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By Sue Dahlstrand

Can you imagine three third grade girls walking around the playground singing, "We are problem-solvers. We are problem-solvers," with big smiles on their faces? Me either. Not until recently.

One big problem I face as a third grade teacher is students frequently coming to me wanting me to solve their problems. If I solve things for them it encourages them to return to me for future solutions. If I don't solve the problem, then bigger problems often develop. I didn't know what to do with my problem of solving or not solving problems.

Then I learned the Problem-Return technique, a method for returning the problem back to the student while helping just enough to allow room for the student to solve his/her own problem.

"Some of the girls are making up dances and plays and they said I can't join," is a problem I was presented with yestgerdah. Equipped with my new strategy I replied, "That's a shame. Sounds like you have a problem," reminding myself that this was not my problem.

Then I asked, "What do you think you can do about it?"

"I don't know," came the expected reply. "They always do this and leave people out. They just don't like me."

I remembered not to give suggestions without permission and said, "I know other girls who have had this same kind of problem in third grade. Do you want to hear how some of them handled it?"

"Yes," came quickly and emphatically. "Here's some ideas," I began. "You can tell the girls that you really like them and want to be included in their fun. Or you can tell them that you feel sad when they leave you out. You could ask them if there is something you can do to help with the dance this time and maybe next time be included at the beginning. You could find other girls to play with."

"Can you see yourself doing any of those?" I asked.

Again the reply came quickly. "Yes."

"There are two kinds of third graders, " I told this child, "problem-solvers and problem-keepers. A problem-solver goes out and tries to solve the problem. A problem-keeper doesn't try to find a solution and feels unhappy. The great thing here is that the choice of being a problem-solver or a problem-keeper is up to you. I know you'll be able to handle it one way or the other. I'll check back with you later to see what you chose."

"I want to be a problem-solver," this child said immediately. "I'll go tell them it makes me feel sad when they leave me out. I'll ask them if I can please join them."

"I believe in you and I know you can handle it," I offered as encouragement as she bounded off to put her plan into action.

The Problem-Return technique worked great. The girls decided not to have clubs. They didn't want anyone to feel left out. They found out it was more fun when everyone was involved at recess.

My girls were so excited about being "problem-solvers" that they used their new found skill immediately. They saw two boys pushing each other outside. They went up to them and told them they had a problem and could choose to be "problem-solvers." They said the boys just stopped and looked at them for a minute. The girls then proceeded to give them suggestions on how they could solve their problem. They told me the boys stopped pushing and apologized to each other. They were so excited, that's when the singing started. "We are problem-solvers. We are problem-solvers," was the refrain that echoed across the playground that day. Their spirits were lifted and so were mine.