Social Problem Solving in the Early Years


These are notes that I have written to describe a problem-solving technique that I have used in Junior and Senior Kindergarten and have found to bring much joy, harmony and order to my classroom. Every situation is different but if the concepts are understood, then anyone can use this technique.

The basic concepts start with the teacher: showing respect for all, neither judging nor labelling anyone and not moralizing. The teacher should almost always decline to create the solution for the students but should be prepared to assist the students in creating their own solution if they need help.

This technique helps children to accept and solve their own problems. Manipulations of others are set aside and the environment becomes open, honest and free. Children who tend to be victims learn to speak up for themselves nicely, and aggressive children learn to listen to what others are feeling. Bullies are few and will need more teacher involvement.

I have had many happy experiences watching the children grow through this approach over the years. I hope that you will experiment with it too.


  1. A special “private place” to talk is established at the beginning of the school year (e.g., under the teacher’s desk).
  2. The students have a private conversation about the problem in order to come to a peaceful resolution. A solution that satisfies both is required or the students must leave the activity where the problem happened. An exception would be if one child refused to talk. Then that child could play somewhere else. (Sometimes the child will decide to talk after this.)
  3. There should be only two people so that there is no ganging up.
  4. Their conversation is confidential, even from the teacher, unless the teacher is asked to help after the students have already tried and failed.

Training at the Beginning of the Year

Keep it simple.

Purpose: to solve a problem that has arisen, e.g.:
Mary and Lindsay want the same toy.
John hits Billy and Billy is upset.

The teacher takes the two children who are involved to the private place. Once there, a child may say “I’m sorry.” This is nice but it does not solve the problem. Here is an example of a case in which Mary wanted to talk with Jimmy.

Once they are all in the private place, with the children under the teacher’s desk and the teacher kneeling in front:

Teacher: Mary, what’s bothering you?
Mary: Jimmy took my toy away.

Teacher: Why don’t you ask Jimmy why.
Mary: Why did you take it?
Jimmy: I needed it.

Teacher: Mary, did you like that?
Mary: No.

Teacher: Then why don’t you tell him.
Mary: (Looking at Jimmy) I don’t like that.

Teacher: Ask him if he will give it back to you.
Mary: Will you give it back?
Jimmy: Nods head for yes.

Usually, in such a case, Jimmy gives the toy back. Sometimes, however, Jimmy may have a grievance. This needs to be expressed too.

Jimmy: But I had it first!
Teacher: Well, then who gets it now? You need to decide.

At this point, the problem is clear, so the teacher leaves. When they come out, the teacher checks to see if both are satisfied. They may have decided to share or take turns, etc. If either is not satisfied with the solution then they must go back and try again; there must be a solution before play is resumed. Since this is the training period, the teacher may need to continue to assist the process. It is essential to find out if they have really understood the problem: who gets the toy.

It is very important that the children realize that this “private place” is a good place to be. Right after they have resolved a problem is a good time to affirm this with them. This can also be affirmed in discussions with the whole class. Communicating and solving problems feels good!


The teacher must be respectful and not judge either child.

The teacher is there only to help the process:

  • To see that the above procedures are followed.
  • To ensure that both children are satisfied when they are done.
  • To support students who want help, after they have already tried.
  • To train the students in the technique at the very beginning of the year.
  • To make sure that there is no fighting—that this is a good place to be.
  • Remember to observe body language.

There is no labelling in the classroom (e.g., “bad” person vs “good” person). It is simply that there is a problem to be worked out.

The teacher must not get upset and must resist being manipulated by the students. The students have to own their problems and solve them by themselves.

When the teacher is out of the way some problems will just disappear.

The children will gain confidence and a good feeling about themselves as they learn to solve their own problems.

Once the teacher is out of the problem, the students soon realize that they are the only ones suffering the consequences. They own their problem; no one else minds.

Problem Solving Where the Teacher Is More Involved
(Such as When a Child “Plays Bully”)

The teacher needs to:

  • Keep it simple.
  • Know the child’s goals (attention, power, revenge, etc.)
  • Find the appropriate consequences, dependent on the child’s goals, and then get out of the way.
  • Avoid too much talking so as not to be manipulated verbally.
  • Realize that the children know when they are misbehaving, without being told.
  • Employ simple consequences, without annoyance or delving into problems. (e.g., “You can watch recess from here. It’s okay.”). This leaves the child owning the problem. The teacher is neither manipulated nor concerned.
  • After the consequence has been completed, it is very important for the child to have a fresh start. “All is fixed.”

Examples of Problems That Really Happened

T suddenly started crying loudly and rushed towards the teacher saying “J hit me! J hit me!” The teacher responded with, “You are talking to the wrong person.” The teacher would normally add, “Who do you need to talk to?” but this was a more urgent situation so the teacher added, “Talk to J. You need to talk to J.” The teacher then made sure that they both went to the private place. Both students came out a short time later and the teacher asked if each was satisfied. Their words and body language assured the teacher that they were both okay: the teacher does not need to know any more than this. The children returned happily to the snack table. They had solved their problem on their own. There was no “good guy” or “bad guy.” The teacher never knew what actually happened but the children did and they solved it.

C and B had a problem at the block centre. They went comfortably, on their own, to the private place. When they came out, they were happy. On the way back to the blocks, C chose to tell the teacher “We’re going to have two bathrooms.” This was an ideal scenario: the teacher played no part in it.

The following are situations where the teacher had to become more involved because of lack of cooperation.

B was kicking other students just for fun. A wished to talk with him. In the private place, B told A that he was not going to stop kicking A. A requested help so the teacher’s assistance was required. The teacher heard the situation and, since B still refused to stop kicking, told A to leave, that the teacher needed to deal with this. The teacher then told B, nicely, that he could stay with his decision but that he could not go back to play because it was simply too dangerous for the other children. Then the teacher left. The child came out later, saying that he was not going to kick anymore. There was no moralizing and he joined the class. Even though A had initiated the proceedings, it was B’s lack of cooperation that necessitated the teacher’s intervention. Therefore A did not bear the stigma of “tattletale” even though the results were similar.

B was stepping on A’s foot and putting up his fist. The teacher was not upset but facilitated the technique. In this case, due to the upset, the teacher took both children by the hand and led them to the private place. No words were spoken. The children went comfortably with the teacher because they knew, by this time, that the teacher would be supportive and that it was their problem. In this case, when the children were in the private place, the teacher did suggest that they might want to hurry, since there was a dog visiting. The teacher then went back to class activities. The two children came out about three minutes later. Body language showed that they were fine. Nothing more was said about it. The problem was neither enlarged nor manipulated by the teacher. The children owned the problem, solved it and moved on.

Using this kind of problem solving, the children are owning their own problems and are gaining confidence in standing up for themselves. They are learning not to be victims and not to be bullies. Through communication, they learn to respect each other and grow in sensitivity towards others. There is no moralizing.

The children learn to share, not because they are told to share (which may cause resistance) but because they discover for themselves that it is a good way to maintain harmony and build friendships. The children learn to communicate effectively, which leads to the development of a better understanding of human relationships.

These examples demonstrate how this method leads to an environment that is harmonious and happy and it opens the door for good learning to take place.


Janet Murray
During her elementary school teaching career in southern Ontario, Janet Murray with her kind and gentle, soft-spoken approach, held children’s attention. Her common sense methods led her to develop a solution for even the youngest of her students to solve their own problems successfully.

This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Winter 2018 issue.

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