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November 1, 2008
Vol. 66
No. 3

Solving Behavior Problems Together

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Whenever he was asked to write, Andrew, a verbally articulate 3rd grader with learning difficulties, fell apart. During our daily writing workshop, he would lie on the floor, kick his feet, and refuse to write. I would sit beside him and offer support in getting started, but the tantrums would only continue.
At a time when he was calm, I asked Andrew to talk privately with me to see if we might figure out a way to make writing go better for him. Andrew accepted my invitation, and in the course of our conversation, we together realized that he was always too tired to think at writing time. Andrew then chose a solution: We'd create a special time for him to write first thing in the morning, when his energy was high. This didn't solve all of Andrew's problems, but he finally began to do some productive writing.

The Strategy

The 15-minute conversation I had with Andrew is an example of a problem-solving conference, a Responsive Classroom strategy that can help individual students take ownership in overcoming a persistent problem they're having at school.
In elementary schools across the United States, teachers use problem-solving conferences to address a range of academic and social issues when the usual reminders and redirections have not helped. Consistently ignoring assignments, defying teachers, and cheating in games are just a few problems that we can deal with using problem-solving conferences. This strategy is built on the belief that all students want to learn and participate as positive members of a community, but they need to be taught how. When students know how to recognize, take responsibility for, and solve problems that interfere with learning, they're much more likely to reach their full potential.

Building an Alliance

The most important quality of problem-solving conferences is the teacher's alliance with the student. When children feel accepted and trust that their teacher cares about them, they're generally eager to work with the teacher.
The spirit of collaboration is built on a foundation of positive teacher-student rapport. In Andrew's case, I began to build a relationship with him on the first day of school. As I welcomed him to the classroom each morning, asked about his family and his love of skateboarding, or shared a joke with him, Andrew came to know that I liked him and enjoyed being with him.
With that foundational rapport in place, teachers must then maintain an open-hearted willingness to work with the student, no matter how exasperating the behavior. A problem-solving conference will not be effective if we feel blame or anger toward the student.
To get myself into a compassionate and collaborative frame of mind for my conference with Andrew, I spent some time beforehand thinking about reasons he might be reacting to writing workshop so violently. I knew that writing is especially challenging for students with learning disabilities because they need to use so many skills simultaneously. Also, I had taught Andrew's older sister, a high-achieving child for whom everything in school seemed easy. Sarah was a tough act to follow. This reflection helped me feel empathetic toward Andrew.

The Conference

On the day of the conference, I invited Andrew to join me for lunch to figure out how we might make writing go better for him. We sat at the classroom reading table, each with our sandwich.
A problem-solving conference consists of specific steps that help ensure respectful collaboration. Here's how these steps looked in my meeting with Andrew.

Step 1. Establish rapport.

The goal here is to help the student relax and become thoughtful and to make it clear that the purpose of the meeting is to work together to solve a problem, not to scold.
I began by asking Andrew how he thought things were going in writing. "I dunno," he said, "I just don't like writing. It's hard for me."
"Yes, I can see that, and I want to talk about that with you today," I said. "I also want to share some things that I've noticed you doing well in school." I wanted to both acknowledge his feelings and encourage him.
"You have so much to say in class discussions," I told Andrew. "Yesterday when we were discussing Monarch butterflies' life cycle, you taught the other kids lots of new words, like metamorphosis." I was careful to comment on a positive behavior that Andrew truly did exhibit. It's important to be truthful and specific, or the conversation won't feel genuine.
Andrew smiled and giggled. "I like science," he commented.
"I've noticed that. You have good ideas in science. You seem to be having a hard time getting those ideas down on paper though," I said in a matter-of-fact tone. "Let's see if we can find a way to make that easier."

Step 2. Talk about the problem.

Before a student and I can solve a behavior problem together, we need to agree on exactly which behaviors are problematic. We do this by comparing specific behaviors we've noticed.
I got out Andrew's writing notebook and leafed through the empty pages. "I've noticed that sometimes you don't open your notebook when it's writing time. I've also noticed that when you write at the computer, you spend most of the time switching the fonts. What have you noticed about yourself at writing time?"
"Well, I don't have any ideas at writing time. I don't know what to say or how to say it," Andrew responded.
"That must be frustrating," I acknowledged. Continuing calmly, I said, "Sometimes I offer to help you, and you fall off your chair, lie on the floor, and kick your feet." As I brought up the painful facts, I was careful to keep my tone and body language respectful.
"I feel so frustrated. I don't want to write." The rapport that we had established made Andrew comfortable telling me exactly how he was feeling.
Because Andrew and I agreed that he exhibited these behaviors and that they were troublesome, we could go on with the conference. If the student and teacher don't agree, it's best to stop the conference. Perhaps the two can make a pact to observe the problem area extra closely the next few days and then come back to compare notes. If the student simply becomes defiant, it's best to abandon the conversation and try other strategies.

Step 3. Identify the problem and invite the student to solve it.

It's important to explain why we need to solve a problem. "Learning to be a good writer is an important part of school," I said firmly to Andrew. "To learn to be a good writer, you need to practice writing."
Then I invited him to try to solve the problem with me. "I'd like to explore how to help you practice writing. Would you like to try to figure this out with me?" This was a genuine invitation. If Andrew had said no, I would have ended the conversation there and continued to pursue other strategies.
Andrew looked at me, perhaps a bit skeptically, and said, "OK." He was stuck in his misery and couldn't quite believe that there would be a solution, but he trusted me and was willing to try.

Step 4. Explore possible causes.

Part of working together on a problem is coming to a shared understanding of its cause. But simply asking students why they're doing something often elicits a shrug or an "I don't know," so suggesting possible explanations is helpful.
"Sometimes kids think they aren't very good writers, so they don't want to try. Might that be what's happening?" I asked Andrew.
"I don't think so. When I try I just can't get anything on paper."
I thought about Andrew's difficulty with small motor tasks such as handwriting and wondered if he felt discouraged by the physical challenge of writing. "I wonder if forming your letters takes you so long that you forget your idea by the time you've written the first word. Is that what's going on?"
He shrugged and looked skeptical.
Then I remembered Andrew's parents telling me that he struggled to fall asleep at night. "Do you feel tired when it's time to write?" I asked.
Suddenly he perked up a little. "I think so. I'm so tired at writing time."
This was a significant breakthrough, not so much because the cause was identified, but because Andrew helped identify and confirm it.

Step 5. Articulate a clear, specific goal.

Andrew and I needed to agree on a precise goal—not just the general aim of "getting better at writing," so I asked him, "How many sentences do you think you could write if you weren't tired?"
Andrew seemed relieved to have identified a possible cause of his problem and was excited that we might find a solution. "I bet I could write two sentences," he said. I would have been happy with even one sentence, since he had yet to write a sentence in 3rd grade.

Step 6. Choose a solution.

When generating possible solutions, input from the student is crucial. "So," I said, "when do you feel energetic?"
"I feel pretty good right after breakfast. I like to go outside and practice my skateboard then."
"Maybe morning would be a better time for you to write. I have a couple of ideas," I replied. "You could do a little writing at home after breakfast. Or you could write first thing in the morning while the other kids have silent reading. Do you have any ideas?"
Andrew looked thoughtful. "How about if I ask my dad if he'd bring me to school early, and I could write at school before the other kids get here?"
I wrote the three ideas down and asked Andrew which one he'd like to try. He pointed to his idea. I suspect Andrew was relishing the prospect of a car ride to school with his dad and some private time in the classroom with me.
I called Andrew's dad, who was happy to try our plan. The next Wednesday, Andrew arrived at school early and successfully wrote two sentences while I prepared for the day.

Opening the Way to Further Action

Sometimes these conferences quickly solve the problem—teacher and student accurately identify the cause of the difficulty, they find a solution together, and the student's behavior changes.
In other cases, conferences lead to strategies that are effective for only a while. Andrew wrote productively for a couple of months after we instituted the early-morning writing time. But when I began to expect more writing, he dug in his heels and refused to write anything. I met with him again and introduced a different strategy, an individual written agreement.
Sometimes a student's problem is complex enough to require the involvement of colleagues, special educators, or mental health professionals. The problem-solving conference may then be the beginning of a conversation between teacher and student, providing helpful information to the teacher and any other adults who are helping to resolve the situation.

Far-Reaching Benefits

Problem-solving conferences give teachers a tool for working with students who are having trouble socially or academically. They give students ownership in solving their problem, which not only addresses the immediate obstacle but also enhances their feelings of significance and belonging.
In guiding students to think about possible causes of their problems and what they can do to solve them, we teach them to be self-reflective and to take responsibility for their behavior. These habits will help them be more successful now and in their adult lives.

Author bio coming soon.

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