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I Want It My Way!

Problem-Solving Techniques with Children Two to Eight
By Sue Dinwiddie


Excerpt from I Want It My Way!



Chapter 2. The Problem-Solving Method

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Raising our Kids

It is in the very early years that children develop their coping skills for how they handle conflict: fighting back, running away from the conflict, or problem-solving a win-win solution. For centuries adults handled conflicts with young children by telling them what not to do. Sometimes these words were reinforced with punishments to increase compliance. This was a negative process for both children and adults, often ending in revenge. Fortunately, in this century more positive methods have evolved, culminating in problem-solving. In the adult world this process is called "conflict resolution."

As young children gain their social skills, conflicts occur on a regular basis and can create unpleasant power struggles. Through the technique of problem-solving, frustrated children are guided to appropriately verbalize their feelings and desires. "How do I feel? What do I want?" With proper guidance children recognize they have choices and can find an acceptable way to achieve their desires. "I can play with something else. I can wait for a turn. I can eat the cookie at a different time." Arguments can be turned into successful partnerships ending in win-win solutions. With practice children as young as three can become adept in problem-solving. They are empowered with responsibility and learn to cooperate while using both their listening and their verbalizing communication skills. Aggressive children are aided in learning appropriate strategies to get what they want, while timid children gain skills in asserting themselves.

Author, Sue Dinwiddie, has her M.S. in Human Development. For many years she was a head teacher in a classroom of children ages two to five at Bing Nursery School at Stanford University. She successfully facilitated problem-solving with children, while teaching the skills to staff and parents. Currently, she consults as a parent educator and early childhood staff trainer . Her book is based on real-life episodes from many years of facilitating conflict in her own work with children and from the countless workshops and classes she has led for parents and teachers. The following chapter from the book describes the process in action.

Chapter 2. The Problem-Solving Method

Although various writers describe the problem-solving method in their own style, there are six basic steps to the process. Sometimes these steps flow into each other, and sometimes the information given covers more than one step at a time. Nevertheless, all six steps are part of the process.

  • Step 1. Initiate mediation: begin problem-solving
  • Step 2. Gather data: get information
  • Step 3. Define the problem: find out what each child wants
  • Step 4. Brainstorm ideas: generate alternative solutions
  • Step 5. Agree on a solution
  • Step 6. Follow-through: bring closure and monitor

To see how these steps play out in action, read the story "Sally and Sammy the Red Pen."

Sally and Sammy and the Red Pen

Step 1: Initiate mediation: begin problem- solving

  • Get to the conflict
  • Make a statement
  • Get to child's level: kneel, squat, sit
  • Stop aggressive behavior
  • Neutralize object of conflict

Hearing screaming, Teacher Diane glances around the room to discover Sally and Sammy fighting over a pen. She walks quickly over to them and kneels down to their level, while saying calmly, "Sally and Sammy, I see that there is a problem here. Let me hold this pen that you are both tugging on while we solve the problem."

Sally protests, "He hit me, and I had it first."

Fearing he is in big trouble, Sammy is about to flee to the other side of the room. Teacher Diane, who has anticipated this eventuality, has reassuringly placed her arm around him to prevent flight. She admonishes gently, "Sammy, I can't let you hurt Sally, and I won't let her hurt you. I'll hold the pen while we solve this problem." She gently unfolds his fingers and puts the pen in her pocket.

If children are reluctant to let go of an object, gently, but firmly remove their little fingers. Young children cannot focus on two things at once, such as tugging on an object and problem-solving. Put small objects in your pocket. Stash larger items behind you or to the side.

Step 2. Gather data: get information

  • Find out what each wants
  • Help each verbalize feelings

"Sammy, I wonder what you wanted?" asks Teacher Diane.

Sammy is relieved that she cares about what he wants. He is used to getting into trouble when he hits. It seems to him that no grown-up ever asks him what he wants, although sometimes they ask him why he hit. "I want to make a picture for my daddy, and red is his favorite color." (Actually red is Sammy's favorite color.)

"He took my pen!" protests Sally, "and he hit me. He's a bad boy!"

"Well, I need that pen!" interrupts Sammy.

Realizing that Sammy is quite upset since he resorted to physical aggression, Teacher Diane assures him that she genuinely cares about his concerns, "Sammy, let Sally finish, and then we want to hear about you."

"Sally," she soothes, rubbing Sally's back, "tell Sammy how you feel."

"Sammy," sobs Sally, "I feeled sad and a little scared when you grabbed my pen."

"Well," retorts Sammy, "I'm pretty mad, 'cause I need that pen."

Often children who feel like the victims have strong feelings which need to be verbalized right away. Usually the aggressor is also holding strong feelings; that is why s/he resorted to aggression. Holding onto feelings is similar to holding onto the objects. Until the children can air their emotions, they cannot focus on analyzing and solving the problem. If both children try to talk at once, the teacher can assure them that they will each get a turn. If a child won't speak, describe how s/he appears to feel or describe how you would feel: "I would feel sad if he said that to me."

Step 3. Define the problem: What does each want?

  • Restate children's feelings
  • Restate children's desires
  • Explain the problem

Teacher Diane, who now thinks she may understand the problem, checks it out with both children, "Oh, I think I understand the problem. Sammy, you are mad because you wanted to use a red pen to make a picture for your Daddy. Sally, you feel sad and a little scared because Sammy took the pen you were using. We have two children and only one red pen. Is that the problem?" Both children nod.

Notice that the teacher restates both the feelings and the desires of the children as she checks to make sure her information is correct. If one or both of the children object to her definition, she will continue gathering input until all agree upon the interpretation of the problem.

When older children and adults think up ideas, they can brainstorm. Someone writes down all the options. After the list is compiled, the group evaluates each suggestion. Ideas disliked are discarded, while those preferred are kept. The group chooses one idea which everyone can accept and tries it out.

This kind of brainstorming will not work with young children. Writing a list is pointless, since most do not read. Additionally, young children have a hard time keeping lots of ideas in their minds at one time. However, they can do a simplified form of brainstorming called "sequential brainstorming." Sequential brainstorming involves taking turns offering ideas and checking out each idea as it is offered. One child suggests a solution. The other child has a turn to accept or reject it. If the idea is rejected, the facilitator asks for another idea.

Sequential Brainstorming

  • Take turns
    "Who has an idea of how we can solve this problem?"

  • Check out each idea with the other child by restating it
    "Is it okay with you to __________________?"

  • If idea is rejected, ask for another idea
    "What is your idea to solve this problem?"
    "Who has another idea of how we could solve this problem?"

Step 4. Brainstorm ideas: generate alternatives

  • Ask questions
  • Get ideas from all children
    • Disputants
    • Observers
  • Use sequential brainstorming

Now the teacher transitions smoothly into step four. "I wonder how we can solve this problem?"

Sally immediately suggests, "We can take turns."

"Yeah," agrees Sammy, "we can take turns."

"Yes, you can take turns. How will you do that?" inquires Teacher Diane.

"I have an idea. I'll have the pen first, and then Sammy can have a turn," offers Sally.

Considering that young children are still quite egocentric, it is not surprising that the first round of negotiations usually involves each child suggesting that s/he have the first turn. Too often, teachers now believe that the process has hit an impasse and proceed to solve the problem for the children. Teachers come up with creative solutions all the time with apparent ease. Why wouldn't they? They get lots of practice. Our goal, however, is for the children to get practice coming up with acceptable choices. They won't become proficient unless we give them many opportunities to think of choices It is possible to guide children around the problem of each wanting the first turn by soliciting more ideas.

The brainstorming step is often rushed by teachers who allow children to volunteer only one or two ideas before solving the problem for them. Allowing time is essential for the process to be successful.

Teacher Diane checks out Sally's plan with Sammy. "Sammy, is it okay with you for Sally to have the pen first and then give it to you when she is done?"

"No!" yells Sammy, "I want the first turn."

Patiently, the teacher checks with Sally. "Sally, is it okay with you for Sammy to have the pen first?"

"No!" protests Sally.

Teacher Diane points out, "Well, you can't both be first. What is another idea?"

Sally exclaims, "There is a blue pen on the table. Sammy, you can use that one."

"But I need a red pen," objects Sammy. "Red is my daddy's favorite color." Teacher Diane encourages more brainstorming: "Sammy could use a blue pen. That is another idea. But he wants red. What is another idea?"

Sammy suggests, "Sally, you use the blue pen and give me the red one." Sally complains, "No, I like the red pen."

Teacher Diane encourages more brainstorming: "Sally could use a blue pen. That is another idea. But she wants red." Now she draws in more children to move the process forward. "We need another idea. Maybe Jimmy can help us."

Jimmy, who has been drawing at the table while observing the entire episode, jumps right in, "I have a good idea. Sammy could get a red pen from the shelf and come sit next to me."

The teacher repeats each suggestion while checking to see if it is acceptable. When things seem deadlocked, she skillfully draws a third child into thinking of an idea.

Step 5. Agree on a solution

  • Rephrase the solution
  • Make sure the solution is safe
  • Check out how it will be carried out
    • Who will do what?
    • When will they do it?
    • How will they do it?

Sammy eagerly agrees, "Yeah! We can draw cars together." He gleefully runs off to get a red pen.

Teacher Diane affirms, "Sammy has decided to get a red pen from the shelf."

Sometimes in deciding how to carry out the plan, there is disagreement. That is what occurred when both Sally and Sammy agreed to take turns at the beginning of this negotiation. When they could not agree on who would be first, the teacher returned to brainstorming to generate more options. Steps four and five often flow together.

Step 6. Follow-through

  • Monitor to make sure the agreement goes according to plan
  • Serve as time-keeper for turns
  • Bring closure: announce that the problem is solved

Teacher Diane brings closure, "Sammy and Sally have solved their problem." She watches to make sure that Sammy is following through on the plan.

The closure statement is important for a number of reasons: (1) It brings closure for the children with the problem. (2) It sends a message to observers and children on the side-lines that the problem is resolved. Some children, attracted by the excitement of conflict, rush right over to contribute their observations, comments, and ideas. These children provide a resource for generating more solutions. Since they are not emotionally involved in the conflict, they are more likely to have objective ideas. Furthermore, they get practice in generating alternative solutions. Other children, who are uncomfortable with the noise and disturbance of conflict, quickly evacuate the area. By hearing that the problem is solved, these timid children know the area is now free from turmoil, and they may safely return. (3) The closure statement gives the message to all that problems do exist, but they can be resolved peacefully.

The Problem-Solving Method

Step 1. Initiate mediation: begin problem-solving

  • Get to the conflict and make a statement
  • Get to the child's level: kneel, squat or sit
  • Stop aggressive behavior
  • Neutralize object of conflict: hold it or put it aside

Step 2. Gather data: get information

  • Find out each child's point of view
    • Feelings
    • Desires
  • Assure children that each will have a turn to talk

Step 3. Define the problem: find out what each child wants

  • Restate children's feelings
    • If child won't speak, describe how s/he appears to feel
    • Describe how you would feel: "I would feel sad if he said that to me."
  • Restate children's desires: "Sammy wants _____ and Sally wants _____."
  • Explain the problem: "We have two children and only one toy."

Step 4. Generate alternative solutions: brainstorm ideas

  • Ask questions: "How could we solve this problem?"
  • Get ideas from all children: disputants and observers

Step 5. Agree on a solution

  • When the children accept a solution, rephrase it
  • Make sure the solution is safe
  • Check out how the solutions will be carried out: Who? When? How? etc.

Step 6. Follow-through

  • Monitor to make sure the agreement is going according to plan
  • Serve as time-keeper for turns
  • Bring closure by announcing that the problem is solved

To learn more about the skills needed to effectively problem-solve, how to deal with obstacles to problem-solving, a simplified method to introduce with children as young as two-and-a half, ways to establish rules using problem-solving, and more order I Want It My Way! Problem-Solving Techniques With Children Two to Eight. Better World Press, 1997.

A companion book to help children learn to get in touch with their feelings and express them appropriately as well as learn to think of positive options to fulfill their desires is titled Let Me Think! Activities to Develop Problem-Solving Abilities in Young Children. Order from Better World Press.

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