SEL Tip: To Address Class Problems, Ask Why

June 28, 2017

Instead of jumping ahead to brainstorming solutions, first explore why a problem is occurring.

Instead of jumping ahead to brainstorming solutions, first explore why a problem is occurring.

An important part of social and emotional learning is encouraging students to solve their own problems by using helpful strategies such as class meetings, mediation, or the ABCDE Problem-Solving method.
In using these processes, we often ask students to define the problem they are having and then generate ideas about how to solve the problem. But we sometimes neglect an important step between identifying a problem and listing solutions: Asking the students involved in the problem to share their ideas about why the problem is occurring.
Let’s say we’re having a problem with messy closets in the classroom. We work with students to define the problem: Our closets are messy!  If we move straight to brainstorming solutions, we’re likely to come up with some variation of:  Students need to keep the closets neater.
But if we first ask students why they think the closets are messy, we may discover a variety of underlying causes such as:

  • We don’t have enough time to hang our things up.
  • We are all rushing to be first to the closet.
  • We linger so we can chat with each other and we get distracted.
  • There are broken hooks that have not been fixed.
  • Our assigned hooks are not convenient (i.e. short kids have high hooks).
  • Some kids bring more bags than others.

If we determine which of these factors are the true underlying cause, we will likely generate more powerful and lasting solutions to the problem. For instance, if we determine that kids are rushing to be first, we can focus on changing the pace at which we approach the closet. If we determine that there are broken hooks, our solution might be to fix them and/or add more. If we determine that some kids are taking up more space than others, we can investigate solutions to that particular challenge.
So when engaging students in group problem-solving, be sure to ask them why they think the problem exists. Listen to them neutrally and respectfully and capture their ideas. Determine together the underlying causes, then work together to craft powerful and lasting solutions that directly address those causes.