this works for me and my data of student behavior shows positive change (growth). Three IEP meetings this week with seniors who have made monumental attitude and behavior changes. I believe that it is because of consistency. These students have come to learn that my reaction to their behavior will be a “calm steadfastness” … that I will always dialog with them in a “matter of fact” way, with “If, Then, Else” statements such as “IF you stop swearing at me now, THEN you will get a 1-hour detention, or ELSE you will get a 3-hour detention on Saturday.”

      It works with all explosive children and students, but it is not for the weak or the faint of heart. Whats more is that it does not insult the student, but empowers him/her to learn to independently make better decisions.


  2. After though: Do we not use this premiss with our “non explosive children”? If you keep dropping the cup, it’s going to break. How about holding it this way. Cup no longer gets dropped. A+B=C


  3. I’m quite torn! While agreeing that there should be absolute authority, I am the parent and you are the child, I like the concept of teaching the absolute authority to dialog with the child. So many behaviors start and grow because the original issue was not addressed. That original issue could have been a little grain of sand in your shoe, but left unattended can cause a blister. I have a special needs child who’s disorder has presentation of both autistic and OCD tendencies. We are constantly working through transitional issues that stem from minor changes (new work book at school, wrote a wrong letter with ink and cant erase it). While I’ve learned that some things just have to tantrum out while he works it through his brain, when it comes to safety and respect, not only for me the authority parent, but to others, my word stands. We attended a positive education program when my son was first diagnosed. What I realized after about 6 months that the program really wasn’t for the child. It was for the parent, the authority figure. to teach them how to deal with their “explosive child”. My favorite technique? Giving my son two choices. Both choices I can live with, but it gives him the opportunity to learn correct behavior and choices without me haven’t to use the all encompassing shut-down word “no”. It goes without saying, in the heat of an unsafe situation, the “no” word is used first and loudly.

    In a nut shell, I think “explosive child” and “behavior modification” are basically the same thing: A+B=C.

    What is problem? + How to solve this? = Ending resolution

    BUT, after all is said and done, the absolute authority has initiated, monitored, and hopefully resolved the situation permanently. Good example: Child in my son’s class kept hitting himself in the head. Initial OT kept telling them to restrain his hand. Didn’t work. New OT figured out he was self-stimulating. Gave him a textured little pillow for him to rub his face with. No more hitting. A+B=C


    • Trebor’s Mom, I also use the “two choices” strategy with not only my own students (both special needs and not) and my own daughter…it works really well because like you said, both choices are ones you can live with and children like choices, even if it’s just the illusion of choice.


    • Trebor’s mom and Stacy, I definitely appreciate your approach with two choices. Thank you for offering this. I too give choices, but generally the choices are discused in “family conference”…this is a part of behavior modification that I bring to the table from corrections ed.

      In my school, I counsel students on my caseload and the questioning reveals their likes and dislikes. I use this information as data to lead them towards success decisions in class. I use this data in my choices, trying to include each student’s likes and dislikes.

      That all being said… when I give the direction/instruction, I am the authority in the classroom, I remain calm and steadfast in my decision because I know the data behind it. If the student rebels to the direction, I now take appropriate action of documented interventions and leading toward principal’s office referral.

      If I had the old sped supervisor that previously pushed Greene down my throat, it wouldn’t work. But I have a building Principal now who is very like-minded. There are many absolutes in this building… students are prepared for class…students do not disrupt other students education…students are held accountable for their behavior. As well, there are absolutes placed upon teachers too including planning/preparation, and classroom management. I recently got my teacher evaluation back and found my rating on classroom management is “DISTINGUISHED”


  4. I read this book a few years ago while we were struggling with my son’s “behavioural issues” and shortly before he was diagnosed with ASD at the age of 6. This book changed everything for our family. At first I didn’t recognize him as an explosive child and I didn’t consider reading book, but then I saw the book again and the term “chronically inflexible” caught my attention, and I’m so glad I read the book. When my son was in first grade, his teacher was very strict and ran a tight ship. That would have been great for my oldest and my youngest, but not for my middle son with ASD. It was a terrible year for him and he had so much anxiety and acted out constantly. Once I learned to have more flexibility, and asked for teachers with more flexible yet still structured, he completely bloomed (Ann, I guess he was an orchid and not a lilly!) I truly believe “all children will do well if they can”. And yes, all children are different but this book was just what we needed.


  5. Everyone must remember that all children are different. Because they are different, they must be treated on an individual basis. What works for many, may not work for that special one. Out of that many, there probably are several that that need that special attention. You wouldn’t raise an orchid the same way you would a water Lilly would you?


    • Thank you Ann! You’re right, “…children are different…[and]…must be treated on an individual basis.” Greene would have you think that his “CPS” and “Plan B” would work for ALL children 100% of the time. In my total of 16 years experience in both around special ed and [juvenile] corrections ed, I have found that it works on a minor few. Remember above when I gave the account of the student slugging my sped supervisor in the face… well here again it was in my experience, that I found students learned to say what was expected, because that is what got them “out of trouble” But then they immediately went behind our backs and made fun of us, made fun of CPS, and boasted to other students that they just got away with lying to us. If I were to a gambling man, I would say that was the case 95% of the time.

      On the other side of that, we never had CPS or Plan B in corrections ed. Instead, we had Behavior Modification. In Greene’s terminology, it was “Plan A” My experience shows that it works 75% of the time. And in my home with my own children, Behavior Modification works 100% of the time.

      For you folks out there with ASD children, Applied Behavior Analysis works very effectively with greater results than Greene.


  6. Good governor… thank goodness my grandchild has never had to endure this special ed teacher. I wonder how many hundreds of children you have permanently damaged. Your boss should see your rant. I would hope you would not have a job. I have marveled at how well this process works with my grandson. Theory of mind works into this as well. The process allows child to better understand the requests for compliance and learn how to problem solve, how to be more flexible, and the parent often is flabbergasted to learn just how the child sees the issue. Often the parent is the one who adjusts their own solutions once they understand the child’s perspective. This is a WONDERfUL book!!!


    • Very well Gloria, you are entitled to your opinion, and am not surprised. I’ll tell you honestly that I learned the CPS model and tried it on my own children–it worked well with my own child who has Asperger’s Syndrome and did have a Specific Learnind Disability. As a matter of fact, I use CPS with him still.

      But my experience was negative in my former emotional support (severe behavior handicapped). As a matter of fact, my former boss (the one that pushed both of Greene’s books down my throat) was not as effective as she touted herself the “Queen of Greene”. One time, I watched her deliver a perfect, by the book, CPS dialog–then the kid punched her in the face because he percieved that she was mocking him. It just doesn’t work as it is intended, when it actually usurps the authority from the classroom teacher. eOne kid punched her in the face because he felt that she was mocking him. My generation may all be dead when the effects of Greene’s “spoil the child” are seen.


  7. As the parent of an explosive child AND as a teacher, I love this book. I disagree with Special Ed Teacher’s perspective that the book encourages rewarding children for bad behavior. While I believe that all children must learn to follow rules and accept authority, I have been impressed with Greene’s approach which is that not EVERY rule needs to be absolute for EVERY child EVERY time. A large part of the book is focused on the adult in the situation and requires the parent/teacher, etc to re-examine whether the expectation/rule is truly a necessity. Greene uses the compares a parent digging in their heels and insisting a child comply as to an adult temper tantrum. It took me a long time (and I am still not always good at it) to recognize whether MY way was critical or whether I was simply trying to control the situation. I love that the book was able to help me see that sometimes (A LOT of times) I need to be the one to be flexible if for no reason other than maintaining my own sanity and the peace within our family.


    • Nikki, you know Greene well. I am diabolically opposed to Greene’s positions. I do believe that the adult in the situation must maintain absolute control over the situation and over the child. I’m here to tell you that my own child with a disability has only overcome his disability becuase of due diligence. He has multiple disabilities, but his specific learning disability in mathematic processing is what he has overcome. Despite his teachers knowing that I work in the field and have a M.Ed. in Sped, my son’s teachers told me that I should not push my son as hard as I do. In the 3rd grade, he tested at the 1st grade level in math. By the end of 6th grade, he tested at grade level. WHY? because when his teachers dumbed down assignments by assigning half of the page, I sat with him and he did the whole page…everytime. And when his teachers stopped sending the whole page (because they knew what I was going to do), I printed my own practice problems and he turned those into his teacher to be graded.

      Now back to Greene… All behavior is learned. A student slamming my classroom door, calling me a F^&*ing Jerk, is a learned behavior. If you use Greene’s CPS, the student ends up laughing at all of the adults involved because he knows perfectly well that he just got over on everybody.

      These kids need to know the meaning of the word “NO” And not learn that “NO” means “NO for now, but if you bug me long enough, I’ll say YES.”

      Greene is a virus and is infectious. Be careful parents and educators! If you really want to help your kids, then tell them NO and mean it….don’t cave in.


  8. STACY, Here’s what I’m saying. Greene would have his readers believe (along with my former boss) that rules are not absolute, or that children can negotiate rules / laws / instructions / directions. I was a child of 1965 and when Dr. Spock’s book hit the stores, my mother burned it. My mother and my father both spanked me. Today, I have a healthy respect for authority. Students who have called me foul names, slammed my classroom door, received candy from my former supervisor for talking to her, all have a distorted view of the world and authority in our lives.

    I’ll even make the leap and state that the students which I refer to, may never function in competitive employment without supports…may never function in post-secondary education without support…may never be experience full independent living. And who is to blame? I’ll put the blame on anybody who does not teach absolute authority…parents who do not teach absolute authority over their home, educators who are not allowed to exert absolute authority over their classroom / building / district.

    And when these children who disrespect and disregard authority grow up and are ordered by a police officer to “cease and desist” will most likely be taken to the ground in a physical restraint.

    That is what I think is unfair for the kid with an emotional / behavioral disabilty… we are actually responsible for setting them up for failure in society.

    Thank you Senators, Congressmen, Mr. President, and all of our liberal do-gooders who have taken the power and authority away from trained adults.


    • Wow, how disturbing. This rant is a testimonial about what is wrong with public schools, resentful, judgmental teachers, and adults so petty they feel that their personal politics are relevant in a conversation about helping children who need help.


      • Lynn, Please walk just 1 mile in my shoes before you call me “judgemental.” Teachers are prepared and “experienced” in observing behaviors, and behavior modification.


    • P.S.: I have burned both of Greene’s books… “The Explosive Child” and “Lost At School.” It was an exorcism, which was the outward symbolism that I was finally released and free from the devil–my former sped supervisor.


  9. I am a special ed teacher, and worked for 4 years in an emotional support clasroom. That book was crammed down my throat by my former boss. When the student gets upset at the teacher, slams doors and calls the teacher foul names, then the supervisor would give the student candy and went through Greene’s CPS. Then would tell me what she negotiated with the student, and force me to lower my behavioral expectation for the student.

    Children need to learn absolute boundaries. Children need to learn absolute authority. Green does not teach that neither authority or boundaries are absolute.

    Green is bad for American children, and American Public Schools.


    • I actually do. There is a chapter that describes how to work with non-verbal children, which in some ways, working with a 3-year old might be similar to. Just reading the book helped give me a new (and shall I say much needed-for me at least-and refreshing) perspective on how to not only “handle” explosive children, but also change your mindset.


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