Some Things Stick: S.T.A.R. Problem Solving

Published on: Author: bette Leave a comment

We’ve been sitting out in the middle of the desert about 5 miles from Quartzsite, Arizona for the past week and a half.    Today we’re leaving  for Lake Cahuilla – a little known County Park tucked directly behind PGA West in La Quinta, CA.


Quartzsite is a strange little town.  It’s almost a ghost town in the summer,  but boasts  a winter population of thousands as the “snowbirds” from as far away as Canada migrate south in their RV’s.  We consider ourselves “rainbirds” from the Oregon coast – so we’ve been coming down every year to see more of the sun.   Since Lake Cahuilla is only a couple of miles from El Paseo,  home of some of the most exclusive stores in the country,  it’s a bit of a culture shock from Quartzsite.  🙂


A couple of months ago when writing a post from Bend, Oregon,   I honestly thought that when I got down to the desert and had some more time on my hands,  that inspiration would come and I’d have a lot to write about.    That hasn’t happened and I’m not sure why.   My best guess comes from what I wrote 0n the “About” page of this blog:


I’m having trouble giving up on the idea of wanting to make a difference in a system that does not want to change.


What depresses me the most about that is that I’m on email lists and follow blogs and published articles from writers and educators far more accomplished that I am – and no one really seems to be listening to them either.


The other day however, I had a minor epiphany while I was talking on the phone with my daughter and I think it’s worth remembering:


The story starts in 1988 when I was an elementary school counselor  and Shannon was 10 years old.    Looking back,  I can beat myself up for not seeing the freight train that was about to hit us head on . . . but it’s far healthier for all concerned for me to pull back and look at the bigger picture  –  “from 30,000 feet”  –   and appreciate the view.

So . . . back to 1988 . . .


One of my colleagues, another  elementary counselor,  ran across a Problem Solving program published by the Thomas Jefferson Center for Character Education in Pasadena, California.     The program was deceptively simple.   Children could easily remember it by the acronym,  S. T. A. R.  –  which stood for “Stop – Think – Act – Review.”   (Note:  The Thomas Jefferson Center has since merged with the Passkeys Foundation.  See


Realizing the value of such a program applied district-wide,  we applied for a “Mini-Grant” from our local Rotary Club and received $300.  That was enough to  print a  “STAR Poster”  for each elementary classroom in the district.   The art teacher at First Avenue Middle School designed the poster and “STAR Problem Solving” became a fixture in the district for many years.


Needless to say, however, as the other two counselors and I were preparing and presenting “STAR” lessons for all K-6 classrooms  –  my own two children got a double dose of it at home.   And the amazing thing about the program is that not only does it work . . . it STICKS!


When the human brain is suddenly confronted with a problem situation,  depending upon the perceived level of threat,  hormones and chemicals begin to flow and the emotional system can be easily hijacked.   If that happens, the prefrontal cortex  –  the part of the brain that makes rational decisions  –  shuts down.  We immediately react and go into protection mode.   That reaction might take many forms – but most of the time if we could just STOP for a few seconds – or minutes,  hours, or even for days, we can always come up with a much better plan.   The really interesting thing is that lessons learned when emotions  (either positive or negative)  are running high,  the brain remembers far better than any other time.


That’s all pretty complicated stuff for a second grader to remember when someone steals a ball from the foursquare game . . . but it is possible for that child to simply remember “The STAR” and take a few seconds before punching the other kid out.


“THINKING,”  on the other hand,  is a bit more difficult for little kids . . . and that’s where good teaching comes in.   Again, a simple “THINK SHEET” helps them remember a couple of possible “next steps”:

  • Walk Away
  • Talk It Over
  • Ask for Help

Most often, children find that “talking it over” is a bit too difficult when someone has just stolen their ball (or precious recess time).   So instead,  they run to the nearest adult “for help.”    Normally, of course, what they really want is for the teacher to solve the problem by “getting Joey in trouble” and making him give the ball back.


But,  when that doesn’t happen – and when a skilled teacher will take the time to help both kids “think through the options”  –  the lesson will sometimes stick . . . and amazingly, playground behavior begins to improve.


So now back to my daughter Shannon, and that “train wreck” I referred to earlier.


Without going into the painful and confusing details of the past 23 years of her life,  suffice it to say that she has been clean and sober for over  four years, and she is alive and well  –  thanks to a lot of prayer and the grace of both God and Alcoholics Anonymous.   (By the way, I have her permission to break her anonymity since we both realize that her story has been, and will continue to be,  a help and inspiration for others.)


Shannon,  at 33 years old,  is a psychology major at Humbolt State University.   She is licensed and works as a counselor at a 90-day drug and alcohol treatment program in Arcata, California.    When she called the other day,  I was in a bit of a slump – and as usual, her attitude and ability to “work the Steps”  restored my belief in what my husband always tells me:   that “Everything’s going to work out aaaall right.”


It seems that one of the woman in the program had a very bad night last week and her plan was to run away.   The consequence of that action would be that she would be kicked out of the program and not allowed back.  But in her state of mind at that moment she was unable to process that thought  –  much less think about the next few hours or days.


At that point in her story,  Shannon told me that she still uses “The STAR” with her clients –  people who have hit bottom,  and who, either by court order  or in order to get their children back from foster care, must spend 90 days together with other addicts in a half-way house learning a better way to live.


In this particular case, the only thing that made any sense for either Shannon or the woman who was ready to leave was to employ the “S” part of the “STAR.”   It was only the word “STOP” that registered, and thankfully the woman made the decision to wait before making a decision that would impact her life for the worse – perhaps forever.


The next day, in a group session,  this woman was rational enough to “Ask for Help”  and “Talk It Over.”  The discussion that followed not only helped her get through just  “one more day” but will long be remembered by the other addicts in that group who were able to be of help in someone else’s crisis.


So I smile when I remember those STAR Posters and all those kids who probably became as sick of hearing “Stop, Think, Act, Review” as my own children did.   By my calculation most of them are in their 20’s and early 30’s and I  wonder about them a lot.   Even back in 1988  we knew that some problems in life would become so big that “STOP” might mean leaving a relationship, or a job – or, like Shannon at 28 years old,   finally going into a rehab program on her own.   But I’m here to say that the S.T.A.R really works – and I’ll be forever grateful to the Thomas Jefferson Center – and to “Carol and Carol,”  the other counselors who also believed that “Some Things Stick.”  🙂

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