Small Problems, Small Solutions: Dealing with Issues before They Overwhelm You


If a student breaks an important rule, your classroom culture is disrupted. But which rules are important? Which violations can you tolerate? While not all problems are equally serious, all your rules are important, says Anthony. Rather than ignoring small issues, teachers should address them with solutions that match the level of the problem. Anthony and Joey share practices they have helped them maintain healthy classrooms.

(Anthony) So little problems, so little solutions. That’s a rule of thumb that we use here at school good bit. Sometimes in talking to even students, I’ll say, “So remember little problems…” They’ll say, “Little solutions.” I do that to help the student understand that I’m addressing this issue while it’s small. We have a small solution for the problem, and then sometimes I say, as a reminder, “Big problems?” “big solutions.” All right, so we’re here to talk about this because it’s still a little problem. We also say this a lot among the faculty, little problems, little solutions.

I encourage teachers to just go ahead and talk to the student about it, even if it’s not a consequence, rather than just letting the issue go. So there’s an attitude issue in the room. It just feels like there’s a student who’s doesn’t cooperate quite right. Let’s pull that student aside. That’s one reason I have my desk in the back of the room. Now, a lot of teachers have it in the front, and that’s fine. Our school, it’s become quite popular to have the desk in the back. I think all the rooms do now except one or two still have them in the front. I find this to be a huge opportunity to take care of little problems. I say that only one student at a time can be at my desk, so that I have this little quiet moment if I need it with a student.

They’re allowed to come back anytime when they have a question. That way I’m not looking up to see when they have a question. They can just come back but then I have that quiet time with them. So it doesn’t disturb the other students. I use this a good bit, close to every day, in some small way. Just a “Hey, at recess time you seem to be getting pretty frustrated with how the game went. Look, you’ve got to work on being a good sport. That really wasn’t acceptable.” “Yeah, yeah, yeah, okay.”

Well, if I would call them out into my office, or call them out of the room or not come back in the room after recess, it’s more visible to everybody what happened. Yet I’ve told my students many times that’s my policy: little problems, little solutions. If somebody is out of the room, that doesn’t mean there was a big issue, and you certainly don’t have to go find out what the problem was. But I find this to be a very effective place. It’s quiet. It’s also a good time to give compliments, which I know I need to do more of. “Hey, I talked to you about the sports thing. Yesterday, you lost two games in a row, but I saw you kept your composure, you didn’t get upset, you didn’t start nagging the other students and getting frustrated with them.”

(Joey) There was a problem of students either forgetting something in their locker, so they need to go out and get it during class time or they need to use the bathroom, or just things where they had to leave the room. And so I just established that if they need to do that, then I just write the name on the corner of the chalkboard. They know that means they have to stay in three minutes at recess. So if they forget a book in the locker then they ask. I say, “Go,” and I just go write their name in the corner of the blackboard, and then they just stay in it at recess three minutes until I tell them to go.

Something I wasn’t planning with this process that has actually been a nice benefit with it, is that here’s an opportunity for me to do one on one with students. Sometimes I know there’s something that needs to be addressed, and maybe within a day or two that student is staying in. None of the students realize that I have ulterior motives of wanting to talk to the student, but it creates an opportunity for me to sit down then with them and address something completely unrelated to them forgetting the book in the locker or whatever.

Again, maybe just with that, I’ve realized that discipline almost always has to come with a chat at grade seven. It’s not just “Tell them what the punishment is”; it’s “Tell them what the punishment is, but then talk about it so that I’m for sure understanding them and they’re for sure I understanding me as well.”

(Anthony) Often I think what happens if we let a problem go, of course it grows, but emotionally it wears us out, until finally, we have the courage to talk to the students about, let’s say, whispering too much in the classroom. We find out it actually—the problem went away so easily. How many times do teachers later say, “If only I would have taken care of that problem a week ago”? But I would go home. I would think about. As I lay in my bed, I’d even think about this. I just was scared to talk about it but it bugged me. I finally did it and it really wasn’t that big of a deal after all.

Two reasons to take care of problems soon. Number one, your own emotional health. Just get it off your mind. Secondly, take care of the problem before it does become a big problem. Sometimes if we would just have the courage to talk to students sooner, we could stop that habit that gets worse and worse, it spreads to other students. Now we have a problem that we have to try to reverse what is happening. Had we taken care of it the first time it showed up, or at least a lot sooner, we could have solved it just by a little solution to a little problem.

I tell my teachers sometimes, “if you tolerate it, you accept it.” Teachers sometimes say, “Well, what my rule would be that they’re not allowed to, but they do it anyhow.” Well, guess what? You accept it. It is your classroom. You can decide the behavior you want and insist on it.

Again, easier said than done. But really, if you tolerate a certain behavior in your room, you’re sending the signal to the class that “You know what? You can do this.”

I’m in charge of the room, I need to do whatever is best, what I decide is best to create an environment that is relaxed and yet disciplined, and creates a good study environment. If I feel like something violates that goal or hinders that goal, have the courage of course to talk about it.

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