Problem Solving in the Classroom

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Success Story

Last week during our class meetings, I noticed a disturbing habit developing among my students. Sometimes they don't want to switch seats and move away from their best friends, and sometimes they want to be the last one standing (when we do an activity that has us sit down after our turn). Then we talked about how this might make everyone else feel and how it might affect our class community. We agreed that this was a problem because it did not make everyone feel welcome. Finally, I asked them for suggestions to solve the problem.

We have been working on problem solving all year. I started by teaching my students that solutions always need to be related, respectful, reasonable, and helpful. This is a challenge for students who often think of punishments before solutions. As we started talking about possible solutions to this problem, the first few solutions were not surprisingly more like punishments, such as, having the culprits sit out of future greetings and activities until they were being kind, or skipping offenders in the circle. However, the more we talked, the more they began to consider ways to prevent the problem from even occurring. Eventually we settled on two possible preventative solutions:

1) they could come to the circle separately and choose a place to sit away from close friends so they wouldn't be tempted to resist moving.

2) we could make assigned seats around the circle so that no one would feel uncomfortable about moving if necessary.

At this point, I told the class I would consider both solutions. It seems that I've taught them well about how to solve problems fairly because immediately one student suggested that I let the class vote. It was hard to argue with her logic and truthfully both solutions were acceptable. So this morning we had a vote. I had the kids close their eyes and raise their hands. They voted (20-3) to have assigned seats. When they opened their eyes and I announced the winning solution they started fist pumping with excitement.

I couldn't help but smile. I could never have imagined such a positive reaction to the idea of assigned seats for class activities. In fact, I suspect that had I forced the idea of assigned seats on them as a "punishment" or consequence, I would have heard lots of complaints and frustration. Yet when they could appreciate the problem and come to the solution on their own, they were more than willing to accept the idea. We immediately created a chart with assigned circle seats and by the afternoon they were already reminding each other where they needed to sit. Love it! Sarah Werstuik, Washington, D.C.

Teach Students the 4 Problem-Solving Steps

Another way to solve problems in the classroom is to teach students the 4 Problem-Solving Steps.

Post a copy of the 4 Problem-Solving Steps where students can refer to it (maybe next to a "peace table").

Problem-Solving Steps

  1. Ignore it. (It takes more courage to walk away than to stay and fight.)
    • Do something else. (Find another game or activity.)
    • Leave long enough for a cooling-off period, then follow-up with the next steps.
  2. Talk it over respectfully.
    • Tell the other person how you feel. Let him or her know you don’t like what is happening.
    • Listen to what the other person says about how he or she feels and what he or she doesn’t like.
    • Share what you think you did to contribute to the problem.
    • Tell the other person what you are willing to do differently.
  3. Agree together on a solution. For example:
    • Work out a plan for sharing or taking turns.
    • Apologize
  4. Ask for help if you can’t work it out together.
    • Put it on the class meeting agenda. (This can also be a first choice and is not meant as a last resort.)
    • Talk it over with a parent, teacher, or friend.

After discussing these skills, have the children role-play the following hypothetical situations. Have them solve each of the situations four different ways (one for each of the steps).

  1. Fighting over whose turn it is to use the tetherball.
  2. Shoving in line.
  3. Calling people bad names.
  4. Fighting over whose turn it is to sit by the window in the car or bus.

Teachers can put the Four Problem-Solving Steps on a laminated poster for students to refer to. Some teachers require that children use these steps before they put a problem on the agenda. Other teachers prefer the class meeting process because it teaches other skills. Instead of making one better than the other (class meeting or one-on-one), let children choose which option they would prefer at the moment.



This tool and many others can be found in the Positive Discipline Teacher Tool Cards.

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