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13 FEBRUARY 2000
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Teaching problem solving

Brian Gannon

To begin with, look at the title of this toolbox article again ... we are not suggesting that the child care worker uses the tool of problem solving, but of teaching problem solving. As a functioning adult, the child care worker can already problem-solve; it is the children and adolescents in our care who need to learn how to problem-solve, and we who need to teach them.

Mr or Mrs Fixit
How many of us, when told of a problem in our cottage or living unit, step in willingly and helpfully to fix it? From time to time, most of us do this. We sort out clashing schedules, clear drains, reconcile combatants, transport teams, bury dead canaries and negotiate more child-friendly levels of pocket money with the administrator. These are all generous activities, except that we are not running hotels for choosey guests; we are running learning programs and training courses for life – for students who have not had the chance to do all that well in their learning up to now. Every time we solve someone's problem, we deny them the opportunity of learning how to solve a problem.

Whose problem?
We have long known about the concept of problem ownership. If you and your group are sitting around contentedly eating peanut butter sandwiches, and Arthur, aged eleven, starts making a fuss because he hates peanut butter, that is his problem, not yours. It's a normal, everyday problem, but it's still not your problem. Mrs Fixit will get up, rush to the kitchen and look for strawberry jam to satisfy her guest; the child care worker, on the other hand, will acknowledge the problem, but pass it back to its owner to solve. And (here's the point) if the child is rather fragile with a short fuse and limited personal skills, the child care worker will teach him how to go about sorting out the peanut butter issue, so that next time he can solve his own problem.

Self determination
We stop for a moment to look at one important aspect of mental health. One of the qualities of sound mental health is that a person feels he is in charge of his own life. People like to feel that they are at the controls, and that their own actions impact on their own lives. Dickens' novel started with David Copperfield wondering whether he would be the hero, the main character, of his own life! Many, if not most, of the young people we work with have the feeling that other people (or pressures or events) are running their lives, and they feel powerless. We are familiar with the expression “circumstances beyond our control" and the feelings of frustration which this evokes. When we are sitting in a car in bad traffic being driven by someone else whom we don't fully know or trust, we feel anxious and impotent. We like to have our hand on the wheel. Even very little children want to tie their own shoelaces or spoon their own syrup (urghh!) and they say “Let me do it, let me do it!" Institutions of all kinds are often guilty of taking control unnecessarily from clients, so that they feel out of touch with their own affairs, not in control of their own lives. Troubled kids will often make a mess if we hand them the controls, like that kid with the syrup. But this does not mean that we must keep control; it means that they need to be taught how to take control.

Exposure to problems
Child care workers, it is said, make their greatest contribution in providing and managing helpful environments for children and youth. A completely sterile environment in which all things run smoothly is not a helpful environment for learning. A truly helpful environment is one in which youngsters are exposed to a normal range of problems and decisions, from which they learn to face up to problems and make good-enough choices to cope from day to day. The child care worker who anxiously stage-manages all of the daily functions in the living unit, is depriving the children. They will leave her care less able to manage the daily cut and thrust of life, because they didn't get real opportunities to learn. Examine your own practice. How often in your work with children do you feel the need to prepare absolutely everything before a meal, a group meeting, an entertainment, so that the customers are satisfied? How much better for children to arrive and find some things left to do, some things missing, and others going wrong. When they have the opportunity to contribute something to the event, they feel more that it is theirs, they develop better frustration tolerance, they learn skills.

Let them try
A headmaster I once worked with had a unique approach when his pupils brought ideas for him to consider. Instead of the more usual “What do you want to do that for!" or “That will never work", he used to say “Why not? Give it a try and let's see what happens." Once they suggested that a cafeteria be set up in the storage space under the hall stage! “Why not? Give it a try ... “ He knew that there would very likely be all sorts of mess and confusion, but that the wide range of learning experiences the pupils would enjoy and the development of new skills would be very worth while – even if the whole project failed dismally! He recognised that he was running a school, a place of learning. The project, of course, did fail. But can you make a list of the dozens of things those kids learned during the six weeks or so they devoted to trying to make it work ... So when youngsters bring you ideas and problems, instead of clinging to notions of undisturbed order and ultimate success, see if you can think of a better way for them to learn something really useful. You won't, so let them try.

Let them err
This principle of letting them try applies to their own individual problems. A child brings you a problem about whatever, and often (because it's easier for him) tries to get you to solve it. Your best response would always be “What do you think you should do!" If he makes a suggestion you should never say “That will never work." You might ask if he has any other suggestions (Plan B), but then let him try: “Give that a try. I'd be interested to see what happens." If the youngster's own plan doesn't work, he'll be the first to know. More, he will learn from that failure. More yet, you won't tell him the plan failed; he'll decide that for himself. And then it will be his decision as to whether he must try another plan, or (as often happens) whether he can live with a partial solution.

Not ready to try?
Of course we don't want this child to spend the next six months descending into a morbid depression as plan after plan fails. It may well be that we have to help in some way, but still it is better that we teach him problem solving skills than solving his problem for him. Bear in mind that the Problem Solving Model requires that a youngster is capable of thinking about and managing a problem at a cognitive level, and that he or she is not overwhelmed by the problem at a feeling level.

(Remember the idea of 'taking the temperature' of a child's communication in our Listening toolbox?) A young person in care may well be at a necessarily more dependent stage right now, and child care workers are very familiar with the child who is so 'down' over his problem, that he cannot be persuaded to take any reasoned or insightful steps towards problem solving. We have learned to be sensitive as to whether we should support a child in difficulty or challenge him to work at this difficulty. Stage 1 of the Problem Solving Model is itself a test for this: When he can define problems in words, he is more in control as he separates out the objective problem from his feelings associated with the problem.

One thing we find ourselves doing with youngsters in care, more than with others, is debriefing them after events. We do this specifically to place children in a central position in their own lives. We show them the impact of their own actions, whether positive or negative, to confirm their active role in their lives. We say things like: “Today you tackled a difficult problem, you learned some alternative ways of doing something, you did well." Or we say: “You spoke roughly to someone and they felt hurt; let's work out how we can say things like that in such a way that we express our feelings but don't hurt other people's feelings... “ When we help kids to feel in control, we empower them and we make them responsible for what they do. For many troubled children, life has been an arbitrary, hit-and-miss affair, without very visible connections. Things just happen to them. Debriefing helps them to fit things into the widening context of their lives as they reclaim more control over them. In teaching them problem solving, it is especially important to review the efforts they made, and to show how these efforts worked. They need to feel that they have gained a skill or gained a method which they can use in other situations. All the better when it is something they worked out for themselves, and they can acknowledge the role they themselves played. Usually that is reward enough.

Life goes on
It is good to celebrate small gains. But all troubled young people, whose development has in some way been delayed, have a more urgent time-table for learning than other kids. Their climb is steeper: for example, they will turn 18 at the same age as other kids! Our job is to keep the curriculum coming, to recognise the further tasks and problems they have to get past, and the appropriate experiences and skills they need to do this. So after the party, here comes another problem.

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