Teaching Problem-Solving to Children

On developmental screenings, the categories of development are communication, gross motor, fine motor, personal/social and problem-solving. I think many parents feel like they have ideas on how to teach the other categories, but aren’t sure how to get started on teaching problem-solving. The best way to learn anything is by doing, so one of the best ways to teach problem-solving is to let your child have problems.

When challenges arise for your child, don’t always leap to their rescue. Sometimes it’s best to sit back for a few minutes to see if they can figure it out on their own. If your child is a little cranky and frustrated about a problem, that’s OK. Frustration can push us forward till we have a break-through to a solution. (Note: However, if frustration is turning into misery, that’s no longer helpful, so step in BEFORE that switches over to meltdown. Or, if they’ve totally flipped their lid and it’s too late to help with problem solving, then check out these tips for managing a meltdown. AFTER they’re calm, you can go back to solving the problem.)

If your child is still fairly calm, but needs some support with a problem, don’t just jump in and fix it for them. They won’t learn anything from that. (And we all know from tech support how frustrating it is when we’ve struggled and struggled with an issue, and someone else steps in, presses a button and fixes it. We’re glad it’s fixed, but we may also feel embarrassed and feel incompetent at fixing future challenges.) Instead, help guide them to finding a solution.

Here are some steps to walk through.

Step One – Define the Problem

Clarify what is the problem they’re trying to solve? Start off with a little empathy, and listening to their concerns. “Hey buddy, you seem really frustrated. What are you trying to do right now?”

Sometimes they can tell you exactly the problem (“I can’t find the puzzle piece!”) and it’s something you can see several clear solutions to. Sometimes they tell you a problem that you can see is unsolvable (“I want the broken glass to be unbroken”) – you may need to help them re-frame this into a problem that is solvable. Sometimes they’re not even certain what’s wrong – sometimes they’re just having a rough day and just need a cuddle.

And… honestly, sometimes you have to re-define what the problem is. They may say “the problem is that Bobby has the toy and I need to make him give it to me.” You might change the problem definition: “I know you want that toy Bobby has… since you can’t have it right now, let’s think about what else you could do.”

Step Two – Brainstorm Solutions

If you’ve got a child who is five or older, they may be able to come up with lots of possible solutions with just a little guidance. After your child has some brainstormed options, you can help them figure out if those solutions are a) actually possible now, and b) if they would actually solve the problem. Sometimes you can defuse the tension around problem-solving by suggesting some crazy wacky solutions that make them laugh.

For a 3 – 5 year old, you could help them build a repertoire of possible solutions in advance so they have ideas to draw from. For example, if you’re working on challenges playing nicely with other children, you could offer a solution kit like the ones from Headstart, or Center on Social and Emotional Foundations. You could teach these as part of a curriculum, then when the child is having challenges, you pull the cards out and ask them which tools might be helpful at that moment.

If your child is 2, you won’t really ask them to brainstorm. They won’t be good at this kind of abstract thinking. You’ll likely have to just suggest 2 – 3 options to them as choices they could make.

Step 3 – Try Out a Solution

I teach an engineering class for kids. We talk a lot about tinkering – trying out different ideas, and tweaking – making minor adjustments, then testing to see if it’s better. That applies to any kind of problem solving for kids. Sometimes the first solution works perfectly to solve the problem. Sometimes it “almost” works and we just need to tweak it a little. Sometimes it fails completely and you need to start all over again.

Once you’ve got a couple brainstormed options, help the child plan for what they’ll try first, and then what they’ll do next if the first idea doesn’t work. (Sometimes the best thing to tell them to do next is to come back and check in with you for new ideas.)

Although you don’t have to jump in every time to help a child problem-solve, it is good to keep an eye and ear on them when they’re testing out solutions. My child once set down a stick he was playing with, and another child picked it up. My son tried to use his words and his manners to get it back. He asked nicely for the stick – once, twice, three times… When saying please didn’t work, he gave up. And tried out biting!

Step 4 – Reflection

If your child solves a problem, give them lots of praise and positive attention. Don’t just praise the result (the solved problem) but also praise the process: “you worked really hard to come up with a solution!”

If they tried, but failed, still give positive attention: “I really like that you came up with some ideas and tested them out. I’m sorry it didn’t work – sometimes problems are just really tricky to solve.”

At bedtime that night, or some other time, reflect back on lessons learned. Keep it positive, and use a growth mindset approach – “you haven’t figured it out YET, but if you keep trying, I know we’ll get there.”

When / How to Teach Skills

You can certainly teach problem-solving skills in the moment when problems arise. (But remember – timing matters! Don’t intervene too soon or they’ll never know if they could have solved it on their own. Don’t wait too long until they’re in meltdown or until they’re making bad choices you’ll have to impose consequences for.)

You can also build a repertoire of skills they can apply when needed:

Whenever we’re teaching any challenging skills, whether that’s cutting with scissors, putting a puzzle together, riding a bike, throwing a basket, and so on, we can teach skills they may need to solve problems in the future. You can also teach when playing side-by-side with them. For example, you could build a tower that’s really shaky and ask them for ideas for how to make it stronger, then model for them some ideas you have. You could accidentally mix up two paint colors by putting the wrong brush in a cup, then talk with them about possible solutions. You’re giving them tools they can use for future problem-solving, and also modeling how to stay calm in the face of challenges.

You can use dramatic play to teach: puppet shows and role plays. When reading books, if a problem comes up, pause your reading and ask them: what’s the problem? what are some possible solutions? what do you think the character will try?

Our goals with teaching problem-solving are to build independence, to build good decision-making skills (though remember, due to the stages of brain development, consistently good judgment and decision-making skills may not arise till their late teens!), and to create flexible thinkers (fluid intelligence) who can respond to a wide variety of life circumstances with resilience.

Resource for Learning More

The Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center has a great webinar for Head Start teachers, which is also helpful for parents, called: “It’s a Big Problem: Teaching Children Problem-Solving Skills.” It’s a video, or you can read the transcript if you prefer, and also be sure to check out the additional resources page they link to for follow-up.

They have helpful suggestions. Like when defining a problem, you can ask the child whether it’s a mouse sized problem they can solve or an elephant size problem they need help solving. For older children (age 4 and up), you could ask them to evaluate possible solutions by asking themselves these questions: Would it be safe? Would it be fair? How would everyone feel?

If you like acronyms to remember an idea, try this one: STEP = State the problem, Think of multiple solutions, Explore the pros and cons, and Pick a solution to try.

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