There are lots of ways to handle behavior problems in the classroom. Some teachers send children to time out, others tell them what and what not to do, and many explain why. But these techniques have one thing in common: they all do the thinking for the child. My research colleague, George Spivack, and I have learned that there is a more effective way to guide children's behavior. We learned that we could guide behavior by encouraging children to think about what they do by:

  • considering how their actions affect their own and other's feelings
  • considering what might happen next
  • considering other ways to solve the problem at hand

We learned that as early as age 4, children who behave differently, think differently. For example, Zachary, age 4, wanted a wagon that Peter was using. When Peter refused his request, Zachary, like some other children his age, might have hit him, tried to wrestle the wagon away, told the teacher, or given up and walked away. But Zachary did something quite different. He asked, "Why can't I have it?" Peter replied, "I need it. I'm pulling the rocks." Then Zachary offered, "I can help you pull the rocks. We can pull them together." And the children happily played together.

Zachary applied skills of highly sophisticated thinking. With a variety of options available to him, he was meshing his needs with those of Peter's. Their teacher did not have to intervene, explain the virtues of sharing, or take the wagon away so neither could have it. Instead of feeling anger and frustration, Zachary felt pride, and both children were happy with how the problem was solved.


Skills of Problem Solvers

What skills did Zachary have that children who hit and grab do not? My colleague and I identified a set of interpersonal thinking skills that distinguished good and poor problem solvers as early as age 4. Good problem solvers:

  • were sensitive to their own and others' feelings
  • could recognize that others may feel a different way about something than they do (a skill called perspective taking)
  • could think of different, relevant solutions to a problem, such as wanting someone else's toy (called alternative solution thinking)
  • could better anticipate "what might happen next" if, for example, one grabbed that toy

We examined whether good problem solvers were also more socially competent than children who lacked those skills. Studying children ages 4 to 12, we learned that regardless of IQ, good problem solvers were less physically and verbally aggressive, were better able to wait and cope with frustration, and were less socially withdrawn. They were also better at standing up for their rights, expressing their feelings, and were more aware of, and genuinely concerned for, peers in distress. These children were more sought out by peers for play or work.

If children who were better problem solvers were also more socially competent, we wondered if those who were displaying behavior problems in the classroom and who were also poor problem solvers could be taught how to better resolve everyday conflicts. We asked whether there might be a different way to guide children's behavior, rather than focusing directly on the behavior itself.

We worked to develop a way to teach children to think about what they do in light of how they feel and how others feel; to consider other potential consequences of their behavior, and then, if needed, to think of a different way to solve the problem.


Lessons in Problem-Solving

My colleagues and I created a set of age-appropriate activities to help children learn a problem-solving vocabulary (including identification of people's feelings), and to learn solution- and consequential-thinking skills. After each new concept, or set of concepts, is introduced, teachers guide children on how to use them throughout the day.

The activities begin by introducing children to a series of word pairs in game form. They could later use the words to help them settle disputes. For example, playing with the words is and is not, 6-year-old Sam gleefully pranced around the playground saying, "This is a swing. It is not a slide." Giggling, he then added silly things such as, "This is not a giraffe. This is not a balloon." Applying these words to a real conflict situation when Sam purposely tore a child's paper, his teacher asked, "Is tearing someone's paper a good idea, or not a good idea?" Sam smiled. He understood. A very simple start.

Adding the word pair same and different by asking, for example, if tapping her knee and stamping her foot are the same or different, Sam's teacher could now ask: "Can you think of something different you can do?"

One kindergarten teacher used these two words in a unique way. The children were lined up separately for transition to recess when one boy pushed another. Instead of telling him to go to the back of the line or something similar, she asked, "How is the boy's line different from the girl's line?" After a pause, one boy said, "Kevin pushed Paul." The teacher then asked, "What can the boys do so their line will be the same as the girl's line?" Kevin smiled coyly, looked up at his teacher, and that was the end of that.

After playing with eight different word pairs, teachers can introduce activities that help children identify people's feelings. For younger children, words such as happy, sad, angry, and afraid are taught. As children get older, words like proud, frustrated, worried, and relieved are added. Building upon the word pairs, a child can appreciate that if their attempt to make someone feel happy is not successful, then it is possible for them to try a different approach.

With puppets, pictures, and role-playing, teachers can ask children to think of different ways that a problem might be solved, and what might happen next.

Perhaps social and emotional skills can lay the groundwork to help children learn to solve problems that are important to them when they are very young, so they will be able to solve problems that are important to them when they reach middle school, high school, and beyond.