In a second extract from his book, psychologist Steve Killick describes two approaches to engaging young people in problem-solving conversations.

A key skill in developing emotional literacy is solving problems with others. This is about how to: negotiate, compromise and invent novel solutions together.

Education develops problem-solving skills and can assist in learning how to solve emotional and social problems. However, learning how to solve these problems directly can give children invaluable skills. Indeed, it helps them with the problem that most directly concerns them (and often their teachers as well) – how they can get on with others.

Their own solutions

There are plenty of formal and informal ways of developing problem-solving skills.

A key principle in all these strategies is recognising that children will do much better if they know they can solve their own problems, rather than having problems solved for them. This does not mean leaving them to sort these problems out alone: they benefit from adult support and confidence in learning ways of solving problems. But when adults offer advice and solutions too readily, this frustrates the child rather than helping. The adult may also be irritated that their advice, offered with good intent, is not followed (they may often think to themselves that the child just never listens or is just not motivated). It is better for both teacher and child that problems are explored, clarified and possibly redefined together before solutions suggested.

Not too quickly

We are all natural problem-solvers and many of a child’s behaviours result from his or her attempts to solve the problems that they have at any particular moment. The child who hits another child in response to name-calling is often attempting to solve the problem that they have when they feel insulted.

Teachers can have conversations with children that might facilitate the child’s own solution or help them come up with a collaborative answer. Problem-solving requires the generation of both creative and critical thinking. It involves thinking about what is desired and what is possible.

Formal problem solving with the whole class

A class was struggling with the issue of talking over each other and putting each other down. This was leading to increased conflict and unhappiness. Nobody liked it, but it was hard for anybody to stop behaving in this way. The teacher invited the class to think of things they could do to stop all talking across each other. He then wrote down all the ideas on the board without evaluating any of them, sometimes just helping to clarify them. These included such things as:

  • Have a ‘no interruptions’ rule.
  • If you are afraid you will forget your idea, write it down.
  • Anyone who interrupts gets a zero.
  • Have a ‘No put down’ rule.
  • If you say ‘That’s stupid’ you can’t talk for the rest of the week.
  • Class makes up a list of things they can say instead of put downs.

The class then debated the list. Some members felt that some of the ideas were too punitive but the last idea was seen as a very good one. The following list was generated:

Instead of put-downs – Use respectful talk

That’s stupid – I don’t see it that way That’s not true – Where did you get your information? You forgot to say – I’d like to add What a stupid idea – Could you explain how that would work?

You’re wrong – Here’s another way to look at it

The list was stuck up on the wall to help remind the class what they might say. It was referred to often by a class that was now motivated to find new ways of communicating.

Informal problem solving one-to-one

A boy in Year 6 frequently got angry and upset by another member of the class who had many ways of ‘winding him up’. The boy’s response was to retaliate and often hit out. His teacher found a time, not long after an incident where he had to intervene to make the situation safe, to open a problem-solving conversation.

Teacher: It looks to me that Mark annoys you a lot
Student: Yeh, he’s always making fun of me or my brother.
Teacher: I can understand that would make you pretty angry but I can’t let you hit him. Could we think about other things you might do when he’s annoying you?
Student: OK
Teacher: Great, let’s think of as many things as possible. Got any ideas?
Student: No
Teacher: It’s not easy. I remember a kid a bit like you who just pretended to go deaf whenever someone tried to wind him up. He found it had a pretty good effect.
Student: (Laughs) Sometimes I just think about something else and he doesn’t bother me at all.
Teacher: Hey, so ignoring him can work sometimes. Let’s write that one down. Hey, how about if you got my attention when he starts doing it?
Student: Maybe. Would you move him to another table?
Teacher: That’s an idea too. (Teacher writes both ideas down).

The conversation continued like this for a few more minutes. The teacher then summarised some of the ideas and asked what the student thought of them. Together they thought some strategies and the student decided to try one where he would just repeat back what was said to him. If he felt himself getting annoyed he would walk away. The teacher encouraged the child to try it out and said he would be interested to know what happened.

Systematic problem-solving

This approach, which is particularly useful for dealing with social and learning-based problems, involves following six steps:

1. Defining the problem
The aim is to get a shared agreement on what exactly the problem is. Often there are different perspectives to a problem. A teacher might have a problem that a student has not done their homework. The student might have the problem that he or she doesn’t have somewhere to do their homework. If there is shared definition that the difficulty is, say, how the child can find somewhere to do the work, then the process of finding a solution can begin.

2. Generating ideas
This is the process of thinking about all the things that might possibly be done to solve the problem. It is important to accept all ideas suggested. Often, children may be reluctant to offer ideas for fear they will be criticised as impractical or dismissed. Writing everything down sends a strong message that they are being taken seriously. If the child who can’t find a place to do his homework suggests that he doesn’t do it, write this suggestion down, but invite him to keep thinking of other strategies.

3. Critically evaluating ideas.
Once a list has been generated that contains some feasible ideas, then it is time to think some of them through. Sometimes, ideas can be grouped together. To help evaluate them, it can be useful to ask questions that link actions with consequences. For instance, ‘If you do that what would happen next?’ or ‘How would others respond?’ From all these ideas, select the ones which are worth trying and discard those not worth pursuing or that no one wants to discuss.

4. Selecting a solution
From the possibilities generated, select one to try out. If necessary, develop an action plan. The child needs to have commitment to try it out; so the more he or she is involved in the selection process and the final choice, the better. It is important that any solution fits with the school’s values and beliefs about what is acceptable behaviour.

5. Trying it out

6. Evaluating it
Arrange a follow-up where you can hear about what has happened and whether the problem has been resolved. If so, positive feedback is clearly in order.

Emotion coaching

John Gottman devised a way of helping parents manage strong, negative emotions in their children. The aim was to help children regulate and master these emotional states for themselves. Very similar to systematic problem-solving, this method can be adapted for use in the school setting by teachers. Called ‘emotion coaching’, it helps children:

  • trust their own feelings
  • regulate their own emotions
  • solve problems.

Emotion coaching calls upon skills of reflective listening, building motivation and problem-solving.

1. Become aware of a young person’s emotion while also being aware of your own feelings
Recognise that the expression of emotion may be an opportunity for communication and learning.

2. Use reflective and empathic listening to help the young person verbally label their emotions
Look for opportunities to validate the feelings expressed.

3. Help the young person to problem-solve by defining the problem, generating ideas and evaluating them
At the same time, it may be necessary to set limits for behaviour. This is particularly important for children who are learning what the limits are. The teacher can help the child accept the emotion but limit any problem behaviours arising from it. This helps the child learn that the feeling is not the problem but their behaviour might be. For instance, a teacher might say ‘You’re angry that Richard took your game from you. I would be too. But it is not OK to call him horrible names. What could you do instead?’

 4. Consider goals and solutions
Ideas can be generated through writing down lists or discussion. Encourage the child to select an option to try out. Try to prevent yourself from imposing your ideas too readily. If the child makes the final choice within the limits defined, he or she will be more motivated to follow it through as well as gaining confidence in their decision-making abilities.

5. Follow-up to see what happened
If it wasn’t successful the process can be repeated. If it was, the successful outcome is reinforced and the person needs to be complimented on their problem-solving skills.

Solution-focused approaches

Solution-focused approaches aim to help people find other ways of thinking, such as to be interested in when a problem is not happening, when things are working and looking for clues there about what to do that may help. There are many skills and types of questioning involved in the solution-focused approach, some of which are summarised here.

1. Look for exceptions to the problem
When problems exist, there are always exceptions, times when the problem behaviour does not occur. These exceptions, or unique outcomes, can tell us about what might help when they do occur.

2. Be future-focused
It is important to help students realise achievable goals to aim for. The emphasis is on the future rather than the past or even the present.

3. Problem-free talk
Emphasising problems is likely to cause students to enter the conversation feeling they are going to be blamed, which will lead to defensiveness. Problem-free talk might lessen such fears.

4. Coping talk
If people are experiencing difficulties, coping talk reframes a perspective from looking at people as having difficulties in coping to looking at how people are coping with difficulties.

5. Using rating scales
Asking a child to rate herself on a continuum of one to 10 enables the child to give a fine discrimination of how they are doing and to consider small steps that might lead to change.

Steve Killick’s Emotional Literacy at the Heart of the School Ethos was written as a result of his work with marginalised young people attending NCH Headlands School in Penarth, near Cardiff. It is published by Lucky Duck

The ideas described in this extract are based on: How to Talk so Kids Can Learn – At Home and in School (1995), How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk (1999) both by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish; and The Heart of Parenting: Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child (1997) by John Gottman