Working It Out

Problem solving facilitation illustr 001

Try to see it my way, only time will tell if I am right or I am wrong

While you see it your way, there’s a chance that we may fall apart before too long.

We can work it out.

We can work it out.

–          We Can Work It Out, The Beatles[i]

If you are a parent of multiple children or watch your kids play with friends, you know that there are likely plenty of opportunities for conflicts to arise. When arguments occur, you might be called upon for help as I was earlier this week. “Mrs. Miller,” called my son’s friend Jake. “E isn’t sharing!” What do you typically do in those situations? “Take turns.” or “You need to share.” you might say. You may just solve the problem for them but then you will likely be called upon again and again to solve other issues. On the other hand you might say, “You guys need to work it out.” placing the responsibility with them. Though giving them a chance to solve their own problems, that response does not give them any new tools, guidance or support in developing their own workable solutions. It’s likely that they will not resolve the issue and either move on without resolution or not play together because of the upset. Problem solving with children takes skill and practice and help from parents.

Why not improve your own ability to skillfully guide children through a problem solving process so that when you are inevitably called upon, you can proceed with confidence? You will be teaching children skills that they can use when you are not around to problem solve for them. This can be a very complex process but it does not have to be. I’ve simplified the steps so that if you are in the midst of a play situation, you can act as a skilled facilitator and move through the process rather quickly.

Step One. Calm down. Ask both children to “breathe” and guide them to a nearby but somewhat private location to sit and talk.

Step Two. Take turns communicating the problem and their feelings. Tell the children you will take turns asking them to tell each other what happened. When one is talking, the other one must listen. Children may use feeling words but if they don’t, be sure and ask them directly what they are feeling.

Parent: “We are going to take turns talking about the problem and listening to each other. You will both get a turn to talk. Let’s begin with Harvey.”

“Harvey, what’s the matter?”

Harvey: “I just wanted to play in the clubhouse but…”

Susan interrupts: “He wouldn’t say the password!”

Parent (calmly): “Susan, I realize it’s difficult to wait but you will have your turn. Right now, Harvey is telling us the problem and you are listening. Harvey, please tell us what’s wrong.”

Harvey: “I wanted to play in the clubhouse but Susan wouldn’t let me in.”

Parent: “How does that make you feel?”

Harvey: “Mad!”

Parent: “Okay, Susan, it’s your turn. What’s the matter?”

Susan: “Everyone who wants to come into my clubhouse must say the password or else they can’t come in. It’s the rule! Harvey wouldn’t say it.”

Parent: “How do you feel about that?”

Susan: “Mad.”

Step Three. Generate ideas. Let children know that you want to hear all of their ideas and they need to be open to and listen to each other’s ideas without criticizing them.

Parent: “What ideas can you come up with to resolve this problem so that you both feel better?”

Harvey: “I could walk in without the password.”

Susan: “Nope!”

Parent: “Susan, remember we are listening to all ideas. What idea do you have?”

Susan: “Harvey and I could agree on a new password together.”

Harvey: “I could do that.”

Step Four. Try it out. If the children find an idea they can both agree to try, then let them go and try it. If they try it out and it doesn’t work, then sit back down and revisit the ideas and generate more that they think might work for both of them.

Step Five. Reflect. If they have resumed playing and seemed to have resolved the issue, ask when you are leaving, “How did it work out?” “Was the idea successful?” “Would you want to try and problem solve again?” “What would you do differently next time?” This step helps children realize that they have gone through a problem solving process and helps them think through how they have done it and how they could use it in the future. If they have learned a new skill or process through the experience, the reflection will help them internalize and remember it for future incidences.

If problems occur during the problem solving process, what might you do? What if a child calls the other a name? What if one child won’t listen? You can only be successful if the children follow your rules, so go over the rules of the problem solving process again. Let them both know what you expect from them. Respect for themselves and respect for one another means using appropriate language and listening when it’s your turn to listen. There could be times when the conflict is so heated that it cannot be quickly resolved in the moment. Parties need to separate and have time for cool down before trying to do any problem solving.

Find opportunities to practice this skill when there’s a minor problem to give yourself the opportunity to practice problem solving facilitation. As you become more experienced, the process with children will become easier for you and more effective for all. It may take additional time while you are supervising children, time that is precious. But imagine after taking that time with your child and her playmates to facilitate problem solving, watching a future conflict in which they themselves choose to go sit down and work it out together. Now fast forward to conflicts in a marriage or in the workplace and think about how your child will be able to apply those same skills. Those thoughts may encourage you to take the time to try this process out the next time a minor conflict arises.


Dinwiddie, Sue. I want it my way! Problem-solving techniques with children two to eight.

For educators: Crowe, C. (2009). Solving thorny behavior problems; How to teachers and students can work together. Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.


[i] Lennon, J., McCartney, P. (1965). We can work it out. On Day Tripper [Record]. LA: Capitol Records.

16 Comments on “Working It Out”

  1. Your point about practicing this skill during a low-key moment is worth repeating. I feel myself hesitate to get into social issues when the kids are playing happily, —-and then I kick myself later when it proves impossible to teach a skill in the heat of the moment. I wish someone would show up at my breakfast table ready to do a social skills role play each morning =)

    • I agree! It would be so much easier! It is uncomfortable and definitely not appropriate in every situation. I often catch myself saying “you two need to work it out.” and stepping back to watch. So it requires getting up the energy and motivation to try it out and establish a practice. We all know it’s important but doing it is another issue altogether. Thanks for your comment and hope that you try it!

  2. I’ve been looking for social skills games that could bring this practice into our daily (or weekly!) lives. I’m really surprised I can’t find something better. Have you heard of Social Skills Chipper Chat? It is so expensive, but seems like one of the few that have potential. Other thoughts?

    • That’s an excellent question! The social skill games and activity books that I am aware of are primarily for teachers. I haven’t seen much for parents. I had planned to write about cooperative games for summertime so will do that in the coming week and see what I can find. I’ve not heard of the one you mentioned but will look into it. Also, my favorite cooperative games book that I think parents could easily use is “Adventures in Peacemaking; A Conflict Resolution Activity Guide for School-age Programs” by William Kriedler. You can buy it from in their bookstore. Each page contains one activity in a very easy-to-read and implement way and gives age-appropriateness. Some require simple materials and others do not. The activities teach lessons in cooperation, communication, expressing feelings, appreciating diversity and conflict resolution. So more to come and thank you for raising this great question!

  3. Fantastic! Thanks for the suggestion. It sounds like we may need to make some parent activities/games to support social skill development!!! We have board games that teach math….picture books to teach reading….something to teach social skills would be awesome.

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