Teach By Design
Data-based decision making
Tier 2
Oct 12, 2021

4 Ways to Widen Your Problem-Solving Perspective

Have you ever made a decision and wondered if there's something you might have missed? Here are four ways to expand your problem-solving perspective and explore new solutions to some of your most challenging decisions.

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Every October, we talk about a practice called The October Catch. In case this is your first time hearing about the strategy, it goes like this:

Research shows us that half of all elementary students who ended the year with six or more office discipline referrals (ODRs) already had at least two referrals by the end of October; 79% had at least two ODRs by the end of December.[1] Research also shows us 91% of middle school students with an ODR in September for “Defiance” ended the year with six or more referrals.[2]

Basically, when October rolls around, it’s time to pay close attention to the students who have at least two or more referrals and the students who have even one ODR for “defiance”.

Identifying students and adding them to a list is great, but what comes next? Maybe referring the list to the Tier 2 team sounds like a good next step. Doing whatever you did last October could be good, too. It could also be true that these decisions end in failure.

How do you know when you’re making the best decision?

Start WRAP-ping

We’ve talked about Chip and Dan Heath before in Teach by Design; we covered their book Made to Stick a couple of years ago when we explored getting staff buy-in for your PBIS implementation. I started my research on this topic by reading one article, then another, which let me to a website, then a TED Talk, and a book, until eventually…guess what?

They’re back.

As it turns out, the Heath brothers also wrote a book called Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work.[3] The title gives away the plot: It’s a book full of strategies that led individual teams to some great decisions. Chip and Dan take all of this information and distill it down to a simple, four-step process all of us can use…they even wrapped it up in a sweet little acronym. (See what I did there? I’ll see myself out.):

  • Widen Your Options
  • Reality Test Your Assumptions
  • Attain Distance Before Deciding
  • Prepare to be Wrong

The WRAP process helps strategically overcome the kneejerk reactions we often have when we make decisions. Each step of the WRAP process offers ideas for how to think about a problem from another perspective, slow things down just enough to expose alternatives, and think through the nuances you never considered. The "W" is the first step.

The first step to making better decisions is to notice when you’re only paying attention to one note instead of listening to the whole song.

Widen Your Options

I mentioned earlier all the articles and the other book I was reading before I picked up Decisive. Each of them, in one way or another, identified our narrow focus as a giant obstacle in decision making.

  • One article suggested that we think of choosing the best course of action as “finding the highest point in a hilly landscape.”[4] If we only climb halfway up the first hill, we develop a whole bunch of assumptions without ever knowing there are more hills looming in the distance.
  • In his book, Farsighted, Steven Johnson describes our everyday decisions as “narrowband”. He says these decisions are like zooming in to thoroughly examine the violin section all while an entire orchestra creates a full symphonic sound around you.
  • Chip and Dan call this “narrow framing”.

Whatever you call it, clearly our ability to see the multidimensional aspects of the problems we’re looking to solve is tricky. How do you know when the landscape is hilly? What can you do to hear the other instruments around you, too? How do you avoid a narrow frame when you’re making decisions? Here are four ideas to expand your perspective and widen your options.

Turn “Whether or Not” into “What Else?”

The first step is recognizing when you’re headed down a real narrow path. Whenever you hear the words “whether or not,” put a pause on the discussion. Those three words should set off a series of internal alarms telling you that if you keep going, you’ll limit your options to “this” or “that”. An example might be:

  • Should we refer these students for Tier 2 supports or not?
  • We need to figure out whether these referrals are a classroom-level issue or not.
  • Should we reteach expectations around behavior in the hallways or not?

Let me just tell you now, rarely is there a problem for which one and only one alternative exists. Instead of asking a “whether or not”question, ask yourselves, “What else could we do?” If coming up with additional options is tough, Chip and Dan have some tricks to jumpstart the creative energy in the conference room.

Take No for an Answer: The Vanishing Options Test

This strategy is my favorite one. The Vanishing Options Test works like a reverse-genie-in-the-bottle. Instead of rubbing a magic lamp and getting a genie who will grant you three wishes, the Vanishing Options genie listens to your wishes and says, “Nope, I can’t do those things. What else you got?” Essentially, this strategy asks you to consider what you would do if the current option wasn’t possible. Here’s an example.

Let’s say you’re talking about the students identified in your October Catch work. The question before the group is: Should we refer these students for Tier 2 supports? First, recognize that is a “whether or not” question and that means we need more options. It could be that referring them for additional support is the best decision, but without considering alternatives you can’t know for sure. Using the Vanishing Options Test, ask the group to pretend referring students for Tier 2 support isn’t possible. This opens you up to look for additional causes contributing to these students’ behaviors.

  • How many teachers are referring these students? A small number of staff contributing too many referrals might lead you to consider solutions related to staff behavior in addition to student behavior.
  • How many students are we talking about? If you would say you’ve got a lot of students in the group, consider school-wide solutions first rather than targeted ones.
  • Do students have any demographic data in common? If students have grade level, gender, IEP status, race/ethnicity, or other demographic information in common, talk about solutions that take that into consideration.

Think AND not OR

Chip and Dan explain that our decisions often fall into one of two categories – prevention or promotion. Those of us with a prevention focus look to avoid negative outcomes. Those with a promotion focus pursue positive outcomes. Because we usually fall into one perspective or the other, we lead ourselves to believe a decision must be one OR the other. To widen your options, consider what kind of decision you could make if you did both.

Let’s go back to our original question: Should we refer these students for Tier 2 supports? So far, I’ve encouraged you to take that option off the table. After exploring alternatives, maybe your team learns there are three staff members contributing to half of the referrals in this particular student cohort. By taking an “and” rather than an “or” approach, your team might decide to refer some students for additional supports AND look further into the referral patterns for these three staff members.

Look for Bright Spots

Bright spots are “the first signs that things are working, the first precious As and Bs on our report card.”[5] When you’re stuck trying to come up with options, look for bright spots in your own history – those moments that resemble your current situation and instead of getting worse, things got better. In PBIS, we talk about celebrating successes. In this case, when you find a success, you shouldn’t just celebrate it; you should try to replicate it.

As you look at your referral data, successes can look a lot like nothing. What I mean is, a lack of referrals is a good indication something about the system is working. In our previous example, let’s say we want to look for bright spots related to our October Catch work. There are a few places you could start:

  • Which times during the day are these students successful? If they’ve never received a referral in Ms. Cook’s science class, check in with Ms. Cook. Find out what seems to be working well for them in her class. Better still, check in with the students and ask them what they like about Ms. Cook’s class. These insights add options as you build solutions.
  • What do these students’ referral data look like in previous years? Students are under more stress this year than in other years. It’s likely all that stress will translate into more unwanted behaviors in your school than in other years. If this year looks like an anomaly, it might be. How do you build solutions for a student whose data looks vastly different this year compared to years past?
  • What does your school’s referral data look like this year compared to last year? If there’s more behaviors happening across the board, widening your options to include school-wide solutions makes a lot of sense. You can also think through what options would address current issues without dismantling things that worked really well in previous years.

The first step to making better decisions is to notice when you’re only paying attention to one note instead of listening to the whole song. Narrow-framed decisions happen when we ask, “whether or not” instead of, “What else could we do?” Taking away the popular option expands your perspective to look for other causes contributing to the problem. Identifying multiple sources to a given problem shouldn’t force you to decide which problem to tackle first; wherever you can, tackle both. Then, when you come across a problem and no solution immediately jumps to mind, look for successes in your data and think about how to replicate that within your current context.

At the end of the day, asking more questions of your data always leads to more options. By asking these questions, you check out every dimension of the problem and develop solutions to address every angle.

Is your interest piqued about the WRAP process? Mine was, too, after reading that first section. Well, spoiler alert: Next month we’ll wrap it up and cover the next three steps.

1. McIntosh, K., Frank, J., & Spaulding, S. A. (2010). Establishing research-based trajectories of office discipline referrals for individual students. School Psychology Review, 39, 380-394.
2. Predy, L., McIntosh, K., & Frank, J. (2014). Utility of number and type of office discipline referrals in predicting chronic problem behavior in middle schools. SchoolPsychology Review, 43 (4), 472-489.
3. Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2013). Decisive: How to make better choices in life and work. Currency.
4. Bang,D., & Frith, C. D. (2017). Making better decisions in groups. Royal Society Open Science, 4(8), 170193.https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.170193
5. Heath,C., & Heath, D. (2011). Switch: How to change things when change is hard. Waterville, Me: Thorndike Press.
Megan Cave

About

Megan Cave

Megan Cave is a member of the PBISApps Marketing and Communication team. She is the writer behind the user manuals, scripted video tutorials, and news articles for PBISApps. She also writes a monthly article for Teach by Design and contributes to its accompanying Expert Instruction podcast episode. Megan has completed four half marathons – three of which happened unintentionally – and in all likelihood, will run another in the future.