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Impulsive problem solving

Posted by on in Behaviour
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Article fourEach child is unique and so is their way of solving problems. Here is an example of a child who many would judge at first sight as a ‘snatcher’, for he simply takes what he thinks he needs when he plays regardless of whether or not an item is held by another child.

Let’s call him Charlie. He is a very active three and a half year old who can speak in full sentences and totally zooms in to whatever his eyes are attracted to in a kind of tunnel vision manner. He is quite a fearless child and because of his verbal skill appears older than he really is.

Charlie is playing at the play dough table. He has a problem: he needs a rolling pin and sets out to solve it. That is human intelligence.  He looks around and sees what he needs: another child, three feet away is holding one in her hand. So, he moves across and simply takes it. But now he created a social problem, his resolve is followed by consternation, cries, even tears!


A child who behaves like Charlie is not a badly behaved or a bully or nasty child. He is just a child who knows what he needs and what he wants without a notion of social, because  the world still revolves around him. This type of child needs explicit instruction to help becoming aware of others!


At the Playschool we like having a child like that around, for he provides the opportunity to demonstrate a social skill. What we do is the following: when Charlie has ‘helped himself’ to a tool or a piece of equipment we stop him, hold out a hand and say in a calm, friendly but firm voice: “Put it in my hand”.
If he hangs on to it we say: “I want to show you how we do it.”


Children this age are still very visual. A hand that is held out in such a gesture is almost always automatically responded to. We then point to the other child:
“This is Charlotte and she was still working with the rolling pin.” Pause, let it sink in. “If you want the rolling pin you ask: Charlotte, can I have it when you have finished? Pause. “Charlotte is a friendly person and she will give it when she is finished. I show you how to do it…”  
Give the rolling pin back to Charlotte.  Then ask: “Charlotte, can Charlie have it when you have finished?”  Charlotte shakes her head and says: “No”.  
We turn to Charlie and say: “Hmm, maybe Charlotte doesn’t know what ‘finished’ means….?

Turn again to Charlotte and say: “Finished means that you don’t need it anymore. When you want to play with something else it means, you have finished with the play dough and the rolling pin and then Charlie can use the rolling pin…..” Pause, let it sink in.
Turn to Charlie: “Can you now say to Charlotte: May I have it when you have finished?” And wait till he says it.  When he makes the attempt, we don’t correct, but accept what he is able to say. If Charlotte nods we state the obvious: “Nodding means ‘yes’, so you can have it when she is finished” and immediately offer him an alternative tool or ask what he wanted to make, for you may be able to help…

If such an approach is applied consistently children can see that there is a pattern to solving this kind of social problem and become more willing to try it themselves.

Very often young children can feel embarrassed using words they have not used before or have not used in a certain social context. (It is the equivalent to an adult speaking a foreign language for the first time). Pre-schoolers have been alive for only three or so years and have been really talking for only twelve to eighteen months. They still have a lot to learn in regard to tone of voice, meaning of words, appropriate conduct and applied in context etc.

When it is observed by the adult that a child is attempting to do ‘the right thing’ all one needs to do is state the obvious:
“I can see that you know how to ask for something and be a friendly person”.

Children like Charlie are not deliberately trying to be difficult; they are ‘impulsive problem solvers’. What they need is for one person to show them how to solve a problem in a socially acceptable manner, consistently and patiently, and their true delightful nature will be revealed.


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Guest Saturday, 24 March 2018