Teaching Kids to Make Better Choices Through
"Problem Solving" Procedures
Be a thinker, not a stinker.

This page contains descriptions of four different problem solving procedures.  The goal of problem solving is to provide students with a mechanism for making good choices about how to respond to important life decisions, or act/react in various situations.

1. From Theory To Practice:
Guided Problem Solving
In Action
By Mary Beth Hewitt
(This article is reprinted from CHOICES with the permission of Mary Beth Hewitt.  For more information, go to the bottom of this article.

     I recently had the good fortune of observing a teacher of the emotionally handicapped implementing a guided problem solving process with two kindergarten-aged students in her class.  The students were about to start a lesson on letter-sound correspondence.  The teacher was going to play an audio-tape.  The students were to chose from a variety of items, to help them follow along.  The problem arose when two boys both wanted the same item, an alphabet book. (Names have been changed.)

Alan:  I want it.

Bart:  I want It.  (Turning to the teacher)  He had it last week.

Teacher:  You boys have a problem.  You both want the same book.  How can you solve your problem?  (Statement of problem & identification of who “owns” the problem)

Bart:  But he had it last week!

Teacher:  That was last week.  You have a problem today.

Bart:  We could share.

Alan:  I don’t want to share.

Teacher:  Your friend Bart is willing to share.  You don’t want to share.  (Refinement of problem)  Do you have another suggestion?  (Generate alternatives.)

Alan:  No.

Teacher:  (To Alan)  How do you think your friend might feel if you get the book?  (Evaluation of possible solution)

Alan:  He’ll be sad.

Teacher:  (To Bart)  How do you think your friend might feel if you get the book?  (Evaluation of possible solution)

Bart:  He’ll be sad too.

Teacher:  (To both boys)  Is that what you want to happen?

Alan:  No!  Bart is my friend.  We can share.

Bart:  Thanks Alan.  You can point to the first one and I’ll point to the second one.  We can take turns.

Alan:  Thanks!

    The two boys went happily off with the book and worked well together for the entire activity.  At the end of the lesson, the teacher asked them, “How did the sharing go?”  (Follow-up evaluation)  “Great!” they both answered.  She asked, “Is that something you can do again?”  “Yes,” they enthusiastically replied.  “Good solving your problem guys!”

    When I commented on the successful use of the guided problem solving technique, the teacher said that it almost always works and the kids are able to come up with a mutually acceptable solution.  She added that she occasionally feels guilty about taking the time to facilitate this process since it does take away from instruction.  This is a common fear.  Actually, guided problem solving takes less time than we think.  The main exchange, delineated above, took about a minute.

    Can you imagine how much time it might have taken if the teacher had made the decision for them?  Although her decision may have been swift, the response to it probably would not have been. I can't imagine that Alan (the five-year-old who originally wanted the book and didn't want to share) would have responded reasonably if she had given the book to Bart; even though she could have reasoned that Alan had a turn with it the previous week.  I doubt he would have thought, "You are such a wise teacher. I had it last week so it's only fair that he has it today."  No way!  It's more likely that he would have been very upset with both his classmate and his teacher.  He might have even thrown a tantrum.  How much time would that have taken?


2. Gordon's Problem Solving Process (with suggested modification by Dr. Mac)

    THOMAS GORDON, in both his Teacher Effectiveness & Parent Effectiveness Training programs (T.E.T. & P.E.T.), discusses the concept of problem ownership.  Frequently, when children are having a problem, they either bring it to an adult to solve for them and/or the adult "steps in" without invitation. In doing so the adult has assumed ownership of the problem. When the adult makes an independent judgment, it usually results in a win-lose situation.  One child gets what he/she wants, one child doesn't.  However, by guiding children through a series of problem solving steps, the adult can teach students how to solve their own disputes and make good decisions so that solutions are win-win.  Gordon suggests that teachers help students solve problems and make better decisions through a six step process. In my use of the procedure with my students labeled as having emotional and behavioral disorders, I found that many of them could identify a "good choice", but never implemented that choice. While they could talk about the appropriate action, they had never engaged in that behavior. They needed practice in the preferred response in order for it to be enacted in place of their usual default action. I've inserted the "practice" step in between Dr. Gordon's 4th and 5th steps.

Step 1: Identify and define the problem or situation.  Good solutions depend on accurate identification of the problem at hand. Questions that should be asked at the beginning include "What is really going on here?"  "What problems are we having?'  "What exactly do we need to solve or do?" and "is there another deeper problem here?"

Step 2: Generate alternatives.  Once the problem is clarified a number of possible solutions should be generated.  To help bring forth ideas, questions and statements such as the following are usually helpful: "What can we do differently?"  What rules or procedures do we need to follow?"  "Let's see how many ideas we can come up with." and "Are there still more solutions we can think of?"

Step 3: Evaluate the alternative suggestions. When alternatives have been specified, participants are asked to comment on them.  The goal is to choose a solution that is agreeable to all.   It is appropriate to ask for each proposal, "What do you think of this suggestion?"  "What are its advantages and disadvantages?"  "What problems does it leave unsolved?" and "if we try this idea, what do you think will happen?"

Step 4: Make the decision.  After examining the alternatives, the one that seems to suit most people best is selected for trial.

Dr. Mac's suggested additional step: Practice the selected response through the use of role play. Arrange for the student to experience an approximation of the expected upcoming event. In repeated roleplays, have the student respond to variations on the expected situation in order to assist him/her in becoming more competent and flexible in the use of the selected action.

Step 5: Implement the solution or decision. The trial solution is put into place with the understanding that it may or may not work as anticipated and that it can be changed if necessary.

Step 6: Conduct a follow-up evaluation. The results of the trial solution or decision are analyzed and evaluated.  Helpful questions include "Was this a good decision?"  "Did it
solve the problem?"  "Is everyone happy with the decision" and "How effective was our decision?" If the solution or decision is judged to be satisfactory, it is kept in place. If unsatisfactory, a modified or new solution is proposed and put to the test.
Click here for an example of how a teacher used problem solving with two argumentative kids.



 3. Dr. Mac's "Stop, Think, Choose...& Think Again"

     This process for helping kids think through their possible reactions to situations involves a four step procedure.  Teach the youngster these steps and provide role-playing of events that have resulted in bad choices before for this student.  At first, you may have to lead the youngster through the steps, providing quite a bit of guidance.  As s/he gains more ability, fade out your direction, providing hints and cues as needed.  Try to identify events in which the youngster could use this self-control strategy and suggest that s/he use it to resolve the problem/situation.  You could also lead the youngster in a review of situations where s/he made bad choices regarding solutions/reactions.  Help him/her see that s/he could have used the procedure during that situation.

Here are the steps to ingrain in the youngsters repertoire of cognitive behavior skills.

1. Tell yourself to "STOP!"  Don't do anything!  Just stand or sit and be quiet.

2. THINK.  Talk to yourself to calm down and sort out what is going on.  What is the problem?  Think about different ways to handle it.  Weigh each possible choice.  What will happen if you choose it?  Will you get what you want?  Will the other person feel respected?

3. Then after thinking about the different things you could do right now, CHOOSE the one that has the most good reasons with the fewest chances of getting in trouble or making things worse.

4. After you have followed you choice, THINK AGAIN.  Is the plan working?  If not, try another choice that everyone can live with.

** This procedure is explained more in-depth (to kids) in Dr. Mac's book: The Behavior Survival Guide for Kids
                                                 (see the home page of www.behavioradvisor.com for more information)



4. Using Questioning to Help Kids Make Decisions
    Click on the link below to go to an example of how you can help kids decide to do the right thing by asking questions that guide them to recognizing their bad decisions and selecting better choices.

Link: http://brandtpublishing.com/books/revised-ch18.html


Charles, C. M. (1999). Building Classroom Discipline (6th edition). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

** If you like the tips of Mary Beth Hewett, you can purchase volumes 1 and 2 of CHOICES (each volume has 25-30 articles by her).  Contact the web site at www.edutech.org/choices/choicesf.htm , call 315/332-7255, or fax 315/332-2117.

Fetch Dr. Mac's Home Page
Two pups can't fetch the home page at the same time.  Let's think of some solutions.