Fostering Problem Solving and Negotiation

by Dr. Kim Gulbrandson

Many of the students I work with have limited language skills. Because they lack the ability to use appropriate words to express how they feel or what they want, conflict ensues. Students turn to negative (often physical) actions to solve their problem.

Vocabulary and language affect everything we do. There is a critical link between language and how well students acclimate to the beginning of school (Hart and Risley, 2002; Payne, 2005). Language exposure in early childhood is correlated strongly with IQ and academic success later in life. Language development is critical for problem-solving and negotiation (Payne, 2005).

Language also affects behavior.  Individuals who don’t have adequate vocabulary for identifying emotions don’t have the words to solve a conflict.  Therefore, they rely more on reading nonverbal cues.  This leaves more room for misinterpretation and escalation, because they cannot identify feelings or explain their perspective.  The argument also becomes increasingly personal when an individual cannot communicate about the issue.  Educators see discipline problems and office referrals resulting from inappropriate words students use (talking back, insubordination, swearing) as well as aggressive behaviors based on misinterpretation of nonverbal cues.

Fortunately, as educators, we can do something about it. Here are some ideas for teaching vocabulary and language:

  • Spend time teaching vocabulary words before a lesson. Review the words afterward.
  • Use picture cards to have students guess what vocabulary word the picture is trying to depict (see picture example below).
  • Have students draw a picture to show their understanding of the word.
  • Use Robert Marzano’s books as resources. They include many vocabulary teaching strategies. In my district, we share these strategies during our Second Step trainings.
  • Incorporate the teaching of SEL words into the teaching of academic concepts. For example, ask students to label the nouns and verbs of your vocabulary list.
  • Use webs to build connections between words and word groups.

There are many other great ways of teaching vocabulary and language to support positive social-emotional development. If you have some that you would like to add, please share!


Hart, B., and Risley, T. (2002) Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.

Payne, R. (2005). A Framework for Understanding Poverty. 4th ed. Baytown, TX: aha! Process.