“If all I did was solve problems all day, I wouldn’t get anything done.”
“Children need to learn to solve their own problems.”
“My job is to teach, not solve everyone’s problems for them.”
Comments like these come up quite often in conversations about classroom management and children’s behavior. When I hear comments like this, my first reaction is usually to say that, actually, solving problems is our job. Fostering social-emotional competence and supporting children as they learn to negotiate the social world is at the heart of teaching. But there’s something more.
Why are there so many problems in the first place?
“Behavior problems” are often less about a child’s actual behavior, and more about the teacher’s perception of and reaction to it. Sometimes what defines the behavior as a problem isn’t how it makes the child feel, but how it makes the teacher feel. And sometimes, these behaviors don’t originate in the child, but in the child’s response to something a teacher said or did, or a situation that the teacher created.
Several years ago, a teacher approached me for help with a classroom management problem. Every day at free play, the same group of children were fighting over the toy police car. No matter how much she talked to them or what consequences she gave them, they still yelled at each other and grabbed the car out of each others’ hands. What should she do? My suggestion – get more police cars. Obviously the police car was a very popular play choice. By choosing to have only one of a highly desired toy in the room, the teacher was unintentionally creating the problem that occurred. And the teacher was the one with the power to solve it.
When we set up the environment and decide how to approach and respond to children, we are the ones choosing whether there will be problems. And when problems occur, we are the ones who have the power to change the situation.
When a child exhibits a behavior that’s a “problem” or expresses to the teacher that they’re having a “problem” with another child, the first step is to determine whether there’s something in the classroom environment or routine that the teacher could change. There might not be – but if there is a chance that one small change could better support that child, meet that child where they are developmentally, or make the day easier for everyone, then it’s worth a try.
Some things to consider:
1. Are there enough materials for several children to use them at the same time, or to play easily together in a small group?
2. Are there a variety of engaging activities available so children can choose something else they’d enjoy doing while waiting for a turn for a preferred activity?
3. Do children have the ability to choose whether they want to participate in an activity, or to decline to do something that a teacher asks them to?
4. Does the teacher have reasonable, developmentally appropriate expectations for children’s behavior, including children’s ability to share, wait, take turns, and verbally express their thoughts and feelings?
And most of all:
5. When a situation isn’t working well, what can I change to make it work better?
That last one is sometimes the hardest for teachers to consider. We get so caught up in “I want the children to….” and “I expect the children to be able to…..” that we forget that the children aren’t here to do what we want or what we expect. We can want and expect all sorts of things, but in the end we need to meet the children where the children are right now. No amount of adult expectations are going to change children’s behavior. The process of social and emotional development takes a long time and a lot of practice. And while the children are developing these skills, we need to give them all the support that they need.
Instead of only asking the child “What could you do differently next time?” the teacher should also ask themselves “What could I do differently so there isn’t a next time?” We can’t change the children, but we might have the power to change what’s causing the problem in the first place. Which will leave us all with fewer problems for anyone to have to solve.