Teachers and parents of young children are notoriously good problem-solvers. When discontent arises, we swoop in, assess the situation, and set timers, create turn-taking lists, grab another item for sharing, or utilize some other method from our bag of tricks. We are so good at problem solving because we get so much practice! This is all well and good, and at times a skill of survival, but to truly benefit children for the long run, it is ideal to involve them in the problem solving process. It may slow things down a bit, but eventually you will find that you are “swooping in” less and less as the children build their own sets of social problem-solving skills and become more independent.
To be sure, problem solving is a complicated task. Let’s be honest, there are plenty of adults who don’t have these skills! Encouraging children to be problem solvers is more than saying, “Let me know how that works out for ya!” Depending upon the individual child’s level of language skills and cognitive skills, we will coach them along at varying levels of support, scaffolding them through the process. In essence, we are simply going through the process out loud and giving them a part in it. Here are a few ways that I help children learn to problem solve, spanning across developmental levels. Pick and practice those that apply best to the children you love and teach.
Describe the situation. Come down to the child’s level, and put your arm around her if she seems comfortable with that. Without passing judgement, describe what’s going on. Keep your voice calm, and the child will likely follow. “You look angry. Tell me about it.” Younger, less verbal children benefit greatly from this labeling process as their ability to feel very intense emotions far outweighs their ability to verbally express them (read more on Verbalizing Emotions). In situations where there are two parties, you should encourage each person to tell his side. “Lee I’m going to have Jesse tell what he thinks the problem is, and you and I are going to listen, and then Lee, you’re going to have a turn to tell Jesse and I what you think the problem is.” If they’re fighting over an object, first say, “I’m going to hold this until we get things worked out.” Gently remove it, and hold it out of sight if possible, so that the children can focus on talking rather than gaining possession. (For more on sharing, read here.)
Gaining peer feedback helps the children see things from another child’s perspective. This is a very difficult task for young children, but hearing how their actions have affected another can help them make this leap. It helps them to realize that their choices are not without consequences for themselves as well as for others. When working with less verbal children, or a child who is too upset to speak, we must use adult feedback, where we as adults speak on behalf of the child. “That really hurt Flora when the ball hit her. She didn’t like it at all, and it made her feel really sad. Do you see her face? That looks very sad.”
What can we do? Once you’ve clarified the problem, ask the children, “What can we do?” As the children make suggestions, refer to the other party again, saying, “What do you think about that?” Your job during this phase is to simply referee. Make sure each party gets to make suggestions and weigh in on the other child’s suggestions. Help them to be objective and find a solution that everyone can live with rather than getting overly emotional and waging personal attacks. (Perhaps the political world could use some of this coaching…..but I digress.) If the children are struggling, you may make some suggestions yourself. “Hmmm. We could set a timer and then take turns, or we could play with it at the same time, or we could put it away and paint instead…..”
For very young children or children who may struggle through this process, you may simply present a solution and give them a smaller part to negotiate. “It sounds like Tara had it first, and Sasha would like a turn. Tara, I’m going to set my timer, so we know when it’s Sasha’s turn. Should I set it for 3 minutes or 5 minutes? OK Sasha, Tara will be done in five minutes and then it will be your turn. Does that sound fair to you?” or “It sounds like you were just very frustrated because you needed help building the tower. Who could you ask for help? OK, say, ‘Lisa will you help me build this tower?’”
For children who are more capable and familiar with the problem solving process, you may even get them started and then say, “Let me know when you come to an agreement.” Though you should still stay relatively close in case tempers flare again. You’d be surprised as to the creative solutions children can come up with on their own when they’re given the tools and the space to own the problem!
Giving children an active part in the problem solving process- even if it’s just hearing the process out loud as you guide them through with simple questions- helps them to build the social skills necessary to problem solve in the future. It also helps them to own their behavior, recognizing that you as an adult are there to help, not to fix things for them.
Not just in the heat of the moment. Hopefully now you see the benefit of guiding children through the problem-solving process as conflicts arise. Problem solving and negotiating is hard to do, particularly when the stakes- and tempers- are high. Give children practice with these skills in other moments when they are in a less vulnerable position. As an example, with my own boys, when we go to the library, they love to pick from the assortment of DVDs. I allow each to pick one, and then allow them one additional DVD that they can agree on together. If they can agree, great we get a bonus DVD. If not, I simply respond, “That’s OK, we can try again to agree next week.” (Though that generally spurs them on to try negotiating one more time.) I often remind them that “I want this one, but I want that one” is arguing, not negotiating. Then I tell them they need to share their ideas. “Tell the other what you like most about the one you have, and maybe you’ll find some things you both like.” This is great practice in a safe situation.
So give it a try. Find ways you can encourage your children to problem solve in safe situations, and coach them through the tougher conflicts they have with each other. You’ll find that as they become more capable, you’ll be putting yourself out of a job!
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