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Teaching Problem-solving

Updated: Aug 8, 2021

Whether it is conflict resolution, managing emotions or creativity in general, problem-solving is the skill that underpins the success in all of these. Research shows that children who learn problem-solving skills will improve their mental health and they are less likely to suffer from depression as adults. Children who do not develop problem-solving skills tend to avoid situations. They won't grow in confidence and independence by achieving something difficult. They also may respond impulsively rather than working through the issue. If they respond impulsively they may not think of the consequences and end up in a more difficult situation. On the other hand, children who do develop problem-solving skills are able to manage their emotions, think creatively and persist until they find a solution.

Obviously our expectations of children's ability to problem-solve will depend on their stage of development. We wouldn't expect a two year old to be able to think of several alternatives to the problem and process which one is more likely to be successful. But we can start introducing problem-solving skills from about the age of three years. These skills can be taught through incidental play but also through guided opportunities. It is our job as parents not to jump in and solve every difficulty for them, but to teach them how to work through a problem themselves.

Children Under 5 years old

The first stage to problem-solving is recognising and managing emotions. You can' expect a child to be able to think through a situation if they are overwhelmed by emotions. Literally the thinking part of the brain will not be able to function when they in the midst of consuming emotions. It is then our job to emotion coach them through, they can't do this for themselves, this is a skill that they have to learn.

1. Firstly we name their feeling for them. By doing this we are helping them to understand what is happening for them and understand what emotions are. This also validates the emotion for the child so that they feel understood. Say something like "I can see that you are really disappointed that we can't go to the park". You are giving them language for these feelings that can feel like that have been completely taken over by.

2. Then connect with your child and help them to calm. You may want to look at my two previous blog posts on Co-regulation and Mindfulness for some more information. But basically, you will need to support your child to calm before you can offer any ideas to problem solve. Hug them, sit with them and just wait until the wave of emotion settles. The emotion will pass and sometimes you just need to wait it out before you can move on any further.

3. When everyone is calm then you can try to support your child to problem-solve. Brainstorm what they could do next time. Try and see if they can come up with some ideas, be guided by them. If they are still upset, add some silly ideas like "could we go to a park on the moon?" They will be able to see that this is not possible and hopefully come up with some alternative ideas.

If your child is frustrated by something they can't do try asking them "what isn't working?" This will hopefully help them to see the problem clearly. Once this is worked out you can problem-solve this together.

Problem-Solving building activities

Puzzles: Puzzles are great for developing thinking skills. The puzzle is literally a problem to solve. Rather than putting a piece in for them, ask "could you put it a different way?" Guide them but let them work it out.

Blocks: Everything your child builds will have challenges because they have to think and design their construction and find a way for it to work. If their tower doesn't work, try not to dive in and fix it. Ask them "why do you think it didn't work, what else could you do?"

Memory Games: Memory games help to build focus and attention. Skills needed to be able to think through a problem and solve it.

Story Time: Make the most of a book to help develop problem-solving. While reading a story, pause and ask your child questions. Ask "what do you think they should do?" "what else could they have done?" Have them see that there are always many options to solve a problem but some will work better than others.

Role Play: my experience is that most adults hate role-plays, but children love them. It is a fantastic way for children to practice problem-solving. They get to really play out what would happen in a situation. Come up with scenarios, they could be real or made up ones. Have them brainstorm what to do and play out what would happen.

5 years and above

For children that are a little older we can give them some more independence. They may still need some help to go through the process but they should be able to work through the stages themselves. It can be helpful to link the 5 steps to each finger on their hand.

Step 1: What am I feeling? As you would with younger children, help them recognise what they are feeling. If they can understand that they are sad rather than angry, they may not respond as impulsive. Knowing what you are feeling gives you clues of what you should do.

Step 2: What is the problem? Help them see what the problem really is. What is their role in the situation? Try and get them to see the situation from every perspective.

Step 3: What is the solution? Have them come up with as many ideas as possible. They could be anything, any possibility "good" or "bad". They could punch someone, that is a possibility. It it not a "good" option but it doesn't hurt for them to think through what would happen if they did.

Step 4: What could happen? Have them think through each idea. What would happen if they tried these ideas? Which one is the best?

Step 5: Choose one. Have them try their idea. Remember that if it doesn't work, they can try one of their other options.

Problem-Solving Building Activities

Creative play: the best lessons are learnt through play. Give your child unstructured activities to do. Have them build a fort, a cubby house, make a plane with Lego etc be creative and then stand back and let them work out how.

Board games: games that take strategy and forward thinking are great for problem-solving. Monopoly or similar work well or any games that are not just won by chance.

Break Down The Problem: As children get older the problems can become more complicated. There are multiple aspects that could be attributing to the problem. For example, they could be late for school every day. What are all the possible causes? Tired from staying up too late, sleeping through the alarm, haven't packed their bag, didn't do their homework. Once you've helped them identify each factor, let them problem-solve all of these.

What Parents Can Do

Model Problem-Solving

When you are faced with a problem that is appropriate your child, think out aloud. Model how you would solve the problem. Work through the stages with them listening

Ask them what they think

Ask your child what they think you should do. This gives them the chance to practice problem-solving skills but it also helps them to feel valued

Don't give them the answers

As tempting as it might be to just tell them what they need to do, try and let them work out their own problems. You can guide them and offer suggestions but as much as possible try and get them to think of what to do.

Let them experience natural consequences

When appropriate and not dangerous, let your child make their decision and experience the consequence. Such as not wearing a jacket and experience the cold. Later you can talk about what they would do next time

We need to remember that problem-solving doesn't just happen by chance. It is a skill that is learnt through experience. We need to be careful that we aren't robbing our children from the experience they need to build these skills with our good intentions to fix their problems. We are here to coach them through so that they can be independent, confident and creative problem-solvers.

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