Thursday, March 10, 2011

What are Coping Skills? Part Three: Social Problem Solving

In schools, coping skills interventions aim at helping students handle stress and deal efficiently with academic, interpersonal, and physical demands (Forman, 1993). Among the coping skills that teachers and/or school staff can teach children are relaxation strategies, assertiveness training, goal setting, social problem solving, self-management of behavior and cognitive restructuring. In this issue, we focus on the coping skill of social problem solving, an approach that gives training to children in how to apply the steps of problem solving to deal with daily experiences and social problems. Using problem solving, in particular the technique of dialoging, the teacher or staff member assists children in solving conflicts and social problems by helping students structure their thinking and articulate possible solutions in a systematic or step-by-step fashion. According to Forman, social problem solving enhances children’s ability to see a human problem, their appreciation of different ways of handling the problem, and their sensitivity to the potential consequences of their actions or what they do. In addition, social problem solving helps children recognize and admit the problem, reflect on possible solutions, make a decision, and finally, to take action to solve the problem.
The social problem solving approach is both cognitive and behavioral. It is cognitive in the sense that teachers and other adults help children analyze and reflect on possible solutions or alternatives, increasing the probability of selecting the best solution among the alternatives. Following the problem solving steps, we teach children how to think instead of what to think. In other words, we do not tell children what the solution to the problem is; it is the students’ decision and choice to make, not ours. Problem solving is also behavioral because children follow a systematic, observable, and measurable procedure and they take action to solve the problem. Following the problem solving sequence helps children in conflict modify angry and/or acting-out behaviors, improving children’s ability to cope effectively with their social and/or emotional problems. As Forman (1993) states, the social problem solving steps help angry and troubled children understand a problem from both their own perspective as well as the perspective of the other children or adults involved in the problem.

The Social Problem Solving Steps

There are seven major steps in the social problem solving procedure. From Bedell and Lennox (1997), we adapted the following steps and guidelines:
  1.  Recognizing and identifying the problem
  2. Defining the problem
  3. Determining goals
  4. Generating alternative solutions
  5. Examining and evaluating the alternatives
  6. Choosing the alternative that is most likely to succeed
  7. Evaluating the final outcome
In the first step, problem recognition, the students in conflict learn to state the thoughts, feelings, and/or behaviors that help them identify the problem. The second step, problem definition, involves describing the problem by answering who, what, when and where, and by stating what each student in conflict wants (wants and needs) to be able to solve the problem. On this step, we place special emphasis in helping students articulate the conflict in a descriptive and non-blaming way. The teacher coaches students in understanding how they interact with each other and how this particular interaction is causing problems together.  Bedell and Lennox recommend that children answer the following questions: What do I want? In addition, what are the wants of others? Next, the children develop a How to Statement. When students put together and write the How to Statement, they are developing goals, which is the third step. Bedell and Lennox recommend that, when developing a goal, the students answer: Is it positive? Is there another goal that we need to achieve first? Is it legal and socially acceptable? In addition, is it within each student’s power and ability?
From the fourth step on, we place special emphasis in teaching children alternative thinking and to see the problem from different perspectives. Alternative points of view are one of the most important social skills that we can teach to any child, but especially, to an anger-prone and acting-out student. Alternative thinking and points of view teach children to consider other ways of perceiving and interpreting the problem. To generate alternative solutions (step four), students think of and list three-to-five alternative ways to achieve their goal. Students think of as many alternative plans as possible, without judging or criticizing anyone else’s idea. When planning, the teacher focuses children on collaboration, for example, what is the problem that we are having and what are the plans that we can use? Children discuss and evaluate the plans proposed only after they generate several alternatives. To examine and evaluate the alternatives (step five), once more, children answer: Is it legal and socially acceptable? In addition, is it within our power and ability? On this fifth step, each student also answers: Does it satisfy my want from the How to Statement? In addition, is it sensitive to the wants of the other child? This systematic process gives children in conflict enough information to be able to select the alternative that is most likely to succeed (step six). Finally, the students implement the How to Plan, and one or two weeks later, they evaluate the results, which is the last step in the social problem solving procedure. During the evaluation step, the students discuss if everyone is satisfied with the way they solved the problem. If they are not satisfied, the children repeat the whole problem solving process until they find a satisfactory solution. When children follow a social problem solving procedure, they learn to differentiate between the facts (description of what happened) and each child’s interpretation of the facts, or their feelings and emotions about what happened. During the problem solving procedure, the teacher or staff member offers support to each student involved, looking for common ground between the students in conflict and avoiding taking sides with any particular child or group.
Bloomquist (1996) proposes a shorter social problem solving procedure that focuses on children’s goals. Here, the child or students answer three goal related questions to develop and evaluate the action plan. The questions are:
  1. What is my goal?
  2. What steps do I need to do to reach my goal?
a.       Step One
b.      Step Two
c.       Step Three
d.      Step Four
  1. Did I reach my goal?


Problem solving is a systematic procedure that combines behavioral and cognitive techniques to teach students in conflict and/or habitually disruptive students how to handle social problems effectively. Key cognitive techniques that children learn are generating alternative solutions and taking the perspective of others. The main steps for students to follow are:
  1. Define the problem
  2. Identify the goal
  3. Generate alternatives
  4. Choose the best option
  5. Evaluate the results
Bedell, J. R., & Lennox, S. S. (1997). Handbook for communication and problem-solving skills training: A cognitive-behavioral approach. New York: John Wiley.
Bloomquist, M. L. (1996). Skills training for children with behavior disorders: A parent and therapist guidebook. New York: Guilford Press.
Forman, S. G. (1993). Coping skills interventions for children and adolescents. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Related to this Post...
Keeping the Peace: Managing Students in Conflict Using the Social Problem-Solving Approach
The printed edition of this book is now available on Amazon. (A preview is also available.)

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