John Jensen: Student Problem-Solving Made Easy


By John Jensen, Ph.D.

Teachers can be viewed in many ways. One distributes their first concern along a continuum with rule-following at one end and understanding at the other. Those at the former end are concerned mainly with a factor outside the child such as an instructional design they enforce. Those at the other end go inside to penetrate the consciousness of the student and draw on what they find to address the need of the moment.

John Jensen, Ph.D.

Methods at the latter end, carried out properly, often support rule-following better than does a narrow reliance on rules. If we’re considerate toward their inner state, they reciprocate and attend better to the outer issue. They first want to know that we value how they perceive, think, and feel. Noticing that, they cooperate readily with our channel for their energy.

I can appreciate why some may go first to the rule, however. Boiled down, it synthesizes multiple agreements about how to fill a need with numbers of students at the same time. Adhered to by all, the rule can make action more efficient. When things go wrong, however, we note that ordering, coercing, or cajoling students to follow the rule may not work well. Students may instead continue to distract, rebel, and sabotage positive efforts.

We might frame such problems as the two fields diverging. Rules say one thing and their internal experience says another. The rule may be simple and clear, and won’t change, so we require students to adjust to it. Yet their inner field is not so simple and clear. They may process thousands of thoughts and feelings daily. They notice everyone about them, weighing their guesses against their own safety and connectedness. Their perceived distance from classmates and teacher loom heavily, and for better or worse, they have a stance toward everyone around them. The necessity of choosing how to act forces them to process details constantly, but they can perceive through too narrow a lens, misinterpret a circumstance, or exaggerate a feeling.

Given the quantity of their internal activity and its power to impel their behavior, we realize we needn’t wait until it’s acted out to enable them to handle it constructively. We want to “head things off” before they manifest in behavior that hurts another. While schools may employ many means to help students do this, some teachers invent their own.

Christoff von Gemmingen, a fourteen-year teacher in the Anchorage School District, developed one he calls Conflict Resolution. It’s so unique, uncomplicated, and effective that I believe it earns a distinctive, euphonious name like “The von Gemmingen Method.” It employs a few simple steps and a couple teacher qualities. The latter are familiar to most teachers–a sensitive, gentle appreciation of children’s advancing perception (a values component), and an ability to elicit and sort through their problems quickly (a skill component). Spending just a few minutes with the method daily, they would likely build their facility rapidly.

His current combined class of 27 second and third graders face him in three compact rows. In a cup on his desk are popsicle sticks with 27 numbers on them which he works through every day. He draws out one at a time, reads the number on it, and the student corresponding to that number stands.

“So Gary,” Christoff says, “how was your day today?”

Gary answers first with one word such as “good,” “poor,” “awesome,” or “brilliant.” Students are free to choose any label they wish. If they pick an unusual word, Christoff often knows the reason, makes a comment or gives feedback, and continues to his second question.

Do you have any compliments, complaints, or apologies?” This single question is the linchpin of the approach. Gary’s answer begins a public but personal, intensive, brief, and if necessary problem-solving conversation between Christoff and Gary, drawing in other class members as needed. The class is expected to recognize and express appreciation for all positive actions, help clarify misunderstandings, and assist in problem-solving.

If Gary says he has a compliment, he addresses it to one or several students. Saying “Thanks to everyone who played with me at recess,” he hears in response a smattering of “You’re welcome, Gary.” If the compliment describes someone notably going out of their way to do a kindness, the class applauds.

A few may voice a complaint about someone else. With an issue described, the class and teacher turn to the other student involved for their response, which might be an outright apology, telling their side, or realizing that their action produced an unintended outcome. The aim is to heal and resolve any lingering hurt or distance generated. Occasionally Christoff pursues a rapid-fire series of questions and answers back and forth with a student to uncover a constructive stance they can take, or identify an action they agree to carry out.

I’ve long believed that children’s minds are capable of rapid and efficient problem-solving if we align with their thinking and perceptions. Christoff nails this alignment, concluding many issues in less than a minute each. A teacher might resort to a back-up by saying, “Could you and I talk about this later?” Christoff may jot brief notes on the board as a reminder for followup. If, rarely, a single student’s problem occupies ten minutes, Christoff compacts the exchange with the remaining students. With a complaint that elicits a denial from another student (“I didn’t do that!”), he’s careful not to take sides but rather extracts possibilities (“Is it even possible that you stepped on his foot as you hurried by?”), and invites an apology based on it (“Well, if I did, I’m sorry.”) Students involved in gossip often don’t realize the effect of their actions and benefit from nudges to see another’s point of view (“How do you think he would feel?”).

When children have no compliments, complaints, or apologies, Christoff makes a point of noting something personal about them—work turned in, praise for their effort, their parents’ pleasure in how well they’re doing, changes made since last year, and so on. No one escapes personal notice of some kind. Complaints might include:

Someone didn’t want to play with me.

Someone almost tripped me.

Someone said what sounded like a putdown.

Others didn’t share.

Others were talking about me.

Others didn’t give me my turn.

How someone expressed their anger.

What disappointed them.

While many feelings are noted in passing, they’re not resolved at the feeling level. Students’ internal self-management may be dealt with better by other programs, group activities, or individual counseling. Criteria that limit the content of the method help to make it successful.

One in particular contributes to the rapid disposal of issues and also makes it safer for a teacher to attempt. Although students are permitted to say whatever they want about the one-word capsule describing their day,further content elicited is about interactions among class members. This face to face element contains the issues most likely to distract from learning, so that resolving it makes instruction easier and also economizes on time for which many needs compete. The internal dynamics of the class are the arena where issues surface, and a saving boundary around what can be quickly resolved.

That issues are discussed in front of others cuts through student tendencies to evade, distort, justify, or rationalize. The reaction of the class as a whole is a baseline of social reality. Witnesses sitting nearby quickly straighten out any one-sided story. All relevant parties are present for every issue, so that they can be opened, addressed, and disposed of speedily and cooperatively. The cumulative effect of this process repeated day by day is to generate a powerful ethic: Whatever the problem, face it and resolve it.

Three qualities of the approach, I believe, are essential for obtaining children’s cooperation. The first is the safety conveyed by an atmosphere of care and considerateness. Students know that they’ll feel better afterward than they felt before. No one will be put down or excluded. None will be disrespected. Even those who “did wrong” will feel relieved, that the issue is behind them. A second quality generating the prior iscompetence, the teacher’s ability to see through their games and call them to account for any unkindness, yet as a partner in problem-solving rather than a top sergeant giving orders.

The two prior qualities enable the third. In the presence of safety and competence, children still need personal courage to put into words what troubles them or gives them good feelings, and actually say them to others involved. It can take courage to tell what happened to you, hope that others will treat it respectfully, and believe that it can be solved. Students cannot bring themselves to open their vulnerability if they foresee their attempt leaving them worse off—if others may roll their eyes, snicker, or whisper a putdown. As they gather their courage, it’s quickly rewarded. Putting words to their perceptions and speaking them out loud objectifies them, separating them from the self and turning them into a focus for conscious, objective deliberation.

The issues children bring up aren’t a random draw from all human experience. They arise instead from a more manageable sub-set, the innate need to know where we stand with others, the FIRO factors (Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation comprised of affection, inclusion, and control). Students live these drives minute by minute, wanting to know 1) am I accepted, 2) how close am I to others, and 3) what influence do I have. Because these issues are constantly in play, coloring their moment-by-moment experience, children are compelled to try to figure them out. The factors drive their fears, their tentative guesses about how to get along, and what they dare attempt—and hence deserve the brief daily time devoted to them.

Christoff typically spends fifteen minutes a day with the method, and has used it grades one through six. It’s effective with all of them he says, but adds, “It’s especially effective in the sixth grade where they get so wrapped up in gossip.” It drastically reduces distractions from learning throughout the day, and makes transitions between activities smoother and faster. Students give better attention, and avoid a host of behavioral issues. As students grow up, their interpersonal strategies may also become more devious and thus in greater need of remedy. Since the issues are common to all ages, teachers in Middle and High School should find similar benefits from the method.

John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and education consultant. His three volume Practice Makes Perfect Series is in publication with Rowman and Littlefield, education publishers. The first of the series due in January is Teaching So Students Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Perfect. He welcomes comments sent to him directly at jjensen@gci.net.

John Jensen, Ph.D.
John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and education consultant. His three volume Practice Makes Perfect Series is in publication with Rowman and Littlefield, education publishers. The first of the series due in January is Teaching So Students Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Perfect. He welcomes comments sent to him directly at jjensen@gci.net.