Washington, DC

Becoming Problem-Solvers with the Second Step Program

Winning Moments in Washington, DC

Social-Emotional Learning Specialist Sarah Hensler and her colleagues at Washington, DC’s Arts and Technology Academy were heartbroken to learn their charter would not be renewed. Hensler was especially disappointed, because a Second Step kit had just been purchased for every classroom, and she envisioned the program “becoming a self-sustaining part of our positive school culture.” But rather than allowing the news of the charter school’s impending closure to immobilize her, Hensler rolled up her sleeves and got to work.

Making the Most of It

Knowing her students—97 percent of whom come from low-income families—might have only one year of Second Step instruction, Hensler was determined to make the most of it. She especially wanted her students, many of whom were not accustomed to solving problems in a nonconfrontational manner, to learn the Problem-Solving Steps, which aren’t introduced until later in the program. “I wanted to introduce STEP problem solving as soon as possible and empower our students to practice it, use it, and be prepared to take it with them wherever they end up next year.”

So Hensler created a certification program for selected third- through fifth-graders to become STEP Problem-Solvers. By the end, 48 students had completed two 45-minute training sessions and an oral certification session with Hensler, where they were presented with common elementary-school problems to which they were asked to verbally apply each of the Problem-Solving Steps:

  • S: Say the problem without blame.
  • T: Think of solutions.
  • E: Evaluate each solution.
  • P: Pick the best solution.

The STEP Problem-Solvers—as the name suggests—help their classmates “remove blame from a problem and think clearly about possible consequences,” explains Hensler. And the teachers like it, too: It’s “a really great way to open teachers’ eyes to student problems” and illuminate how teachers can “help students help themselves in becoming self-sufficient and successful problem-solvers.”

But the teachers also recognize the challenge involved. The most frequent comment Hensler hears from them about the STEP process is, “‘Gosh, it’s hard to state a problem without blame!’” Fortunately, the students are picking up on that part pretty quickly. Hensler often hears her problem solvers spontaneously identify blaming language in casual conversation: “‘That’s a blame word. Try again.’”

Practical Application

One of Hensler’s STEP Problem Solvers has a history of being “physically aggressive towards other students, especially if provoked in any small way.” This student recently approached her in the cafeteria to tell her that another student had pushed him out of the lunch line. Hensler reminded him to remove the blaming language and, after a “You’re not just gonna solve it for me?” eye roll, he calmly said, “[The student] and I disagree about where we should be in line.’” When Hensler asked him how he could solve the problem, he replied, “‘I’ll talk to him about it’ and walked away.” Hensler sums it up: “The moment was definitely a win.”