One way of introducing problem-solving into your classroom is by dividing children into small groups, and asking them to play a game, say marbles. Let them play for 10 minutes. Assign one child the role of secretary, writing down (a) any problems that come up, (b) how the group deals with them, (c) how well their solution works, (d) what other alternatives they think of, and (e) whether one of their alternatives works better, and if it does, why? Afterward ask children to share what they have learned with the rest of the class.
A variation of this strategy is to ask groups of children to role-play situations which make them feel uncomfortable, such as meeting strangers, having a friend get mad at them, or getting mad at an adult. Children can learn a lot from hearing and seeing how their peers handle the same problems they have. As well, it draws them into perspective-taking, looking at situations from someone else’s point of view. This is a major stage in moral development.
You can also combine role-playing and problem-solving to help children learn social skills. To illustrate this, let’s go back to Stan, the boy who dominates and bosses other children around. Ask Stan to imagine he is playing a game with two other children, or ask two children to act out how Stan plays with them. Discuss with Stan what he does that turns off other children, what he could do instead, and how he can go about doing it. If other children are involved, invite them to make some suggestions as well, so long Stan does not object.
After considering all the viewpoints ask Stan which of his behaviors he would like to target first. He might say he’d like to learn how to ask if he can join in a game, instead of barging in. Ask him to think of what he can say or do that would encourage other children to let him join in their game. Ask other children, as well, for their feedback.
Draw up a list of suggestions, and ask Stan to pick the one he thinks would work best and feels confident doing. Ask Stan to test out his strategy in role-playing scenarios, to see if it is acceptable to other children. If they do not like it, he will have to think of another alternative. Once Stan hits upon an agreeable solution, he can rehearse it until he’s confident enough to try it out in real life.
An important part of this process is Stan and what he thinks. He makes all the final decisions. The other equally important part is what his peers think. Their feedback is essential, because they ultimately decide whether they want Stan playing with them or not.
Try to resist telling children what to do, even if you think their ideas are dumb or will never work in a million years. Discovering their ideas are lousy in a secure, controlled environment is an ideal way for children to learn.
Something else to keep in mind is that our values and ways of doing things are not always the same as children’s. This point was made clear to me one day when a 10-year-old boy introduced himself to me with, “How do you do, Mary, my name is Steven,” all the while shaking my hand and looking directly into my eyes. I was impressed by his manner. Later on I discovered he had no friends, and could only relate to younger children and adults. His parents did a fine job of teaching him how to get along with adults, but they neglected to show him how to interact with children his own age.