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Supporting problem solving in the early childhood classroom

“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 lives.

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 skill.
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 adults.
The most prevalent teacher strategy was , 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?”
Nathaniel nods.
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?”
Nathaniel: “Yeah.”

No need for further problem solving or a lecture. The point had been made.
Another important strategy teachers used was . 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) with Ella.”
Emma: “Would you like to go play with Ella?”
Jay: “No.”
Bo: “With Ethan?”
Jay: “No.”
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: “Yeah.”

Jay gets blocks and adds them to Bo’s police building.

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 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 using.

Amelia: “Mike, do you want to play?”
Melissa to Amelia: “We’ll play with him later.”
Mike: “Can I play with you?”
Melissa: “La-ter.”
Mike: “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?”
Anthony: “Froggy.”
Amelia: “Froggy.”
Anthony: “Yeah.”
Amelia: “How are you playing it?”
Anthony: “We cover” (covering their legs with the blanket).
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 . 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.