Teacher-Child Problem-Solving Conferences
Derek was a fifth grader who was avoiding writing. Whenever we had writing time, he would ask to go to the bathroom, and there he would linger. After observing this for a week, I decided to have a problem-solving conference with him.
A problem-solving conference is a technique for addressing a specific problem that a child is having. What makes it powerful is that it invites the child into a conversation and asks for the child’s take on the situation.
The conference begins with the teacher noticing the child’s moods, actions, and interactions before helping the child come up with possible solutions. Conducted in a nonjudgmental way, the conference sets behavioral boundaries while giving children the opportunity for autonomous thinking.
In this article, I’ll describe the basic steps that I went through in the conference with Derek. These steps are intended as guidelines to be adjusted to fit different situations. Some conferences take five minutes; others are spread out over several days. In some cases a conference leads to an immediate solution; in others the teacher and child need to revisit the issue several times.
One thing that is true of all problem-solving conferences, though, is that I always hold them away from the eyes and ears of the child’s classmates. It’s important that the student has privacy for these talks, and that the teacher and child can both focus on the conversation without interruptions.
Step 1. Establishing what the teacher and student notice
A problem-solving conference begins with the teacher saying positive things s/he has noticed about the student—the student’s interests, efforts, and goings-on. When we tell students we noticed what they’ve done well, we begin to establish a supportive connection, an essential step before talking about a behavior that isn’t working.
With Derek, I began by saying, “I notice that you’ve had good ideas when we’ve brainstormed what we could write about. I also notice you pay attention and make helpful comments when kids share about their writing.” I try to be specific in my noticings, and I name the “what,” not the “why,” of behaviors.
Next I say what behavior I’ve noticed that isn’t working well. Here again, it’s important to name specific, observable behaviors. I don’t make judgments, interpret, or label. I simply describe, using a matter-of-fact tone.
“I notice that every writing time, you have to go to the bathroom,” I said to Derek. I was careful not to say, “You want to avoid writing, so you say you have to go to the bathroom.”
By naming the behaviors rather than interpreting them, I open the door for children to take note of their actions and offer their own interpretation. They are then more likely to take responsibility for their behavior.
After I say what I notice, I ask for the child’s observations. I say simply “What do you notice?” in a neutral tone.
When I posed this question to Derek, he said, “I just have to go to the bathroom a lot.”
“So you also notice that writing has become a bathroom time for you?”
Derek was agreeing with my observation. If he had disagreed, I might have said, “Well, I notice that you want to go to the bathroom at every writing time. You notice that it’s only sometimes. Maybe we should both notice extra hard for the next few days and then come back and compare.” I would have made a plan with Derek for how to remember our observations. But I also would have continued with the conference. It’s possible to proceed in addressing a problem while we continue to gather data.
Step 2. Naming the problem and the need to solve it
The next step is to help the child see why her/his behavior is a problem and to establish that the child wants to work with the teacher to solve it.
To Derek I said, “When you go to the bathroom every writing period, you lose important work time. By the time you get back, you have to hurry and often you only get about a sentence written.”
“Yeah. There’s not enough time.”
“So your story doesn’t get very far. For example, you don’t have very much yet of the story you’re writing now.”
“Yeah. I only have the first page.”
“I want you to be able to write complete stories that you can be proud of. So this seems like a problem we should work on. What do you think?”
“I guess so.”
Here it’s important for the teacher to express positive intent—for the student to get along with others, have friends, enjoy and take pride in his/her work, solve math word problems, or follow directions—and to show faith that the child will make progress.
Sometimes when we ask whether a child wants to work with us on the problem, we get only a slight nod or other gesture of agreement—which is fine. We go ahead. Other times, a child refuses adamantly: “No, I don’t need help!” or “No, I don’t think it’s a problem.” If this happens, it might be useless to push ahead with the conference.
However, it’s important that I state the expectations for behavior—for example, for the child to stop putting others down, to get work done, or to end aggressive behavior. I might say, “I see that it’s hard to discuss this right now. I’d like to help. Let’s see if the rude comments stop.”
Step 3. Understanding the cause of the problem
When the student and I agree that there’s a problem (even if there’s only a moderate or muffled agreement from the student) and we agree there’s a need to solve it, we explore the “why” behind the problem. I suggest possible causes based on an understanding of children’s need to belong, feel competent, and have choices. I’m also aware that confusion or frustration about academics may be an underlying cause. I often use “Could it be . . .” questions to initiate this discussion.
To Derek I said, “When I see kids go to the bathroom at a particular time every day, I think they want to avoid something they don’t like or that’s hard for them. Could it be that writing seems hard for you this year?”
Derek grinned and said, “Sort of. It’s sort of hard.”
Children don’t always give a clear answer to our “Could it be…” questions. A “yeah, maybe,” a slight nod, or sometimes a “yes” disguised as a shoulder shrug may be all we get. But those signals let us know it’s okay to go on.
With Derek, I probed further to get at why writing was hard for him. As happens with many children, I needed to name several possible causes before he heard one that sounded right. “Could it be that writing is hard because you have trouble thinking of ideas? Or could it be that you know your main ideas, but you get confused about what words to use? Sometimes writers worry about the spelling or the handwriting. Could that be true for you?”
“Sometimes I can’t think of the words I want,” Derek replied.
Even when the cause of the behavior is very clear to me, I ask rather than assert. We gain children’s confidence when we invite them to participate in the conversation. This confidence grows not because the teacher has brilliantly solved the mystery, but because the child was part of the process.
Step 4. Generating alternatives
“Do you think we could come up with some ways to help you remember the words you need?” I said next to Derek.
It often helps to list several alternatives before seizing upon one solution. In Derek’s case, we decided together that he could brainstorm a list of words before starting a story. He could try some story mapping exercises. Or he could jot down main ideas before starting to write.
Step 5. Choosing one strategy to try
The conference ends with an oral or written agreement to try one of the alternatives. With several possible strategies on the table, I asked Derek to choose one idea to try. He chose to try brainstorming a list of words.
Always, it’s important that students choose an alternative that they believe will work, not one that just pleases the teacher. Over the next days and weeks, the student and teacher both take note of whether the problem they identified gets resolved. If not, they learn from the experience and return to the list of alternatives to make a better selection.
The strength of this problem-solving approach is its openness to the child’s perspective and ideas. We try to see children as they really are, exploring with them what they need in order to do better at school. Ironically the correct solution is not what’s most important. What’s most important is inviting the child into the conversation, searching together for solutions, and expressing faith in the child’s ability to solve the problem.
Ruth Sidney Charney has taught children in grades K–8 for over thirty years. She is a Responsive Classroom certified consulting teacher. She is the author of Teaching Children to Care: Classroom Management for Ethical and Academic Growth, K–8 and Habits of Goodness: Case Studies in the Social Curriculum.