Supporting problem solving in the early childhood classroom
by Carol M. Gross
“I don’t want to.” “I can’t.” “He
won’t let me.” “She hit me.” “You
can’t play with us.” “Me first.” “I
was using that!”
Teachers of young children hear these and other phrases like them all day long.
Children argue over such things as:
who will be the boss,
who will be first,
who will hold the door, and
how things will be done.
They puzzle over how to do a task. And they find ways not to do what an adult
wants. As teachers, we often don’t even stop to think about the problem.
When we hear or see one, we solve it quickly—almost without thinking—and
move on. We feel that we must; there are many children and adults waiting for
us to make decisions on the next thing.
Because of this instinct to solve children’s problems for them, however,
we miss opportunities to help children think out and solve problems on their
own and acquire the skill of problem solving.
Problem solving—a learned skill
When children are encouraged to take the time necessary to solve
a problem with another child, they are forced to put themselves
in the other child’s place. They must hear what the other
child says is the problem and thinks is the solution.
To arrive at a mutually agreeable solution, both children must
give up their first choice and look for other answers that will
satisfy both of them. Or they must find the words to convince
the other child that their way is good for both of them.
In either case, a great deal of learning is involved (Dewey 1933).
In this process, children have to open up their thinking by imagining
new ways to express themselves in order to get what they want
or need. Stretching their minds in this way gives them practice
and eventually develops an essential skill in solving problems
of all kinds: academic, social, and personal. When young children
learn this skill, it can serve them well for the rest of their
What’s the teacher’s role?
Teachers must support children in expressing their ideas and
needs and listening to others’ ideas (Goncu, 2000; Piaget,
1963). We must stop what we are doing, give up for the moment
what we think is important, listen to what children are telling
us, and find ways to help them think out what to do.
At first, helping children develop this skill takes a lot of
time, but eventually it helps us. We are freed from the constant
interruptions that make us the focus of almost every argument.
We find that children, who found it easier to just ask us what
to do, can figure out many tasks by themselves.
As a community of problem solvers, we make the classroom the
continual learning experience Dewey envisioned long ago. The
more we relinquish the role of problem solver, the more children
will assume it. By taking the time to help children think out
each problem as it arises, listen to each other, and find their
own solutions, we help children learn to do this independently.
They join us in managing the classroom and making it a shared
effort. As a result, we are freed to support the children in
more productive learning overall.
Observing how children solve problems
To look at strategies teachers use to help children solve problems,
I videotaped children in an early childhood classroom. I chose
a classroom in which a primary goal was for children to learn
to solve problems independently and interdependently. Their
teachers were unusually successful at helping them learn this
For seven months, I spent one morning each week “catching” children
solving problems and teachers supporting them. I videotaped problem
solving during indoor play, transitions, group times, meals,
and outdoors. I taped children alone, in pairs, in small groups,
and in the whole group.
What I found was at times predictable and at times surprising.
Often, it was what the teachers didn’t do that made the
difference in getting children to find solutions rather than
what the teachers did do.
From the first moment I began to observe, there were problems
to be solved and strategies children and teachers were using
to solve them, both successful and unsuccessful. Few problems
were left unresolved.
The problems were the usual sort: property disputes, arguments
about who would play which role, reluctance to comply with teacher
requests, name-calling, difficulty in joining play, issues over
space or materials, demands that things be done a certain way,
and trouble in figuring out tasks.
Identifying teaching strategies
The teachers (we’ll call them Emma and Amelia) were, above
all, calm and non-judgmental almost all the time. They used a
total of 21 different strategies in supporting the children’s
developing skills. In general, the teachers did the following:
They did not pressure children to choose a particular solution,
even if children refused a number of possible solutions offered
by the other child.
They employed a variety of strategies to help children, not
the least of which was quietly observing from a short distance
to be able to intervene if necessary.
They accepted the children’s solutions if both parties
were satisfied, even if the solution did not make sense to the
The most prevalent teacher strategy was defining
which in itself, sometimes moved children toward solving the
problem. Teachers verbalized what it seemed each child was saying: “You
want to play where Caleb is playing now,” for example.
Then the teacher might ask, in a neutral voice, “What do
you think we can do about it?”
This was often enough for children to either solve the problem
and go back to what they were doing or continue talking to the
other child to arrive at a solution.
Here’s an example of a teacher helping a 3-year-old by
defining the situation.
Nathaniel seems to have fallen out of the chair.
He rights the chair.
Amelia (coming over, showing concern): “Are you OK? How
did that happen?”
He tips it part way again.
Amelia: “It just tipped like that?”
Amelia: “I think you’re right. Where was your body?”
Nathaniel points to the arm.
Amelia: “You were on the arm. Do you think that might be
why it fell?”
No need for further problem solving or a lecture. The point
had been made.
Another important strategy teachers used was acknowledging
This was often used with defining the situation, as in the following
episode when one child wants another to play with him.
Bo: “But I don’t want to.”
Jay: “But you have to be a GI Joe with me.”
Emma: “Jay, you would very much like Bo to be a GI Joe
in your game?”
Bo: “But I’m a police.”
Emma: “But Bo is being a police officer.”
Jay (very quietly): “But I need someone to play with me.”
Emma: “Oh… Jay is having trouble finding someone
to play with him.”
Bo: “Hey, but you can play in there (pointing to the climber)
Emma: “Would you like to go play with Ella?”
Bo: “With Ethan?”
Emma: “That’s not a good suggestion, either?”
Bo: “But what’s a good suggestion?”
Jay: “I need you to play with me, Bo.”
Emma: “Yeah, it doesn’t seem like that’s gonna
work. Bo isn’t available.”
Bo: “I’m not available.”
Emma: “He’s in the middle of another game.”
Jay sits down at a nearby table and throws his head on his arms.
Emma: “That made you really angry, Jay? ‘Cause you
wanted to have Bo play with you? You didn’t want anybody
else… and you really wanted him to play your GI Joe game?”
Jay (very softly): “Yeah.”
Bo (coming over): “But I’m not available.”
Emma: “Yeah, you don’t have to play his GI Joe. I’m
wondering, though, if Jay wanted a police officer in his game,
would you be available for that, or no?”
Bo (nodding): “Yeah.”
Emma: “Would a police officer be good in your game?”
Jay gets blocks and adds them to Bo’s
Here, the teachers helped Jay get what he wants, while also
helping him to see that he has to be flexible about offering
the other child something he wants as well.
Often, several strategies were combined. On one occasion, in
the dramatic play area, Amelia acknowledged feelings, defined
the situation, and asked questions to help
children think so
they could arrive at a solution. Here’s how it unfolded:
Mike puts a blanket on Melissa and Anthony. Bo comes over and
puts one on all of them.
Melissa (yelling): “Stop!”
Amelia (coming over): “Mike, your friends are saying stop.”
Mike stops but gets close to Melissa’s
face and screams.
Melissa and Anthony try to straighten out the blanket they were
Amelia: “Mike, do you want to play?”
Melissa to Amelia: “We’ll play with him later.”
Mike: “Can I play with you?”
Amelia: “Oh, are you angry that they’re saying later?
Do you want to play now?”
Amelia to Anthony and Melissa: “What are you guys playing?”
Amelia: “How are you playing it?”
Anthony: “We cover” (covering their legs with the
Amelia: “You cover…and…”
Melissa lies down.
Mike lies down next to her.
Anthony takes another blanket: “We have a big blanket.
We can share it a lot.”
They all play.
Here Amelia never tells the children that they have to play
with Mike. She asks questions to help them define what they are
playing and, in the process, subtly reveals the way the game
works to Mike so he can join in without their disapproval.
Sometimes, however, none of these strategies worked. In one episode
in the block area, Emma used defining the situation, asking questions,
and asking for clarification. But the children continued to play
and argue for quite a while.
This contrasts sharply with later in the year, when the children
had learned to give up some of their territory to solve the problem.