Raising a Thinking Child: The Parent Interventions

After an initial pilot study of 10 low-income African-American mothers and their 4-year-old children showed that training mothers to teach problem-solving skills to their children at home produced behavior gains at school (Shure and Spivack, 1978), a more systematic study examined how, and if, change in mothers' ICPS skills and childrearing style would affect their children's ICPS skills and/or behavior (Shure and Spivack, 1978).

Before training, many mothers were just as preoccupied with their own needs for their children ("You must learn to share your toys") as their children were with theirs ("But I did share, now I want it back!"). Therefore, the goals for mothers were to (1) increase their awareness that the child's point of view might differ from their own; (2) help them recognize that there is more than one way to solve a problem; (3) increase their understanding that thinking about what is happening may, in the long run, be more beneficial than immediate action to stop the behavior; and (4) help them provide their children with a model of problem-solving thinking -- that is, a thinking parent might inspire a child to think.

Session Content

Each week, for 10 weeks, parents were given text from a manual and pictures and puppets with which to play specific ICPS games with their children. Parents were also instructed on how to use the weekly concepts in problem and nonproblem situations. The sequence of sessions was as follows.

Weeks 1-3: A Problem-Solving Vocabulary. In this unit, the family was introduced to ICPS words, a set of carefully chosen vocabulary words that set the stage for problem-solving thinking. By associating learning with fun, children learned selected word pairs in a game format that demonstrated problem-solving thinking. For example, the words is and not were taught so children could think about whether their idea for solving a problem "is or is not a good one." The word pair before/after was taught to help children think about what happened before a fight began. For example, "Did he hit me before or after I hit him?" The word pairs same/different and why/because help children think about new solutions to problematic situations, such as obtaining a toy from another child. For example, "Hitting and kicking are kind of the same because they can both hurt someone. I can think of something different to do that will not hurt someone."

Weeks 4-6: Emotional Awareness/Preference Recognition. Once the children learned to identify people's feelings, they learned to become sensitive to them. The goal of this unit was to build on the ICPS words to teach children that there is more than one way to decipher how someone feels, namely by listening, by watching, and by asking. In addition to learning these different ways to find out about people, children learned that different people can feel different ways about the same issue (e.g., a messy room, climbing on the furniture). They learned that sensitivity to the preferences of others is also important in deciding what to do in situations (e.g., "I like dolls but he does not"). This kind of perspective taking helps children think about what would make a friend happy and what would not. Using previously learned concepts, children learned that, if one way of making someone happy is not successful, it is possible to try a different way.

Weeks 7-10: Problem-Solving Thinking Skills. In this unit, the children played games that required them to use skills learned in the first 6 weeks to think of alternative solutions to hypothetical problems. They also learned to use other ICPS words such as might and maybe to answer the question, "What might happen if? (e.g., 'What might happen if someone pushes someone down to get them out of their way?')"

Exercises for Parents. At appropriate points in the training, the parents were given exercises to help them:

Bullet Think about their own feelings and become sensitive to their children's feelings.
Bullet Find out how their child viewed the problem.
Bullet Engage the child in the process of solving the problem through ICPS dialoging (see below).

Program Structure

After the first meeting, usually an overview of the program and exposure to the first week's lessons, each group meeting began with the parents describing their successes and failures during the previous week. For the first hour, this discussion and the lessons for the week were enacted through demonstration and role-play, with parents practicing the lessons with each other. The second hour was devoted to steps toward ICPS dialoging when real problems come up at home. This led to full dialogs, which included:

Bullet "What happened, what's the problem?"
Bullet "How do you think he feels when . . . ?" (e.g., "When you hit him?")
Bullet "What happened next?"
Bullet "How did that make you feel?"
Bullet "Can you think of a different way to solve the problem?"

The parents were also taught how to shorten the dialog after they and their children had become familiar with the approach. Eventually, the parents could just ask, "Can you think of a different way to tell him [me] how you feel?" or, "Can you think of a different place to leave your toys?" In the final half hour of the meeting, the parents were invited to bring up problems that had come up but had not been discussed. With leader supervision, they then discussed ways to use the ICPS dialoging techniques. In the group meetings, the parents developed a sense of community. Some called each other between meetings to find out how they were doing with a particular lesson or to ask for help with problems that came about.


Relative to matched controls, mothers who went through the training significantly improved both in ability to solve hypothetical child-related problems and in childrearing style. The following story shows how a trained mother created a means-ends story about hypothetical siblings who were fighting. In the exercise, the mother was instructed to finish the story in a way that would have her children end up happy. This would solve the problem; merely ending the fighting would not.

Trained mother: First she tells them she is sorry they are so upset (means). She asks one of them to tell her what happened (means). The older boy said his younger brother lost his racing car. So she asked, "Why don't you make a game of it and look for it together" (means). The younger brother says he doesn't want to look for the racing car (obstacle). The older brother waits for the younger brother to be in a better mood (time) and suggests that "whoever finds it first wins a prize." The mother agreed to go along with this (means), and both of the boys looked for the racing car. Finally, the younger boy found the racing car. The mother didn't want another fight over the prize, so she gave a treat to both of the boys, letting the younger one have first choice (means). That was fair. The mother asked them if they were happy now, and they both said yes.

The subject mother recognized an obstacle that could potentially interfere with reaching the goal but did not portray the story mother as insisting that the boys stop the fighting and look for the car immediately. Depicting her older son as waiting for his younger brother to be in a better mood -- thereby conceptualizing both time (the ability to wait) and timing (exercising good judgment) -- the story mother allowed the children to think the situation through and accepted the solutions the children chose. What is being tested in this example is the extent to which the trained mother included the components of means-ends thinking in her story. This mother included all three components -- means, obstacles, and time. Because it is a story the trained mother is making up, it does not matter which character in the story performs the actions. What is important is that the trained mother understands the concepts of means-ends thinking and recognizes how they can be used in communicating with children. Mothers who best learned to plan step-by-step means to solve a problem involving a hypothetical child, who were most likely to anticipate potential obstacles, and who allowed the child to generate solutions and consequences were also more likely to apply the ICPS dialoging techniques in real life, as measured by their childrearing style.

In contrast to the pretest findings of the mother's problem-solving skills being related only to their daughters, both boys and girls improved in ICPS skills and behavior. Before training, mothers with the highest scores for childrearing style offered suggestions and explained consequences, but very few elicited the child's view of the problem or possible solutions.

The finding that children who showed behavioral difficulties could improve by learning ICPS skills and mastering their use was particularly encouraging (Shure and Spivack, 1979b). Another encouraging finding was that inner-city mothers, many of whom were initially ICPS-deficient, could become effective training agents in only 3 months. That children trained in one setting (home) could improve their behavior in another setting (school) is believed to be a result of teaching the children how and not what to think. Having been guided to solve their own problems, rather than given solutions each time a conflict or need occurred, the children learned skills that enabled them to generalize when new problems confronted them. As rated by teachers blind to the training process, impulsive children learned more effective ways to obtain their wish when it was obtainable and to cope with the frustration when it was not, and withdrawn children no longer had to deny their desires and withdraw from interpersonal confrontation.

Preventing Violence Juvenile Justice Bulletin   ·  April 1999