Problem-Solving Program Teaches Kids How To Use Their Heads Instead of Their Fists

The path to world peace may begin in preschool, when children learn how to think their way through interpersonal challenges.


Why are some children more violent than others, and what can a parent or teacher do to make them more peaceful? In the 1980's, developmental psychologists Myrna Shure and George Spivack looked for answers to both of these questions. They suspected that children behave violently because they lack interpersonal cognitive problem-solving (ICPS) skills, such as how to brainstorm a variety of solutions to a problem, how to predict the consequences of their own actions, and how to link causes to effects in interpersonal interactions. Without these skills, the researchers reasoned, children are more likely to have frustrating social encounters. This frustration, in turn, leads children to misbehave, thus feeding into the cycle of unpleasant social interactions, hurt feelings, frustration, and bad behavior.

Shure and Spivak did not view this cycle as unbreakable, however. Instead, they thought that children could learn ICPS skills just like math or grammar. To test this idea, they conducted a two-year-long study with nursery school and kindergarten pupils. For the first three months, half of these children would play games and practice dialogues about solving problems and expressing their feelings. The researchers did not tell children exactly how to solve their problems, but rather taught the children how to generate possible solutions and how to consider their consequences. The other half of the children were not taught these problem-solving skills.

Shure and Spivack found that teaching ICPS skills improved children's impulsive behavior and social compared, relative to children in the control group. They saw these improvements in both nursery school and kindergarten children for one full year after the intervention. Moreover, well-adjusted children who learned the ICPS skills in nursery school were less likely to develop behavioral difficulties over the two-year period than were well-adjusted children who did not learn these skills.

In addition, a five-year longitudinal study showed that children trained by teachers in kindergarten and first grade showed these same improvements compared to children in a control group at the end of fourth grade. Also, children of parents who best learned to apply the problem-solving approach when real problems came up had children whose cognitive and behavioral gains were strongest.


This research showed that early cognitive intervention can have large and long-lasting effects on children's behavior and interpersonal relationships.

Practical Application

The original ICPS intervention led to the development of a program called "I Can Problem Solve," which is used by schools and community agencies nationwide, including school systems in Delaware, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island. In addition, ICPS trainers conduct on-site workshops for parent-educators and schools. As a result of its widespread appeal, ICPS has taught thousands of children and adolescents how to think and interact with others, and has contributed to a reduction in violence, high-risk behaviors, and substance abuse in those locations where it is implemented.

Cited Research

Shure, M.B. & Spivack, G. (1980). Interpersonal problem solving as a mediator of behavioral adjustment in preschool and kindergarten children. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 1, 29-44.

Shure, M.B. & Spivack, G. (1982). Interpersonal problem-solving in young children: A cognitive approach to prevention. American Journal of Community Psychology, 10, 341-356.

Additional Sources

Shure, M.B. (1992). I Can Problem Solve (ICPS): An interpersonal cognitive problem-solving program: Intermediate elementary grades. Champaign, IL: Research Press.

Shure, M.B. (1992). I Can Problem Solve (ICPS): An interpersonal cognitive problem-solving program: Preschool. Champaign, IL: Research Press.

Shure, M.B. (1992). I Can Problem Solve (ICPS): An interpersonal cognitive problem-solving program: Kindergarten/Primary grades. Champaign, IL: Research Press.

Shure, M.B. (1996). Raising a thinking child: Help your young child learn to resolve everyday conflicts and get along with others. New York: Pocket Books.

Shure, M.B. (2000). Raising a thinking child workbook Champaign, IL: Research Press.

Shure, M.B. (2001). Raising a thinking preteen: The I Can Problem Solve program for eight-to-twelve-year-olds. New York: Owl/Holt.

American Psychological Association, September 29, 2003