Teaching Responsibility With Problem-Solving Conferences
Everyone makes mistakes; it is part of being human. Your students are inevitably going to make mistakes in the process of learning socially responsible ways to navigate challenges and express frustrations, disappointments, thoughts, and opinions. However, while mistakes are a natural part of the learning process, sometimes they can turn into a pattern of chronic behaviors that limit a student’s ability to experience academic success or positive relationships. Just as you support students in finding academic success, you can also help them learn to take responsibility for their missteps and demonstrate socially responsible behaviors through the use of problem-solving conferences.
A problem-solving conference is a one-on-one structured meeting between a teacher and student that allows both parties to discuss one specific problem behavior, identify its possible causes, and brainstorm potential solutions. Problem-solving conferences can help students accept responsibility for their actions by first helping them see that the problem exists and is negatively impacting them, then by supporting them in coming up with solutions for rectifying the issue.
While they follow the same general structure, problem-solving conferences are conducted slightly differently in elementary school and middle school. The elementary version provides more guidance for younger students, while the middle school version condenses some of these steps to meet older students’ developmental need for more autonomy. Below are the steps for both versions, with the specific steps that help students take responsibility for their behavior in bold.
Steps for Elementary School
- Tell the student what you want to talk about, and set a time to meet.
- Establish the purpose of the conference.
- Start with the positive.
- State the problem.
- Discuss why it’s important to solve the problem.
- Talk about what might be causing the problem.
- Set a clear, specific goal to work on together.
- Brainstorm solution to try.
- Select one strategy to try first.
- Follow up.
Discuss Why It’s Important to Solve the Problem
During this step, you are helping the student see something that they may not be aware of, so precise language is important. Your choice of words should help the student feel invested in wanting to solve the problem without making them feel defensive. For instance, if a student heads to the bathroom every day during writing time and doesn’t return until it is over, you might say, “When this happens, it’s keeping you from being successful in writing because you aren’t able to capture or share all of your writing ideas and thoughts.”
Talk About What Might Be Causing the Problem
Once the student is invested in solving the problem, this step is an opportunity to reflect on the “why” behind the issue. Here, posing questions that start “Might it be . . .” can really help the student consider, “Why am I doing what I’m doing?” In contrast to lines of questioning that position the teacher as the authority on the situation, which can cause students to shut down, this kind of questioning comes across as an actual inquiry rooted in curiosity and empathy. For example, “Might it be that it’s hard for you to come up with ideas during writing time?”
Steps for Middle school
- Establish the purpose for the conference.
- Reaffirm teacher-student rapport.
- Name the problematic behavior.
- Invite the student to collaborate with you.
- Set a goal and generate strategies.
Invite the Student to Collaborate With You
This step is an opportunity for you to invest the middle school student you are meeting with in caring about solving the problem by making it clear their voice in the conversation matters. Invite the student to collaborate with you by asking, “Would you like some help figuring this out?” Once the student has accepted your help, strike a balance between listening attentively to their perspective and offering feedback in a way that supports how the student views the situation.
Set a Goal and Generate Strategies
Often, middle school students can brainstorm solutions but need help understanding how to implement their plan. Your role in this step is to act as a facilitator and help the student draw out their ideas for how to navigate the problem. For example, if a student says, “I need to be more respectful when I don’t understand something and not just shout out during class,” you might ask them, “So how will that look? What is something you might do differently in that setting?”
Considerations for Success
There are a number of components that need to be present for a problem-solving conference to be successful and without which the conference simply won’t work. Make sure to be aware of the following:
- Plan ahead: Problem-solving conferences are not an in-the-moment decision. They need to be scheduled ahead of time. Come prepared with possible causes for the problem behavior and potential solutions.
- Invite the student: Rather than telling the student, “Hey, we’re going to sit down and talk,” pose it as a question: “When might be a good time to talk?” Find a time to meet that works for both of you.
- Consider time: The ideal length for a conference is ten to fifteen minutes.
- Be an empathetic listener: Invite the student to share and ask questions with genuine curiosity.
- Follow up: Check in to see if the strategy they chose is helping them navigate the situation better.
- Don’t force it: You need a relationship with the student to have a productive conversation. If a student doesn’t want to collaborate, reflect on why that might be and how your relationship with that student will need to grow.
Giving students a voice in solving their own problems helps them learn the skills necessary to take on more responsibility for fixing and monitoring their own behavior. Problem-solving conferences support students in building those skills by teaching them how to identify a problem, articulate why it’s an issue, and start to take responsibility for their behavior by coming up with solutions for the problem. That way, when the problem arises again, that student is able to navigate it better.
Jane Cofie is the director of curriculum and instruction for Center for Responsive Schools and the author of the book Strengthening the Parent-Teacher Partnership.