It is critical that students identify the problem as their problem. Many want to see the problem as someone else's and therefore try to exclude themselves from any responsibility. Even if another was aggressive or adding to the problem, they are still having a problem with it. Ownership of the problem is the first step.
It is also critical that the student and the other party agree on what the problem is. Often, different people see the problem quite differently. In requiring agreement of the definition of the problem, each perspective is included. Whether this is between two students, the teacher and the student, or the principal and the student, great learning can occur from consideration of differing perspectives. The students or the adult and student begin to learn about each other and from each other.
In many years of requiring students to define the problem we have learned many things. First, most problems usually are communication problems. This is either miscommunication or lack of communication. The student thought the other student did or said one thing, when if fact, they did or said another. The student thought the teacher meant this, when in fact, the teacher's intention was quite different. Conversely, the principal and/or teacher believe the student behaved in a certain manner due to some apparent reason, when in fact, it was because of another reason unknown to them.
Principals, teachers, and students report that they were surprised at the new things they learned about and from each other. From our experience and numerous principal and teacher reflections, we believe much of this is due to the new and different expectation and setting for the problem solving discussion. Each person involved in the problem is required to explain him/herself and his or her belief and perspective. The student experiences a more one-on-one encounter with the principal and/or teacher, as opposed to him or her lecturing behind the desk or at the front of the room. We often heard both student and adult comment on how they never realized the other was a real person or very diferent than expected. Most comments were very positive as each learned more about the other.
In one memorable case in a Texas school, a teacher and student entered the office. The teacher reported that the student was uncooperative and did not want to discuss the problem with her. The principal asked the student what he thought the problem was and he said that a couple of his friends would talk or make jokes and when the teacher saw that he was not paying attention, she would ask him for an answer to what she had just said. He went on to say that this was embarrassing and the teacher made him look stupid when she knew it was his not paying attention that was the problem. "Why doesn't she just tell the truth and tell me to pay attention, not give me a question to something I didn't hear?"
The teacher thought about this for a while and said the student was absolutely right. She told the student she didn't realize how this was embarrassing to him and said she would not do it again. They worked out an arrangement for not having the three boys talking while she was giving out information. The student said that this was the first time he had experienced a teacher admitting being wrong. He said, "I respect that." Several weeks later, the teacher reported that the student was doing fne in her class and that she really liked him. Although students learn the most from problem solving, principals and teachers can learn much too.
Very often, rumor, statements out of context, falsehoods, and a host of other things cause one to be upset with another. Even if the problem appears to be one of miscommunication, the rest of the steps must be completed. The student must see how his/her choices (decisions) produce results, even if the behavior was based on false information. So, never stop at this point, even if the misunderstanding is cleared up and the incident seems resolved. The goal is to help the student from having this type of problem occur in the future, not simply to solve the present problem.
As the leader of the school or the leader in the classroom, principals and teachers must always remember how important defining the problem is. All steps that follow are based on the problem definition. If some aspects of the problem are not defined or not defined properly, the resulting actions will prove less than successful. The best course of action in this step is to ensure that both parties are satisfied with the definition. They may not be pleased with the other person's perspective of them or what happened, but they should agree that each perspective is truly a part of the problem.
It is crucial that this step be as non-judgmental as possible. This is the time to explain your view and experience, and to listen and understand the other person. Lecture and judgments at this point stifle meaningful dialogue. If the situation is a problem between a student and an adult, it is always best for the student to go first. This is important for several reasons. First, the adult has the opportunity to model good listening skills, such as asking questions for further clarification and keeping eye contact and focus on the student speaking. These and other effective listening skills should be used in order to elicit the most information from the student. Most importantly, listening to the student shows respect. Most, if not all, of the 10% -20% of the students disrupting schools are in great need of increased self-respect.
Letting the student tell his/her perspective first serves other important parts of this process. By understanding the other person's side of the story, the principal or teacher is now in the position of knowing both sides. In essence, the adult is the expert at this point. If the adult begins first, then the student sits in the expert's chair until he tells his side. It is always best to listen first. As Covey (1989) found in the Seven Habits of Highly Successful Leaders, one should "seek to understand before you seek to be understood". Additionally, if the principal or teacher listens first, they often change what they were going to say, or the way they were going to say it. Additional information and understanding of the other side often tempers one's statements. This comes from the realization that the student is not bad but truly has a problem and in need of new learning. Finally, letting the student vent often aids in having a more productive conversation.