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How to Teach Problem-Solving Skills to Children and Preteens
- By Ashley Cullins
Whether it’s a toy-related conflict, a tough math equation, or negative peer pressure, kids of ALL ages face problems and challenges on a daily basis.
As parents or teachers, we can’t always be there to solve every problem for our children. In fact, this isn’t our job. Our job is to TEACH our children how to solve problems by themselves . This way, they can become confident , independent, and successful individuals.
Instead of giving up or getting frustrated when they encounter a challenge, kids with problem-solving skills manage their emotions, think creatively, and persist until they find a solution. Naturally, these abilities go hand-in-hand with a growth mindset .
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our FREE Your Words Matter Volume 2 Kit . With these 10 one-page parenting guides, you will know exactly how to speak to your child to help them stand up for themselves, be more confident, and develop a growth mindset.
So HOW do you teach problem-solving skills to kids?
Well, it depends on their age . As cognitive abilities and the size of the child’s challenges grow/evolve over time, so should your approach to teaching problem-solving skills.
Read on to learn key strategies for teaching problem-solving to kids, as well as some age-by-age ideas and activities.
3 General Strategies to Teach Problem-Solving at Any Age
1. model effective problem-solving .
When YOU encounter a challenge, do a “think-aloud” for the benefit of your child. MODEL how to apply the same problem-solving skills you’ve been working on together, giving the real-world examples that she can implement in her own life.
At the same time, show your child a willingness to make mistakes . Everyone encounters problems, and that’s okay. Sometimes the first solution you try won’t work, and that’s okay too!
When you model problem-solving, explain that there are some things that are out of our control. As we're solving a problem at hand we should focus on the things we CAN actually control.
You and your child can listen to Episode 35 of the Big Life Kids Podcast to learn about focusing on what you can control.
2. Ask for Advice
Ask your kids for advice when you have a problem. This teaches them that it’s common to make mistakes and face challenges. It also gives them the opportunity to practice problem-solving skills.
Plus, when you indicate that their ideas are valued , they’ll gain the confidence to attempt solving problems on their own.
3. Don’t Provide “The Answer”
As difficult as it may be, allow your child to struggle, sometimes fail , and ultimately LEARN from experiencing consequences.
Now, let’s take a look at some age-specific strategies and activities. The ages listed below are general guidelines, feel free to choose any strategies or activities that you feel will work for YOUR child.
Use Emotion Coaching
To step into a problem-solving mindset, young children need to first learn to manage their emotions . After all, it’s difficult for a small child to logically consider solutions to a problem if he’s mid-tantrum.
One way to accomplish this is by using the emotion coaching process outlined by John Gottman.
First, teach your kids that ALL emotions are acceptable. There are NO “bad” emotions. Even seemingly negative emotions like anger, sadness, and frustration can teach us valuable lessons. What matters is how we respond to these emotions.
Second, follow this process:
- Step One: Naming and validating emotions. When your child is upset, help her process the way she’s feeling. Say something like, “I understand that you’re upset because Jessica is playing with the toy you wanted.”
- Step Two: Processing emotions. Guide your child to her calming space. If she doesn't have one, it's a good idea to create one. Let her calm her body and process her emotions so she can problem-solve, learn, and grow.
- Step Three: Problem Solving. Brainstorm solutions with your child, doing more LISTENING than talking during the conversation. This allows your child to practice her problem-solving skills, and she’s more likely to actually implement the solutions she came up with herself.
Say, “Show Me the Hard Part”
When your child struggles or feels frustrated, try a technique suggested by mom and parenting blogger Lauren Tamm . Simply say, “Show me the hard part.”
This helps your child identify the ROOT of the problem, making it less intimidating and easier to solve.
Repeat back what your child says, “So you’re saying…”
Once you both understand the real problem, prompt your child to come up with solutions . “There must be some way you can fix that…” or “There must be something you can do…”
Now that your child has identified “the hard part,” she’ll likely be able to come up with a solution. If not, help her brainstorm some ideas. You may try asking the question, “If you DID know, what would you think?” and see what she comes up with.
Problem-Solve with Creative Play
Allow your child to choose activities and games based on her interests . Free play provides plenty of opportunities to navigate and creatively solve problems.
Children often learn best through play. Playing with items like blocks, simple puzzles, and dress-up clothes can teach your child the process of problem-solving.
Even while playing, your child thinks critically: Where does this puzzle piece fit? What does this do? I want to dress up as a queen. What should I wear? Where did I put my tiara? Is it under the couch?
Problem-Solve with Storybooks
Read age-appropriate stories featuring characters who experience problems, such as:
- Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy by Jacky Davis: The story of two friends who want to play together but can’t find a game to agree on. After taking turns making suggestions, they arrive at a game they both want to play: Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy.
- The Curious George Series by Margaret and H.E. Rey: A curious little monkey gets into and out of dilemmas, teaching kids to find solutions to problems of their own.
- Ira Sleeps Over by Bernard Waber: Ira’s thrilled to have a sleepover at his friend Reggie’s house. But there’s one problem: Should he or should he not bring his teddy bear? It may seem small, but this is the type of early social problem your child might relate to.
Connect these experiences to similar events in your child’s own life, and ASK your child HOW the characters in these stories could solve their problems. Encourage a variety of solutions, and discuss the possible outcomes of each.
This is a form of dialogue reading , or actively ENGAGING your child in the reading experience. Interacting with the text instead of passively listening can “turbocharge” the development of literacy skills such as comprehension in preschool-aged children.
By asking questions about the characters’ challenges, you can also give your child’s problem-solving abilities a boost.
You can even have your child role-play the problem and potential solutions to reinforce the lesson.
For book suggestions, refer to our Top 85 Growth Mindset Books for Children & Adults list.
Teach the Problem-Solving Steps
Come up with a simple problem-solving process for your child, one that you can consistently implement. For example, you might try the following five steps:
- Step 1: What am I feeling? Help your child understand what she’s feeling in the moment (frustration, anger, curiosity, disappointment, excitement, etc.) Noticing and naming emotions will diffuse their charge and give your child a chance to take a step back.
- Step 2: What’s the problem? Guide your child to identify the specific problem. In most cases, help her take responsibility for what happened rather than pointing fingers. For instance, instead of, “Joey got me in trouble at recess,” your child might say, “I got in trouble at recess for arguing with Joey.”
- Step 3: What are the solutions? Encourage your child to come up with as many solutions as possible. At this point, they don’t even need to be “good” solutions. They’re just brainstorming here, not yet evaluating the ideas they’ve generated.
- Step 4: What would happen if…? What would happen if your child attempted each of these solutions? Is the solution safe and fair? How will it make others feel? You can also try role-playing at this step. It’s important for your child to consider BOTH positive and negative consequences of her actions.
- Step 5: Which one will I try? Ask your child to pick one or more solutions to try. If the solution didn't work, discuss WHY and move on to another one. Encourage your child to keep trying until the problem is solved.
Consistently practice these steps so that they become second nature, and model solving problems of your own the same way. It's a good idea to reflect : What worked? What didn’t? What can you do differently next time?
Problem-Solve with Craft Materials
Crafting is another form of play that can teach kids to solve problems creatively.
Provide your child with markers, modeling clay, cardboard boxes, tape, paper, etc. They’ll come up with all sorts of interesting creations and inventive games with these simple materials.
These “open-ended toys” don’t have a “right way to play,” allowing your child to get creative and generate ideas independently .
Ask Open-Ended Questions
Asking open-ended questions improves a child’s ability to think critically and creatively, ultimately making them better problem-solvers. Examples of open-ended questions include:
- How could we work together to solve this?
- How did you work it out? or How do you know that?
- Tell me about what you built, made, or created.
- What do you think will happen next?
- What do you think would happen if…?
- What did you learn?
- What was easy? What was hard?
- What would you do differently next time?
Open-ended questions have no right answer and can’t be answered with a simple “Yes” or “No.”
You can ask open-ended questions even when your child isn’t currently solving a problem to help her practice her thinking skills, which will come in handy when she does have a problem to solve.
If you need some tips on how to encourage a growth mindset in your child, don't forget to download our FREE Your Words Matter Volume 2 Kit .
Break Down Problems into Chunks
This strategy is a more advanced version of “Show me the hard part.”
The bigger your child gets, the bigger her problems get too. When your child is facing a challenge that seems overwhelming or insurmountable, encourage her to break it into smaller, more manageable chunks.
For instance, let’s say your child has a poor grade in history class. Why is the grade so low? What are the causes of this problem?
As usual, LISTEN as your child brainstorms, asking open-ended questions to help if she gets stuck.
If the low grade is the result of missing assignments, perhaps your child can make a list of these assignments and tackle them one at a time. Or if tests are the issue, what’s causing your child to struggle on exams?
Perhaps she’s distracted by friends in the class, has trouble asking for help, and doesn’t spend enough time studying at home. Once you’ve identified these “chunks,” help your child tackle them one at a time until the problem is solved.
Show “ The Broken Escalator Video ”
Discuss the importance of embracing challenges and solving problems independently with the “broken escalator video.”
In the video, an escalator unexpectedly breaks. The people on the escalator are “stuck” and yelling for help. At this age, it’s likely that your child will find the video funny and immediately offer a solution: “Just walk! Get off the escalator!”
Tell your child that this is a simple example of how people sometimes act in difficult situations. Ask, “Why do you think they didn’t get off the escalator?” (they didn’t know how, they were waiting for help, etc.)
Sometimes, your child might feel “stuck” when facing problems. They may stop and ask for help before even attempting to find a solution. Encourage your child to embrace challenges and work through problems instead.
Problem-Solve with Prompts
Provide your child or a group of children with materials such as straws, cotton balls, yarn, clothespins, tape, paper clips, sticky notes, Popsicle sticks, etc.
With just these materials, challenge your kids to solve unusual problems like:
- Make a leprechaun trap
- Create a jump ramp for cars
- Design your own game with rules
- Make a device for two people to communicate with one another
This is a fun way to practice critical thinking and creative problem-solving. Most likely, it will take multiple attempts to find a solution that works, which can apply to just about any aspect of life.
Make Them Work for It
When your child asks for a new toy, technology, or clothes, have her make a plan to obtain the desired item herself. Not only will your child have to brainstorm and evaluate solutions, but she’ll also gain confidence .
Ask your child HOW she can earn the money for the item that she wants, and encourage her as she works toward her goal .
Put It on Paper
Have your child write out their problems on paper and brainstorm some potential solutions.
But now, she takes this process a step further: After attempting each solution, which succeeded? Which were unsuccessful? Why ?
This helps your child reflect on various outcomes, learning what works and what doesn’t. The lessons she learns here will be useful when she encounters similar problems in the future.
Play Chess Together
Learning to play chess is a great way for kids to learn problem-solving AND build their brains at the same time. It requires players to use critical thinking, creativity, analysis of the board, recognize patterns, and more. There are online versions of the game, books on how to play, videos, and other resources. Don’t know how to play? Learn with your teen to connect and problem solve together!
Have Them Learn To Code
Our teens and tweens are already tech-savvy and can use their skills to solve problems by learning to code. Coding promotes creativity, logic, planning, and persistence . There are many great tools and online or in-person programs that can boost your child’s coding skills.
Encourage to Start a Meaningful Project
This project has to be meaningful to your teen, for example starting a YouTube channel. Your teen will practice problem-solving skills as they’re figuring out how to grow their audience, how to have their videos discovered, and much more.
In the Big Life Journal - Teen Edition , there’s a section that guides them through planning their YouTube channel and beginning the problem-solving process.
Apply the SODAS Method
Looking for a game plan that your teen can employ when faced with a problem? The SODAS method can be used for big or small problems. Just remember this simple acronym and follow these ideas:
- D isadvantages
- A dvantages
Encourage to Join Problem-Solving Groups
Does your teen enjoy solving problems in a team? Have them join a group or club that helps them hone their skills in a variety of settings--from science and robotics to debating and international affairs. Some examples of groups include:
- Odyssey of the Mind
- Debate team
- Science Olympiad
Looking for additional resources? The Bestseller’s Bundle includes our three most popular printable kits packed with science-based activities, guides, and crafts for children. Our Growth Mindset Kit, Resilience Kit, and Challenges Kit work together as a comprehensive system designed specifically for children ages 5-11.
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25 thoughts on “ How to Teach Problem-Solving Skills to Children and Preteens ”
I love, love, love the point about emotional coaching. It’s so important to identify how children are feeling about a problem and then approach the solutions accordingly.
Thank you for putting this together. I wrote an article on problem-solving specifically from the point of view of developing a STEM aptitude in kids, if you like to check it out – https://kidpillar.com/how-to-teach-problem-solving-to-your-kids-5-8-years/
I feel that these techniques will work for my kid.. Worthy.. Thank you
I love you guys
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How to Teach Kids Problem-Solving Skills
KidStock / Blend Images / Getty Images
- Steps to Follow
- Allow Consequences
Whether your child can't find their math homework or has forgotten their lunch, good problem-solving skills are the key to helping them manage their life.
A 2010 study published in Behaviour Research and Therapy found that kids who lack problem-solving skills may be at a higher risk of depression and suicidality. Additionally, the researchers found that teaching a child problem-solving skills can improve mental health .
You can begin teaching basic problem-solving skills during preschool and help your child sharpen their skills into high school and beyond.
Why Problem-Solving Skills Matter
Kids face a variety of problems every day, ranging from academic difficulties to problems on the sports field. Yet few of them have a formula for solving those problems.
Kids who lack problem-solving skills may avoid taking action when faced with a problem.
Rather than put their energy into solving the problem, they may invest their time in avoiding the issue. That's why many kids fall behind in school or struggle to maintain friendships .
Other kids who lack problem-solving skills spring into action without recognizing their choices. A child may hit a peer who cuts in front of them in line because they are not sure what else to do.
Or, they may walk out of class when they are being teased because they can't think of any other ways to make it stop. Those impulsive choices may create even bigger problems in the long run.
The 5 Steps of Problem-Solving
Kids who feel overwhelmed or hopeless often won't attempt to address a problem. But when you give them a clear formula for solving problems, they'll feel more confident in their ability to try. Here are the steps to problem-solving:
- Identify the problem . Just stating the problem out loud can make a big difference for kids who are feeling stuck. Help your child state the problem, such as, "You don't have anyone to play with at recess," or "You aren't sure if you should take the advanced math class."
- Develop at least five possible solutions . Brainstorm possible ways to solve the problem. Emphasize that all the solutions don't necessarily need to be good ideas (at least not at this point). Help your child develop solutions if they are struggling to come up with ideas. Even a silly answer or far-fetched idea is a possible solution. The key is to help them see that with a little creativity, they can find many different potential solutions.
- Identify the pros and cons of each solution . Help your child identify potential positive and negative consequences for each potential solution they identified.
- Pick a solution. Once your child has evaluated the possible positive and negative outcomes, encourage them to pick a solution.
- Test it out . Tell them to try a solution and see what happens. If it doesn't work out, they can always try another solution from the list that they developed in step two.
Practice Solving Problems
When problems arise, don’t rush to solve your child’s problems for them. Instead, help them walk through the problem-solving steps. Offer guidance when they need assistance, but encourage them to solve problems on their own. If they are unable to come up with a solution, step in and help them think of some. But don't automatically tell them what to do.
When you encounter behavioral issues, use a problem-solving approach. Sit down together and say, "You've been having difficulty getting your homework done lately. Let's problem-solve this together." You might still need to offer a consequence for misbehavior, but make it clear that you're invested in looking for a solution so they can do better next time.
Use a problem-solving approach to help your child become more independent.
If they forgot to pack their soccer cleats for practice, ask, "What can we do to make sure this doesn't happen again?" Let them try to develop some solutions on their own.
Kids often develop creative solutions. So they might say, "I'll write a note and stick it on my door so I'll remember to pack them before I leave," or "I'll pack my bag the night before and I'll keep a checklist to remind me what needs to go in my bag."
Provide plenty of praise when your child practices their problem-solving skills.
Allow for Natural Consequences
Natural consequences may also teach problem-solving skills. So when it's appropriate, allow your child to face the natural consequences of their action. Just make sure it's safe to do so.
For example, let your teenager spend all of their money during the first 10 minutes you're at an amusement park if that's what they want. Then, let them go for the rest of the day without any spending money.
This can lead to a discussion about problem-solving to help them make a better choice next time. Consider these natural consequences as a teachable moment to help work together on problem-solving.
Becker-Weidman EG, Jacobs RH, Reinecke MA, Silva SG, March JS. Social problem-solving among adolescents treated for depression . Behav Res Ther . 2010;48(1):11-18. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2009.08.006
Pakarinen E, Kiuru N, Lerkkanen M-K, Poikkeus A-M, Ahonen T, Nurmi J-E. Instructional support predicts childrens task avoidance in kindergarten . Early Child Res Q . 2011;26(3):376-386. doi:10.1016/j.ecresq.2010.11.003
Schell A, Albers L, von Kries R, Hillenbrand C, Hennemann T. Preventing behavioral disorders via supporting social and emotional competence at preschool age . Dtsch Arztebl Int . 2015;112(39):647–654. doi:10.3238/arztebl.2015.0647
Cheng SC, She HC, Huang LY. The impact of problem-solving instruction on middle school students’ physical science learning: Interplays of knowledge, reasoning, and problem solving . EJMSTE . 2018;14(3):731-743.
Vlachou A, Stavroussi P. Promoting social inclusion: A structured intervention for enhancing interpersonal problem‐solving skills in children with mild intellectual disabilities . Support Learn . 2016;31(1):27-45. doi:10.1111/1467-9604.12112
Öğülmüş S, Kargı E. The interpersonal cognitive problem solving approach for preschoolers . Turkish J Educ . 2015;4(17347):19-28. doi:10.19128/turje.181093
American Academy of Pediatrics. What's the best way to discipline my child? .
Kashani-Vahid L, Afrooz G, Shokoohi-Yekta M, Kharrazi K, Ghobari B. Can a creative interpersonal problem solving program improve creative thinking in gifted elementary students? . Think Skills Creat . 2017;24:175-185. doi:10.1016/j.tsc.2017.02.011
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By Amy Morin, LCSW Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.
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Problem Solving for Preschoolers: 9 Ways to Strengthen Their Skills
By Carrie Mesrobian on 12/20/2021
As an adult, you likely run into dozens of small issues every day that require problem-solving skills. While you might not give much thought to the process of figuring out the best way to put groceries away or how to run errands without backtracking all over town anymore, these basic problem-solving abilities weren’t always so simple. You refined these skills as a child with practice and guidance from adults.
Building problem-solving skills in preschool-age children is a foundational duty of all parents and early childhood educators. But it can be easy to lose sight of how to incorporate these skills, especially when family life gets hectic or classrooms become busy.
For some fresh perspective on how to look at problem solving from a preschooler lens, we asked several experts in the early childhood education (ECE) field how they teach skills in their own classrooms. Read on for some insight on helping the young ones in your life figure out creative and workable solutions.
9 Tried-and-true ways to develop problem-solving skills in preschoolers
1. use everyday moments.
The handy thing about teaching problem-solving skills at this age is that there are no textbooks, worksheets or special equipment involved. Every day, normal situations provide all the materials you’ll need to practice.
“Parents can help their children develop problem-solving skills through ongoing interactions with their children throughout their day,” explains Paula Polito, owner of Beary Cherry Tree Child Development Center. “At home, in the grocery store and in everyday routines, such as mealtime or bath time.”
Rebecah Freeling, parent coach and child behavior expert at Wits’ End Parenting ®, believes household chores are an excellent way to teach problem solving.
“Housework is a matter of solving one problem after another. All these things go wrong when you’re doing housework,” Freeling explains. “Kids get this idea that problems are no big deal. Problems happen all the time and we just solve them.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean making a chore chart, though Freeling says some kids respond well to them. Instead, she encourages parents to try to integrate kids into the everyday maintenance of the home, and when possible, work alongside them.
“Say, ‘What would you like to be in charge of today?’” Freeling advises. “It’s the difference between getting to do something versus having to do it.”
While a grocery store trip can sometimes be a stressful rush, there are infinite opportunities to practice problem solving, says Dr. Elizabeth DeWitt, senior curriculum and implementation specialist at Learning Without Tears . DeWitt suggests using a list or a recipe of ingredients and asking your child to help you find certain items.
“Say, ‘I have this recipe that says we need chicken, rice and soup. I see chicken and soup in our cart. What are we missing? What could we or should we add?’” DeWitt says.
Taking the time to simply talk children through the thought process—no matter how simple it seems—helps reinforce and show them how you came to that conclusion.
2. Ask open-ended questions
As in the grocery store situation, just asking questions is a powerful way to foster both problem solving and creativity in young children.
“When your child comes across a difficult task, like zipping their coat, it can often be faster and easier to stop what you're doing and zip it for them,” says Becky Loftfield, an ECE teacher at Community of Saints Preschool .
If a child says, “I can't do this,” Loftfield advises asking “how come?” This lets them answer in their own words. “Asking ‘how come’ usually works better than ‘why’ for young children,” Loftfield adds.
Pausing to listen to the child’s explanation of the problem in their own words guides what happens next.
“Perhaps they don't know how zippers line up at the bottom for the mechanism to slide,” says Loftfield. “Maybe the zipper itself is too small for them to grip. Encourage your child to explore what the problem actually is beyond ‘I can't zip my coat.’”
Polito also believes in the power of conversational questions to build problem-solving skills.
“For example, parents can ask a child to explain why they did something a certain way,” Polito explains. “Providing hints to children as opposed to giving them the answer is also another way for children to think deeper about a concept.”
“We promote more learning when we allow them to think through the question,” Polito says.
3. Center emotions
All problem solving involves emotions. In the zipping-up-the-coat situation, a child might act frustrated, get angry or start crying. Handling the emotion is often the key to the child sorting out the situation, as well as learning that they are capable of finding solutions.
“We are not born knowing how to solve problems or having the vocabulary to express our feelings,” says Torri Parker, a pre-K instructor at Aspen Academy . “Often I hear a student telling another child ‘You’re not my friend,’ when what the child is meaning is that they are hurt by something their friend did, or they would like some space.”
Parker suggests picture books that focus on emotions and offer multiple ways to express them can be a powerful way to help kids not only problem solve but also identify emotions in their peers and develop greater empathy.
“By providing the words needed to convey those feelings, a child learns what that feeling feels like and can then have the vocabulary in the future to solve a conflict like that,” Parker says.
4. Read books and tell stories
Sometimes, not having to tackle a problem that’s happening in the moment is a good way to practice these skills. This is where reading books and telling stories come into play.
“Books have the opportunity to build incredible social-emotional skills,” DeWitt says. Not only are kids looking for solutions to the characters’ problems, they’re also building vocabulary, narrative skills and critical thinking as well.
Nicole Evert, a pre-K teacher and ECE trainer at Creating Butterflies , recommends the use of “ social stories ” for preschool problem solving.
“A social story introduces a problem, then shows successful ways to solve the problem,” Evert explains. “Sometimes a social story will include silly pages that show how to not solve the problem.”
Social stories can be especially helpful for children with anxiety about certain activities or routines, as well as kids with disabilities.
“Parents and educators can even make their own social stories using pictures of the specific child and their environment, which can be so powerful,” adds Evert.
5. Take advantage of natural curiosities and interests
One approach to helping young children practice problem-solving skills is in the discovery of something they are authentically interested in learning about. Adam Cole, music director at The Willow School , explains his school’s Reggio Emilia -inspired philosophy where a teacher gives students “provocations.”
“Provocations are opportunities for them to encounter something for which they may then express further interest,” Cole explains. “For instance, a teacher may set up a drawing provocation, and the children may draw buildings. The teacher may pick up on this and talk with the children about buildings, asking how they are built and where they can find more. This may lead to research or trips to see buildings and will continue on until the thread plays itself out.”
Because the focus is centered on topics or activities that already capture the child’s interest, the problem-solving aspect is more meaningful and compelling for many children. Because the teacher works alongside the child to problem solve, it offers space for the teacher to ask questions and encourage further creativity.
“This is an organic way to learn to solve problems, bolstered by the intrinsic desire of the child to learn more,” Cole adds.
6. Model problem solving
Preschoolers are always observing our behavior as parents and teachers.
“Given that 90% of brain development occurs between birth and four years of age, we have an opportunity during these preschool years to set our children up for success,” says Polito.
It may seem obvious, but our strategies and methods provide kids with in-the-moment examples of how to handle life with things go wrong.
“From a teaching perspective, you can think, ‘I’m teaching this child how to be who they are, how to live life,’” says Freeling. “A spill derails you a bit. So, stop and ask the child, ‘How should I clean this up?’”
Loftfield agrees. “Parents and educators can act as guides for a child’s experience, demonstrating how they problem solve and modeling what they want to see.”
This doesn’t mean that the adult must do everything perfectly or without emotions, however. Managing feelings is all part of learning to problem solve. “Allow time for mistakes, time for meltdowns and time for celebration,” Loftfield advises.
7. Look to the child for the solution
This last one might seem counter to number six above, but Freeling believes that parents and teachers can help children learn to problem solve by removing themselves from the process.
“Moving past your instincts to fix or smooth over problems helps a lot,” Freeling says. “Project the kid’s age in your mind. Think of a 25-year-old graduating from college. I want them to be able to ask for a higher salary, to vocalize what they want. You’re not just getting kids to be obedient—you’re teaching them how to negotiate the world.”
This is why Freeling advises adults to try coming into a problem-solving situation with children without a ready-made solution. She offers an example: there’s only one red truck, and two children both want to play with it.
“You’re really looking to the child and trusting their thinking and intelligence for solutions you hadn’t thought of,” Freeling says. She recommends repeating questions until the kids come to a decision and as long as no one’s at risk of injury, standing by the children’s solution.
“They might say, ‘We have to paint all the trucks red, since everyone wants a red truck,’” Freeling says. This might seem odd to an adult. But the point is to make the children a vital part of the creative process instead of just getting them to comply with the adult’s idea.
Developing empathy also factors into this scenario, especially in situations where problems stem from hurt feelings or other emotional conflicts. Freeling believes that finding ways to make restitution to others they’ve hurt is a better practice than forcing kids to apologize. She suggests having a child draw a picture of something the upset child likes as a way to make amends and help them recognize the other’s individuality.
“We don’t want kids to feel guilt for hurting someone; we want them to feel compassion,” Freeling says. “And solving problems in a relationship requires empathy.”
Is an early childhood education career right for you?
Enjoying the process of seeing life through a little one’s eyes? Early childhood education is an exciting, dynamic field full of creativity and potential to positively impact the lives of children and their families. If helping kids learn and grow sounds like something you’d be good at, check out our article “9 Signs You Should Be Teaching Preschool.”
Wits’ End Parenting is a registered trademark of Wits’ End Parenting, Inc. This program does not prepare students for licensed teaching positions in elementary or secondary schools . A Bachelor’s degree and a state teaching license are typically required to work as a teacher in most school settings; however, states, municipalities, districts or individual schools may have more stringent licensing requirements. Childcare facilities and states establish qualifications for staff who work with children, and often implement guidelines regarding age, education, experience and professional development. Students must determine the licensure requirements for the state and facilities in which they intend to work.
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How Your Child Learns to Problem-Solve
Your preschooler is figuring out what things are, why things are, and how things work..
In the course of your child's day, dozens of questions like these arise: "What's inside this box?" "How can I get into it?" "How far can I throw this ball?" "What will happen if I spill all of the crayons out of the box?" "I wonder if my teddy bear floats?" "How can I get these pieces of paper to stick to that piece of paper?" "Why does my block tower keep falling over?"
By asking these questions, your child is identifying and figuring out ways to solve them, and trying out her ideas. Every time she experiments with and investigates things in her world, such as how far water will squirt from a sprayer and what's inside a seedpod, for example, she is building her ability to solve problems. This is also true when she selects materials for building or when she learns to resolve an argument with a friend or sibling over a toy.
If we look at this process more closely, we discover that problem solving involves both creative and critical thinking. Both are necessary to figure out the solutions to problems of all kinds.
Creative thinking is the heart of problem solving. It is the ability to see a different way to do something, generate new ideas, and use materials in new ways. Central to creative thinking is the willingness to take risks, to experiment, and even to make a mistake. Part of creative thinking is "fluent" thinking, which is the ability to generate or brainstorm ideas. So ask your child "wide-open" questions! For instance, ask him to:
- imagine all the different ways to get to school (walking, flying, driving, swimming!).
- name everything he can think of that's red.
- name everything he can think of that's round.
- imagine all the things he could make out of clay or paper bags or even an empty box.
These are good examples of thinking problems that have many right answers. Research has shown that the ability to think fluently has a high correlation to school success later on. Another part of creative thinking is "flexible" thinking, which is the ability to see many possibilities or to view objects or situations in different ways. The next time your child pretends a pot is a hat or a spoon is a microphone or speculates on all the reasons that a child in a picture might feel sad, he is practicing his flexible thinking.
Critical, or logical, thinking is the ability to break an idea into its parts and analyze them. The math skills of sorting and classifying, comparing similarities and differences, are all parts of critical thinking. Whenever your child looks at, say, two glasses of juice and tries to figure out which one holds more, he is practicing this kind of thinking. To encourage it, ask your child:
- how many different ways he can sort his blocks.
- how many different ways he can make a building out of the blocks.
- how the building would be different if he used blocks of only one size.
- how a bottle of juice and his lunch box are alike and how they are different.
- how family members' shoes are alike and how they are different.
Asking questions about things that don't seem to make sense is another way children think critically. Questions such as "Why do I have a shadow on the playground but not inside?" or "Why can't I see the wind?" are examples of critical thinking. You don't need to have one right answer, but do encourage your child to express his ideas. There's one other thing to remember about problem solving: It's fun! So make room for spontaneity and prepare yourself to be surprised and delighted as you discover your child's unique way of thinking.
5-step problem solving for young children.
- Solves Problems Peacefully
Even young children can be taught to solve their problems peacefully with these 5 steps:
Step One: How do you feel? Calm down. – Often when we encounter a problem, we feel frustrated or angry. Before we can solve our problem, we need to know how we are feeling and calm down. There are different ways to calm down; we could take a break, take three deep breaths, use " milkshake breathing [ 1 ] ".
Step Two: What is the Problem? – We need to know what the problem is before we can solve it. Why do you feel angry or upset? Remember this problem belongs to you, not other people.
Step Three: Come up with Solutions – It is helpful to think of as many different solutions to the problem as possible. Not every solution will work. A solution might work one time but not another time. The more problems you solve, the easier it is to think of solutions.
Step Four: What would happen? – Think about what would happen if you chose each of the solutions you came up with. Is the solution safe? A safe solution means no one will be hurt or upset. Is the solution fair? How will everyone feel?
Step Five: Try the Solution – Choose a solution. Try your solution. Did it solve the problem? If the solution does not solve the problem, you can try one of the other solutions you came up with.
Lesson Plan: Solving Problems Peacefully
Background & learning outcomes:.
This activity [ 2 ] is written for children ages 4-6 for a child care setting, preschool, kindergarten or in the home. It can be adapted, however for other ages. By teaching children basic problem solving steps and providing opportunities for them to practice this skill, children can become competent problem solvers.
- Large paper and marker for writing solution ideas
Teaching and Learning Activities:
Introduce the topic of "problems." Ask children to share problems they have had recently. You can add your own examples of problems you have had or problems you have observed in the classroom.
Explain to the children that they can become expert problem solvers by using five problem solving steps.
Introduce and briefly explain each of the problem-solving steps.
Pick an example of a problem the children shared. Work through the problem with the children using the five problem solving steps.
Step 1: How do you feel? Calm down. Ask the children to identify how they felt or how they might feel if this problem happened to them. Ask them for suggestions to calm down. Practice ways to calm down, like taking three deep breaths.
Step 2: What is the Problem? Ask children to describe what the problem is. Help children to reframe the problem so it is defined as their problem, not someone else’s problem. For example: “I want to use the red crayon,” instead of, “they won’t share the red crayon.”
Step 3: Come up with Solutions. Encourage children think of as many solutions as possible. In the beginning, you may need to help them with solutions. Write down the possible solutions. The focus at this step is just to generate as many solutions as possible, not to evaluate solutions.
Step 4: What would happen? Ask children to think what would happen next if they chose a solution. Is the solution safe? A safe solution means no one will get hurt. Is the solution fair? How will everyone feel? Have the children go through the solutions they generated and think about what would happen next. Role playing the solutions can help children understand the possible consequences.
Step 5: Try the Solution. Have the children pick a solution to the problem. Will the problem be resolved? The chosen solution can also be role played.
- Accompanying each step with a visual cue is helpful, particularly for children with limited verbal skills.
- Depending on the age and attention span of the children, practicing the problem-solving steps using an example problem can be split into different lessons. Start by introducing the five steps in the first lesson, then in each subsequent lesson, practice one step.
- Role play different solutions to problems with children to help them understand the consequences of solutions.
Once children have been taught these five steps to problem solving, they need opportunities to practice using them. These follow-up activities reinforce the problem-solving steps and provide practice opportunities:
Post visuals of the problem-solving steps in the room where they are visible for children to refer to on an ongoing basis.
Return to the problem solving steps regularly. Have the children provide other examples of problems they have encountered or create hypothetical problems that are relevant to their lives. Work through these problems as a class, using the problem solving steps.
When problems arise in the classroom, remind children to use their problem solving steps and guide them through the process. As they become more competent problem solvers, they will require less assistance to work through the steps.
Role model effective problem solving for your child.
Select children’s books where the characters encounter a problem. Ask the children how the character in the story could solve their problem. Encourage a variety of solutions. Have the children act out the problem and possible solutions. Book examples include:
A Good Day (2007) by Kevin Henkes. Bird, Fox, Dog, and Squirrel are not starting their day off very well. However, with a little patience, they find that they are able to overcome minor setbacks in order to have a very good day after all. Ages 0-6.
Bobby vs. Girls (accidentally) (2009) by Lisa Yee. Bobby and Holly have been best friends for years, until a disagreement threatens to break them up for good. However, when their argument accidentally sparks a full-out war between the boys and girls in their fourth-grade class, they must come up with a way to return things to normal. Ages 6-12.
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Learn more about "milkshake breathing" and ways to teach children this and other important calming skills.
Adapted from: Joseph, G.E. & Strain, P.S. (2010). Teaching Young Children Interpersonal Problem-Solving Skills. Young Exceptional Children, 13, 28-40.
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Why problem-solving skills are important
Everybody needs to solve problems every day. But we’re not born with the skills we need to do this – we have to develop them.
When you’re solving problems, it’s good to be able to:
- listen and think calmly
- consider options and respect other people’s opinions and needs
- negotiate and work towards compromises.
These are skills for life – they’re highly valued in both social and work situations.
When teenagers learn skills and strategies for problem-solving and sorting out conflicts by themselves, they feel good about themselves. They’re better placed to make good decisions on their own.
Problem-solving: 6 steps
Often you can solve problems by talking and negotiating.
The following 6 steps for problem-solving are useful when you can’t find a solution. You can use them to work on most problems, including difficult choices or decisions and conflicts between people.
If you practise these steps with your child at home, your child is more likely to use them with their own problems or conflicts with others.
You might like to download and use our problem-solving worksheet (PDF: 121kb). It’s a handy tool to use as you and your child work together through the 6 steps below.
1. Identify the problem
The first step in problem-solving is working out exactly what the problem is. This can help everyone understand the problem in the same way . It’s best to get everyone who’s affected by the problem together and then put the problem into words that make it solvable.
- ‘You’ve been invited to two birthday parties on the same day and you want to go to both.’
- ‘You have two big assignments due next Wednesday.’
- ‘We have different ideas about how you’ll get home from the party on Saturday.’
- ‘You and your sister have been arguing about using the Xbox.’
When you’re working on a problem with your child, it’s good to do it when everyone is calm and can think clearly. This way, your child will be more likely to want to find a solution. Arrange a time when you won’t be interrupted, and thank your child for joining in to solve the problem.
2. Think about why it’s a problem
Help your child or children describe what’s causing the problem and where it’s coming from . It might help to consider answers to questions like these:
- Why is this so important to you?
- Why do you need this?
- What do you think might happen?
- What’s upsetting you?
- What’s the worst thing that could happen?
Try to listen without arguing or debating. This is your chance to really hear what’s going on with your child. Encourage your child to use statements like ‘I need … I want … I feel …’, and try using these phrases yourself. Try to encourage your child to focus on the issue and keep blame out of this step.
Some conflict is natural and healthy, but too much isn’t a good thing. If you find you’re clashing with your child a lot, you can use conflict management strategies . This can make future conflict less likely, and it’s good for your family relationships too.
3. Brainstorm possible solutions to the problem
Make a list of all the possible ways you and your child could solve the problem. You’re looking for a range of possibilities , both sensible and not so sensible. Try to avoid judging or debating these yet.
If your child has trouble coming up with solutions, start them off with some suggestions of your own. You could set the tone by making a crazy suggestion first – funny or extreme solutions can end up sparking more helpful options. Try to come up with at least 5 possible solutions together.
For example, if your children are arguing about using the Xbox, here are some possible solutions:
- ‘We buy another Xbox so you don’t have to share.’
- ‘The two of you agree on when you can each use the Xbox.’
- ‘You each have set days for using the Xbox.’
- ‘You each get to use the Xbox for 30 minutes a day.’
- ‘You put away the Xbox until next year.’
Write down all your possible solutions.
4. Evaluate the solutions to the problem
Look at the pros and cons of all the suggested solutions in turn. This way, everyone will feel that their suggestions have been considered.
It might help to cross off solutions that you all agree aren’t acceptable. For example, you might all agree that leaving your children to agree on sharing the Xbox isn’t an option because they’ve already tried that and it hasn’t worked.
When you have a list of pros and cons for the remaining solutions, cross off the ones that have more negatives than positives. Now rate each solution from 0 (not good) to 10 (very good). This will help you sort out the most promising solutions.
The solution you and your child choose should be one that your child can put into practice and that could solve the problem.
If you haven’t been able to find one that looks promising, go back to step 3 and look for some different solutions. It might help to talk to other people, like other family members, to get a fresh range of ideas.
Sometimes you might not be able to find a solution that makes everyone happy. But by negotiating and compromising, you should be able to find a solution that everyone can live with.
5. Put the solution into action
Once you’ve agreed on a solution, plan exactly how it will work. It can help to do this in writing, and to include the following points:
- Who will do what?
- When will they do it?
- What’s needed to put the solution into action?
In the Xbox example, the agreed solution is ‘You each get to use the Xbox for 30 minutes a day’. Here’s how you could plan how the solution will work:
- Who will do what? Your children will have turns at different times of the day.
- When will they do it? One child will have the first turn after they finish their homework. The other child will have their turn after dinner, when their friends are playing.
- What’s needed? You need a timer, so each child knows when to stop.
You could also talk about when you’ll meet again to look at how the solution is working.
By putting time and energy into developing your child’s problem-solving skills, you send the message that you value your child’s input into important decisions and you think they’re capable of managing their own problems. This is good for your relationship with your child.
6. Evaluate the outcome of your problem-solving process
Once your child or children have put the plan into action, you need to check how it went and help them go through the process again if they need to.
Remember that your child will need to give the solution time to work and that not all solutions will work. Sometimes they’ll need to try more than one solution. Part of effective problem-solving is being able to adapt when things don’t go as well as expected.
Ask your child the following questions:
- What has worked well?
- What hasn’t worked so well?
- What could you or we do differently to make the solution work more smoothly?
If the solution hasn’t worked, go back to step 1 of this problem-solving process and start again. Perhaps the problem wasn’t what you thought it was, or the solutions weren’t quite right.
Try to use these skills and steps when you have your own problems to solve or decisions to make. If your child sees you actively dealing with problems using this approach, they might be more likely to try it themselves.
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8 Steps to Help Your Child Learn Problem Solving Skills
This article, written by Jennifer Wendt, PhD, was originally published on TherapyChanges.com and is being shared on FindaPsychologist.org with permission from Therapy Changes.
As adults we solve problems all throughout the day, from minimal to major problems. We are called upon to make decisions and find solutions to problems occurring in our homes, jobs, relationships, health, etc. The list is endless! Many problems we fix are common and we have learned a variety of solutions to use without much thought. Problems that are novel or larger may require us to pause and actively use our problem solving skills.
One of the most exciting moments is to witness a child learning to solve his or her own problems! The moment when a child spits out a pacifier and instead of crying, she reaches out her hand to search for it and places it back in her mouth. A toddler stands up, notices his feet feel funny and then switches his shoes to be on the correct feet. An 8 year old runs upstairs to grab a jacket because the weather is colder than she thought. A 12 year old realizes he has been unkind to a peer and makes up for it by inviting him to join his friends at lunch. While doing homework, a 15 year old studies for his math test first because he felt terrible after getting a C on his last test. An 18 year old decides to not ride in a car with her friend because she is driving without a license.
Children are faced with decisions and learning opportunities every day during every stage of life. One of the best things we can do is to nurture these opportunities and encourage them to solve problems on their own. As parents, we routinely rise to our responsibilities as provider and protector of our children. It often takes a conscious effort for a parent to step back from their provider instinct and allow the child to find a solution to a problem at hand. For example, it is much easier and faster to help a child turn the sleeves of their jacket right side out then to patiently watch them struggle to figure it out on their own. Another example may be when a parent asks a high school teacher to include him in class emails regarding assignments so he can monitor his 16 year old’s progress. Although the intentions are to protect and help our children, when we solve the problem for them, we deny them the opportunity to figure it out themselves.
Here are 8 steps to help your child learn problem solving skills:
1) Encourage Creativity Allow children and adolescents to think outside of the box and try new ideas. Encourage young children to play creatively with objects they find or plain wooden blocks, while encouraging older children to explore new ideas with their imagination.
2) Have Patience Recognize those moments when you can spend a few extra minutes allowing a child to solve a problem on their own rather than quickly solving it for them.
3) Play Problem Solving Games Games are for all ages and not just for young children: from hide-and-go-seek to capture the flag.
4) Model Think out loud and let your children listen to you solve a problem. Demonstrate how you are working to find a solution.
5) Allow Them to Fail As tough as it is, allowing your child to fail provides an amazing learning opportunity. It also provides the message that it’s ok to make mistakes.
6) Ask for Their Help Ask your children for help making decisions or solving a problem. It’s remarkable to hear the possibilities they can come up with.
7) Propose Multiple Possibilities Offering a variety of possible answers to solve a problem can help to get the ball rolling. It encourages a child to consider multiple options and to project possible outcomes.
8) Praise Their Efforts vs. the Result As humans, we do not magically solve every problem the right way, nor is there one solution to a problem. Praise a child for their efforts & when there is success you can highlight the result!
“I can see how hard you are working to figure this out!”
“You really put a lot of effort into this!”
“I bet you are glad you didn’t give up. You’re determination helped you solve the problem!”
“I knew you could figure it out!”
“I can imagine how good you must feel about completing this.”
Learning to solve problems is an essential life skill. Strengthening these skills not only allows children to gain independence and self-confidence, it also primes them for success in academic learning, leadership, social relationships, athletics, finances, health, leisure skills and all other areas of life.
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