Too often we give children answers to remember rather than problems to solve.–Roger Lewin.

You’ve seen Stan pull this stunt a hundred times: whenever another kid doesn’t want to play by Stan’s rules, Stan tells him to get lost. It takes about 10 minutes, and Stan is left with no one to play with. You ask yourself, “Why does Stan keep doing it? Can’t he see that his bossiness is not winning him any friends?”

One of the reasons children like Stan get locked into resolving conflicts the same old way, even though they know their strategies don’t work, is they don’t know any other way. When posed with problem situations these children typically come up with fewer solutions, and don’t think through the consequences of their actions.

Problem-solving strategies are meant to help children get along better with people by, first of all, pinpointing what they’re doing wrong; secondly, generating solutions; thirdly, selecting and trying out one solution; and lastly, evaluating whether their solution worked, and, if it didn’t, trying out another one.

Through these steps children learn how to ask questions, think about other people’s feelings, deal with not being right, and handle conflict. As well it is a terrific way of making children think for themselves. (For some, this is a relatively new experience.) The problem solving approach was formalized by George Spivack and Myrna Shure, in their book Social Adjustment of Young Children: A Cognitive Approach to Solving Real-Life Problems, 1974.

You can use problem-solving with almost any type of problem children have–making friends, earning enough money to buy The red bike, keeping little brother away from their toy train set, getting an “A” on their reading test. The peer strategies are particularly amenable to classrooms, because children can learn from each other’s experiences. Don’t feel you always have to do problem solving in a formal way. If you’re a parent, you might just be talking with your son on the way to school, or as a teacher, casually talking to a child while you’re supervising the playground.

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 about 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) other alternatives they think of, and (e) do any of their alternatives work better, and if they do, why? Afterwards you can ask children to share what they learned with the rest of the class.

Another idea 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 step 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 is agreeable).

Let Stan decide which of his behaviors he wants to target first. Stan might say he wants to learn how to ask if he can join a game. Ask Stan to think of what he can say or do that would make other children want him to join in on their game. The other children might have some ideas too.

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 try out his idea in role-playing scenarios, to see if other children like it. If they don’t, he’ll have to think of an alternative. Once Stan hits upon a promising 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, because they ultimately decide whether they want Stan playing with them or not.

Try not to tell children what to do, even if you think their ideas are dumb or will never work in a million years. Finding out their ideas are lousy in a secure environment is a perfect 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 crystal 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.” At the same time he shook my hand, smiled, and looked straight into my eyes. I was impressed by his manner. Later on I found out Steven had no friends, and could only relate to younger children and adults. Steven’s parents did a fine job of teaching him how to get along with adults, but they didn’t show him how to interact with children his own age.