Erica’s Surprising Insight

In almost forty years of problem-solving with children, I learned how important it can be to stay open to surprises. Although I’d always try to figure out what was causing a problem before asking a student to work with me on solving it, my guesses were not always right. When I asked the student, sometimes he or she would offer a reason for the behavior that I hadn’t expected at all! As long as I could shift gears in the moment to account for the new information, those insights often led us to a better solution than I could’ve come up with myself. Erica’s story is an example.

The youngest in a family of high achievers, Erica was a happy-go-lucky child who loved to laugh. She arrived in our classroom every morning with a big smile, ready to give school her all. Despite the fact that she was the youngest in our third grade class, with a December birthday, she got along well with classmates and had lots of friends.

Erica’s problem was with academics. When it came to writing, she rushed. She covered many pages with unpunctuated non sequiturs, scrawling all over the paper. She routinely misspelled words that I knew she could spell correctly. I believed Erica could do a lot better if she’d just slow down. When reminders and modeling what careful work looked like didn’t help, I decided it was time for a problem-solving conference.

In problem-solving conferences, the teacher builds an alliance with the student so that they can solve the problem together. Part of working together on a problem is coming to a shared understanding of its cause. Rather than assuming we know the cause, we ask the child what she thinks is the cause. But simply asking children why they’re doing something often gets a shrug or an “I don’t know,” so prompting them with possible explanations is helpful. With Erica, I said, “I’m wondering why you rush when you write. Could it be that you want to be like your older sister, Melissa, and you think that she writes quickly?”

“No,” Erica said. “I know that Melissa works carefully. It’s just that when I’m working I feel like I’m in a danger zone and I have to work fast to get out of it.”

Surprised by this answer, I asked, “What do you mean by ‘danger zone’? What does it feel like?”

With some prompting, Erica explained that by “danger zone,” she meant the work felt hard and scary. She hurried so she’d be done as soon as possible.

Then, as children sometimes do in a problem-solving conference, Erica volunteered information that revealed a deeper issue than the specific problem at hand. She said, “I was supposed to be in second grade right now. My mom thought I could work harder, so I started kindergarten when I was four. Third grade is pretty hard.”

This insight helped me understand the problem in an important new way. I realized that Erica, a young third grader, needed more academic support than I was giving her, and that the solutions I’d planned to suggest were not going to work. I’d prepared solutions for slowing down, when what Erica needed were strategies for feeling safer and more successful when writing.

That day in the conference, I shifted gears, suggesting strategies that had helped other struggling writers feel safer. Later, I talked with the principal about getting some extra help for Erica. These solutions were the first of several interventions that helped Erica have a more successful third grade year.

All this was possible because we had Erica’s own explanation about the problem. Without her crucial insight about writing being a “danger zone,” she and I might have wandered down a path of trying one solution after another that didn’t address what was really going on. Inviting Erica to share her thoughts and listening to them with an open mind made it possible for us to solve her problem more effectively—and, I believe, also encouraged her to be self-reflective, an important skill for school and beyond.

This article is adapted from “Problem-Solving Conferences” in Solving Thorny Behavior Problems: How Teachers and Students Can Work Together, which tells the story of Caltha and Erica’s problem-solving conference in more detail.

Caltha Crowe is a Responsive Classroom consulting teacher with nearly forty years of experience teaching elementary school students and twenty years of experience mentoring new teachers. She is the author of three books: Sammy and His Behavior Problems (NEFC 2010), Solving Thorny Behavior Problems (NEFC 2009), and How to Bullyproof Your Classroom.

Tags: Challenging Behaviors, Child Development