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Teaching Problem Solving to Young Children

Teaching Problem Solving to young children

We have all witnessed it… the children who, at the ripe old age of six, or maybe even four, can spell their names, count up to 100, recite their phone number, play a musical instrument, dance for grandma, and maybe can even write a few words, but! when on the playground with peers, and someone takes their shovel, bike, truck or jump-rope what happens?







So how do you teach problem solving to young children? My off-the-cuff answer (although very honest and true) is SLOWLY, PATIENTLY and CONSISTENTLY!

Nothing happens over night, if you get a new group of children each year it might be best to spend the first few weeks observing who has a handle on problem solving and who might need some assistance. I have had two-year olds who could get shovels back and six-year olds who still throw tantrums!

First things first: lets take a look at the surroundings and make some assessments through observation… is the fighting and arguing between children stemming from possible environmental issues? i.e.: Is there only ONE of the favorite objects? Too few for the large number of children? Might I need to acquire more? Is the arguing happening right before rest time? Lunch time? Just back in from outside playing? Are they extra tired and hungry? Is it always on Mondays after the weekend?

I had a group of children one year who always fought, bickered and pestered each other on Thursdays…. after some detective work I found out there was a TV show that most of them were watching on Wednesday night! The show was keeping these young children up too late for their 6:00 am arrivals to before-school care. Dealing with the environmental factors that might be causing the headaches might often be all that is needed to restore the peace.

However, when a child has something and another child wants it (turn on the bike, swing on the swings, the yellow truck)… I will show/teach/model to the child HOW to ask for it through words such as:

“Tell him that you’d like a turn when he is finished.”

“Ask for a turn when she’s done.”

“See if he wants to trade.”

“What would you like to do while you are waiting?”

I had a two-year old that would bring the cars he would “trade” over to the other two-year old who HAD what he wanted… “Trade?” he’d say..offering his bounty… most of the time this worked for them. Sometimes it didn’t, then you use one of the above “ask for a turn when he’s done” scenarios.

Sometimes children will throw a fit, take, or grab. If I witness this I will calmly say, “give it back and ask for a turn when he is finished.” Sometimes the child will literally sit and wait – watching until the other child is “done” with it. Often this then turns into a power struggle and enters a whole different realm that has nothing to do with sharing or getting shovels back. This is a time when I would observe if this is a current hot item that we might need multiples of, or if a simple lesson in patience is in order… “What would you like to do while you are waiting for Noah to be done?” might be an appropriate action.

CHILD #1: I want to swing! She has been on the swings since we got out here!
TEACHER: Tell her you would like a turn when she is finished.
CHILD #1: I did and she said she’s not done!
TEACHER: What would you like to do while you are waiting?

SIDEBAR: Oftentimes the minute the child ON the swings (pushing the truck, riding the bike) realizes that you (as the grownup) are not going to MAKE him/her get off the swings (give up the truck, get off the bike) just so little Beth can have a turn, will often jump off the swing on her own accord, “share” the truck or hop off the bike…BUT! That will happen only if this is the problem-solving pattern that happens ALL THE TIME – not just when you are feeling extra patient and are in a good mood! Consistency is key!

The real secret is focusing on the child who “wants it” and teaching methods of problem solving: waiting, requesting, and/or finding something else to do.

In a nutshell:
When conflict happens, grabbing, taking, screaming, whining over an object or an item, take their hands and sit with them. Do not HOVER over them three feet taller making the children LOOK UP at you. Get down – facilitate a dialogue between them. Preschool teachers are planting the seeds of problem solving when they do this; elementary teachers are keeping the skills alive and cultivating a deeper understanding. Please note that if you work with school aged children you cannot assume that they know what to do just because they are older… Resist the urge to simply say, “Go use your words!” I know some of the words a three, four, seven or ten year old will use!! So do you! It’s not pretty. We must take responsibility for teaching them the words we expect them to use as both members of a school environment and the community at large as well. Problem solving skills and learning how to get your shovel back are skills that will last a lifetime, long after the art as been thrown away, cubby tags have faded and report cards have been forgotten.

If children do not learn how to get their shovels back when they are little they will grow into adults who don’t know how to get them back either; playground antics, stolen shovels and grabbed away trucks turn into stolen staplers, borrowed scissors, lost computer discs and missed parking lot spaces. Grown ups who get fired from their jobs do not get fired because they cannot do their work, they get fired because they do not know how to deal with people! They do not know how to communicate! They do not have problem solving skills! Translate this to our preschool, kindergarten and primary classrooms – do children get kicked out of school if they can’t tie their shoes? If they get a “D” on a report card? If they cannot turn on the computer? No. But they will get kicked out if they bite…hit… kick… all which are manifestations of a lack of PROBLEM SOLVING SKILLS!

CHILD #1: He took my shovel!
TEACHER: Tell him, “I want my shovel back please”
CHILD#1: “I want my shovel back please”
CHILD #2: But I had it first and then he grabbed it away from me….

SIDEBAR: You know the drill… this bantering could go on for hours! See how it becomes a power struggle instead of problem solving?? This is when the teacher/parent/adult needs to MODEL problem solving skills, not be the boss and take the shovel and give to one child -or take it away or make them find something different to do. These methods are the easy way out and teach only that the ADULT is in charge… no one is learning anything for himself or herself!

TEACHER: Where might you find more shovels? (Now you are also modeling THINKING THROUGH and finding ANOTHER OPTION i.e.: problem solving)
CHILD #2: The bucket by the sandbox has shovels in it.
TEACHER: Let’s go see…

Walk over to bucket together and go from there.

Again, see how an ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUE could be stemming the whole debate? If there are only 10 shovels for 120 kids that is not enough! I worked in a school once that had 108 children in it and they only had four bikes on the playground. What were being dealt with, as BEHAVIOR PROBLEMS were really what? You are correct – ENVIRONMENTAL ones!

The secret to creating an environment that has minimal behavior problems is learning how to control the environment instead of the little people in it. Our goal is for the adult(s) to be involved and acting as a facilitator, assisting and guiding as the children learn these skills for themselves. Playing judge, jury and referee doesn’t teach anything. Facilitating independence and problem solving does NOT mean that we toss them back into the play lot with a strong “Go use your words” as we turn our backs and resume our discussion about last night’s party with our co-teachers. That is being disengaged, disconnected and is not teaching important skills that will last a lifetime.

We start out super involved, super connected, who needs what from us and how are we going to make sure they get it. Then slowly we back away, watching, observing… asking ourselves, “Is it working?” Anna Quindlen says, “each day we move a little closer to the sidelines of their lives which is where we belong if we do our job right.”


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Lisa Murphy www.ooeygooey.com

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