Trouble on the Tire Swing - Solving Problems at Catlin Gabel

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The other day, a few girls approached me asking for help with a conflict they were having with a couple of boys on the playground.  The girls explained they had asked the two boys for a turn on the tire swing, but the boys said “No! Today it’s our turn”.  The girls reported that they had tried to talk it out with the boys, but the boys had just ignored them and kept on swinging.  I felt empathy for the girls’ trouble, but truth be told, I was excited to have an opportunity to coach some students to use the Beginning and Lower School steps for solving problems. Here is how we teach students to solve problems at Catlin Gabel:

  1. Stop and Cool Off
  2. Talk and Listen to Each Other – Consider both perspectives on the problem
  3. Brainstorm Solutions
  4. Pick the Best Solution  - Is it safe?  Is it fair?
  5. Make a Plan and Go for it!

Helping children to calm themselves when they are upset is the first, most important step to take before attempting to understand or to solve a problem.  In the simplest terms children, or adults for the matter, don’t think logically or rationally when they are upset.  When intervening we use quiet tones and words to reassure that we will help.  We coach kids to take slow deep breaths and do so ourselves, knowing children will often take cues from us and match our behavior naturally.  Once emotions are regulated, we’re ready to make sense of what happened.

Fortunately for me, the tire swing kids were fairly composed and we moved directly into talking and listening to each other.  As it turned out, the boys had been watching the tire swing for days, waiting for these same girls to finish so they could have a turn.  The girls, unaware that the boys were waiting, used the swing all recess long, several days in a row.  On this day, the boys had rushed to the swing, gotten their first and felt as though they were entitled to use the swing the entire recess as the girls had done before.   After hearing the boys, the girls understood and wondered why the boys hadn’t asked for a turn when the girls were using the swing. The boys explained their belief that the swing ought to belong to whomever got to it first.

The kids were able to brainstorm a few solutions, but the intervention went awry when it came time to choosing a solution that was fair to all students on the playground.  The boys couldn’t get past how the girls had used the swing all recess long the day before.  They had gotten their first, and didn’t that mean they were entitled to the swing all recess as the girls had done?  They couldn’t integrate the idea that on any given day, many students besides the girls might want a turn on the swing.  They had a hard time considering other perspectives and showing empathy for the girls.  Frustrated, the boys gave up and stormed off, leaving a very pleased set of girls to the tire swing.

I don’t mind sharing a failed intervention, because it highlights the very complex set of skills that are required to solve problems: calming ourselves when we’re upset, expressing our feelings and needs, truly listening to someone else’s feelings and needs, generating multiple solutions, considering multiple perspectives when choosing a solution that is fair.  When we stop to consider how much we struggle with these skills as adults, we begin to understand how challenging it can be for kids to solve problems.  This failed intervention gave me good information about the skills with which those boys needed help: empathy and perspective-taking.

When there is a problem, the adult reaction is often to jump in and be the judge.  We listen to both sides, make a determination and hand down the decision.  We do this because it’s faster, but it doesn’t teach kids how to solve problems on their own.  Helping kids to navigate this process takes time.  As they learn these skills they’ll need our help less in the future.  This after all, is the ultimate goal.