So what ‘cha you gonna do about that?
It’s becoming a standard response out of my mouth.
Problem solving. It’s as much a part of life as brushing teeth and tying your shoes. It can be hard or it can be easy. It can be learned deliberately or by trial and error. It’s a survival skill that can be developed and nurtured so that kids feel a sense of control and independence.
But before adults can help kids problem solve, we have to do some problem solving to sort out what the real issues are and how we empower kids to exercise proper control which reflects their needs, development and results in growth and/or logical consequences.
As Joan Britz explains, “Problem solving is the foundation of a young child’s learning. It must be valued, promoted, provided for, and sustained in the early childhood classroom. Opportunities for problem solving occur in the everyday context of a child’s life. By observing the child closely, teachers can use the child’s social, cognitive, movement, and emotional experiences to facilitate problem solving and promote strategies useful in the lifelong process of learning.”
Let me try to simplify. Consider the following two stories and how problem solving is encouraged or not, and what the outcomes are in each scenario. Consider, also, the role observation and thought on the part of the adults, as well as how the healthy emotional development of children is valued and fostered.
A four-year old, who we’ll call Gus, gets easily frustrated by such things as having to take turns at school, not being able to move where he wants, that he can’t kick a soccer ball the way the big kids do, and that he has to go to bed before it’s actually dark. Gus watches cartoons often and sees that those characters kick and swing hands when things don’t go their way. No jazzy talking bubbles saying “ka pow!” pop up for Gus, but he still tries to solve these problems the way he sees on TV – with his hands or feet. Adults around him see this as cute or as something that is just a part of Gus’s personality, so they’re generally accepted. He has every excuse in the book to not go to bed, including tantrums, pleas for another story, and displaying his affection and love for mom. These behaviors are met with a broad range of responses, all of which involved lengthy conversations and often yelling, but never result in Gus asleep by his scheduled bedtime.
Kate is a seven-year old girl vexed by the social dynamics in first grade. She desperately wants a friend. She asks for play dates but mom has trouble scheduling and it never seems to work out. During recess, Kate makes up fictions play dates and brags about it to her friends, who in turn, become jealous. Verbal boxing matches ensue most days and result in one or more girls in tears. At home after school, she broods in her room, slams doors, and repeatedly asks her parents to play with her, which aggravates the working-from home parents and lands Kate right back in her bedroom alone.
Obviously, these scenarios are a bit exaggerated, but rest assured the behaviors and lack of boundaries are more common than you’d believe.
Let’s rewind and think about better boundaries and supports adults can put in place so that each child can play a role in problem solving. There are real problems at the heart of each scenario, as well as secondary problems which arise out of the negative attention-seeking. Adults have to do the hard work of thinking about what kids need and what is developmentally appropriate (have I mentioned the book Yardsticks?), and then to lay down some nonnegotiable boundaries which, if challenged, will have natural and/or logical consequences.
So let’s look at Gus and Kate, Version 2.
Gus – Four year olds are full on energy and move swiftly. They are full of imagination. Their bodies are growing rapidly, often too fast for them to keep up with themselves. So getting frustrated when you can’t play a sport like a big kid, is frustrating. Think back to the last blog on the encouraging language – tell them honestly and accurately the little things they are doing which show improvement. Help them choose one thing to work on (that’s goal setting – a prerequisite for solving larger problems). Let them imagine being a superhero, but remind them that in your house, hands are not for hitting. Allow him to be frustrated, but not hurtful. The logical consequence if Gus does hit, is that he loses the privilege of playing with the ball (or whatever the object he hit over was) or that he needs to take a break and be by himself until he can show better self-control. Adults need to also model the language needed to ask for a turn or express hurt feelings. Set a consistent bedtime so that he can be well-rested and ready to take on the next day. Give small, but significant details, (like why it’s still light at 7 p.m. in May) that help make the rules make sense. Don’t engage in an extended dialogue because – guess what – it allows him to stay up late, which is what he was seeking. The natural consequence of staying up too late is that it’s hard to get up in the morning, it makes it harder to leave on time, etc. Dominio effect.
Kate is clearly a child who seeks companionship and friendship, as do most seven-year olds. One true best friend is what many late first/early second graders seek, but the mercurial nature of children at this age may also mean “here today, gone the next.” Frustrating for sure. By seven, children have learned the power of their own words. Say something hurtful, and you’re likely to get a dynamic result, not to mention it’s likely to rock the boat and shake up a dyad you seek to make a triad. Adults can start by asking, “who do you like to play with?” to help Kate generate a list of friends, then role play how to ask or engage in play with these friends as well as appropriate responses when a request is declined. Empathize with the hurt feelings and remind her that negative feelings are acceptable even if behaviors are not. Consider what options are available after school. Does Kate need some down time to consolidate learning from the day? If so, set aside 15-30 minutes of time for solitary play or rest. Is she seeking social interaction or physical activity? Go for a walk or bike ride, set up a standing playmate once a week, sign up for one weekly activity or sport a week. If after-school time is also work time for mom and dad, set up a mini-office for Kate to work nearby or work with her to find meaningful ways to help out around the house while you work – set the table, play with the dog, tend a garden, etc. Ask her how she can help out around the house so that when your work is finished, you have some time to enjoy each other’s company.
So next time you hear a child whine or complain or lose it in whatever form, think to your self, “what am I gonna do about that?” and encourage the child to do the same. By considering where they are developmentally, focusing on what they need, and standing by the established boundaries, you’ll both move into problem solving mode swiftly.
Need help getting a handle on emotions so you can move to problem solving mode? Read more from Hand in Hand on Parenting Science 101, Part 2 – Emotion.