9 Strategies We Can Teach Students to Problem Solve

Jon Konen
School Principal

In the school setting and in life in general, a parent or teacher cannot be with a student 24 hours a day for 365 days a year. We must empower our students to deal with conflict and problem solve. We know that students can solve many problems at the lowest level; we also know there are going to be problems that they cannot solve which require adult support. If we can equip students with several tools and strategies, they can become problem solvers of many situations. Without the skills, many of these skills can lead to bully behaviors.

Here are nine easy strategies we can teach at school and at home that will support students "going to solution."

1 - Tell Them To Stop

This strategy may sound obvious, but when I talk with students many of them start a conversation such as this, "Jimmy keeps calling me frog face." I then ask Billy, "Did you tell Jimmy to stop." As student such as Billy, routinely tells me, "No!" This is the first place to start. I give them the words to tell Jimmy. They practice with me, and then they can go and use the strategy. This strategy stops quite a few problems. If Jimmy persists, the student may come back to me and say, "Mr. Konen, I used the words we practiced to tell Jimmy to stop, but he did not." Then an adult will need to support. My conversations with Jimmy start by asking, "Tell me what's going on between you and Billy." I do this to see if Jimmy is going to own any of his behavior, or if he is going to blame Billy for some other situation. Sometimes this leads me to do some re-teaching with Billy. Many times I continue my verbiage, "Billy came to me and said you were calling him frog face. Billy and I also worked on words to say to make sure it stopped, but is sounds like it is still going on. Can you tell me more about this?" At this point, a student has two routes to decide, "own their behavior," or "deny it." Many times a student will own their behavior, come up with a plan with me to fix it with Billy, and vow to stop. If it continues, we can then take it to the next level much faster. I write down these interactions in my notebook; keeping track of behavioral patterns, and what students were involved is important to getting the bully behavior stopped. I may even write a Level 1 discipline referral if I deem it more important to track. Then, sometimes a student choses to "deny it," and I then spend more time with Billy finding out if there were any witnesses. I then investigate further with these witnesses. My whole goal is to get enough information to make my case to Jimmy and for him to own his behavior.

This is strategy is sometimes hard for a student, especially a student who avoids conflict. If we can teach our students to stick up for themselves, and say "No," or "Stop," I believe they will be able to do it in much more serious situations!

2 - Go To Another Activity

A student, "Jimmy," sometimes is so involved in a game and the competitive nature of the game becomes confrontational. Students want to play and make sure it is fair for everyone who is involved. Asking Jimmy to go to another activity can be difficult as an adult; we know we may in for an argument. To Jimmy, it seems unfair that he should go to another activity when Billy isn't being fair in the game.

The goal of this strategy is for a student to self-reflect, and chose another game. When the student can chose another game, they are able to see that that their current participation is leading to bigger problems. Whether the problems self-generated from or derived from other students, they know if they keep playing, they are not going to be able to regulate themselves.

Adults must reinforce this as a viable option to problem solving, and when a student choses to use it, we must praise their smart choice.

3 - Rock, Paper, Scissors, Go!

Fairness and justice are qualities we all want in life. Unfortunately, we know that life is not always fair. When students have a disagreement or believe there are two separate viable solutions, a simple game of "Rock, Paper, Scissors" may be an easy tool for them to use.

Students must agree to the outcome of the game before they play. If they cannot accept the outcome, then this strategy is not going to work. Seems simple, but sometimes it is not. Sometimes a student will risk the outcome of the problem to this 50/50 odds game and they lose. Negative behaviors from losing may come to the forefront, and another problem-solving strategy may need to be employed.

The idea behind the game is to solve a problem in a game format, requiring less stress then arguing. This strategy is great for games outside, as well as making decisions in the classroom where both solutions can be used.

4 - Use "I messages…"

The ability for a student to use their words to solve a problem is vital to them becoming a successful problem solver. Unfortunately, some students use physical aggression or hurtful language to solve problems. This leads to bully behavior if it forms a pattern. We must teach our students to use words that are productive, proactive, and let others know you how you feel.

The use of "I messages," is a good strategy for students to learn when they are solving problems and dealing with conflict. An example of an "I message" states, "Jimmy, I feel sad when Billy is made fun of." Starting with the word, "I," lets the other student know that what Jimmy said affects how you feel. It is not accusatory and it is much harder for Jimmy to attack a feeling then accusing him of making fun of Billy. When a Jimmy is accused, he mostly likely will be defensive and wanting to fight back.

A teacher can practice "I" with students before they use them. This practice and modeling will help them go to solution much faster when conflict arises. This is a strategy that many adults have difficulties using as shifting blame tends to be easier. Trying to go solution with the other person tends take more time and work. Many people don't like using this strategy as they may they are being judged as weak due to the fact of using "I messages" that discuss their personal emotions. If we can teach this skill, it can be a useful tool for the rest of a student's life.

5 - Apologize

It seems in this day-in-age, an apology can be difficult. Many people do not want to be viewed as being weak, or admit they are guilty, or even think that an apology can be a practicable solution. Teaching students that an apology is part of the culture of our school when we make a mistake or hurt someone. We teach the words on how to give an apology. We do not give out apologies that are forced. Apologies must be sincere, tell the person specifically what they are apologizing for, as well as letting them know it is not going to occur again.

Teaching a student when to use an apology can be tricky. Deciding when an apology can be a useful strategy is powerful self-reflection tool. A student must step outside of the situation, assess that what they were doing or saying garners an apology. For a student to do this on their must be practiced, modeled, and praised.

We also teach students how to accept an apology. We never say after an apology, "It's okay." It is not "okay," but we can teach students to accept the apology. We also go further and tell them to make sure the behavior does not happen again.

6 - Talk It Out

Two students in a disagreement sometimes needs more time to "talk to it." Students, like many adults, want to avoid conflict and want a problem to be solved immediately. If the problem is not solved immediately, they tend to hold grudges, possibly spread rumors, and cause more drama.

Many times this strategy needs adult support. I like to bring students together that have previously been friends, but are not talking. One student, and many times both students, want to get the problem fixed so they can rekindle their friendship. I spend time prepping both students on what it will look like in my office, the words they can use, and discuss the perception from the other student. This gives them those tools, some power, and ultimately, some choice in how they will handle the situation.

For students who have matured enough to be able to spend time talking out a problem, having them do it on their own is a tool they will use the rest of the lives. Parents and teachers modeling language, actions, and problem solving skills are creating solution-orientated students who can be successful with the "talk it out" strategy.

7 - Ignore It

The ability for a student to ignore a problem can be a successful tool. The saying goes, "What we pay attention to is what we get more of..." If a student puts a lot of time and effort into combatting negative attention directed towards them, it might continue to occur. The ability for a student to ignore another person's bully behavior takes courage.

When I discuss this strategy with a student, I talk with them about power. I let them know there is a lot of power in the words we chose to use and just as much in the words we do not use. I ask them who retains the power in their situation.

If a student who is exhibiting bully behavior continues to use the language or action because they know they are getting to that student, that student loses his or her power. A student retains their power by not letting the other student know how they feel. If they can ignore the problem, the other student may just stop because they are not getting the attention they are trying to ascertain.

If ignore strategy is not working and the bully behavior persists, adult intervention and support may be needed.

8 - Wait and Cool Off

In the heat of a battle or argument, taking a break to cool off can be strategy that students can use to solve a problem. Self-reflection by the student is required. A student must understand his or her own emotions and know that stepping away from a problem or conflict can be successful.

Sometimes students get into a conflict and they attack each other because they do not have the words in the heat of the moment to solve the problem. Giving wait time to answer, gather yourself, and possibly do some breathing to calm down can be a great tool to problem solve.

9 - Walk Away and Let It Go.

Similar to the "Ignore it" strategy, "walk away and let it go" is another strategy that students can use to go to solution when they encounter conflict and bully behavior. When a student decides to walk away from a problem, it takes courage not to engage with the person exhibiting the bully behavior.

When a student walks away, they are physically putting distance between the bully behavior and themselves. In addition, they are letting the problem go. This strategy also does not give attention to the person bullying, one more possible reason for the bullying to stop.

Of course if this problem persists, adult support and intervention may be needed. Letting an adult know of the situation is important.


Jon Konen

Jon Konen

Jon Konen is a K-6 elementary principal in Great Falls, Montana. His school won the 2012 Blue Ribbon Award. He has taught most all grade levels, been a K-12 principal of a rural school, as well as an instructional coach.

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Jon Konen