The ability to solve problems is a critical human skill, and we see evidence of problem-solving in nearly all aspects of our lives. Research has shown that problem-solving actually begins in infancy; for example, babies learn that holding the spoon in certain way makes it easier to pick up food (Keen, 2011). The famous psychologist, Jean Piaget, wrote that children understand what they discover or invent themselves and should be guided to communicate and learn from mistakes (Mcleod, 2018). Furthermore, decades of research show that with opportunity and encouragement, children can solve interpersonal issues and can look at different perspectives. Problem-solving is crucial to academic and social success (Gutierrez, 2012).
Children are capable of developing problem-solving skills by experience or trial and error, but research also shows that “demonstration” and guidance can assist in the development of this foundational skill. SO how do we achieve the balance when teaching problem-solving, and what is our role as parents? While it is tempting, and many times easier, to make decisions for our children or solve every problem for them, this creates a lack of confidence and dependency. So do we then simply allow our kids to fail and watch them learn? Well, that’s part of it (arguably the most challenging element). However, since problem-solving empowers children, provides confidence, and aids in meaningful experiences, it is helpful to foster problem-solving skills by teaching and ‘doing them’ with our children.
Because research shows that children learn from discussing/planning, doing, and observing, the process of problem-solving consists of the following steps (or something similar):
Cool/calm down (if needed). This may be the most neglected step by both adults and children alike. When our emotions are in control, in the driver’s seat, we cannot think logically. We must first support our children in cooling down by offering some time away, a snack or drink, deep breathing, or assisting with a calming skill. When your child is calm, it is a good time to go back and look at what happened.
Identify the problem. Assist your child in determining what the issue is and help your child reframe it as their problem rather than assigning blame. For example, instead of “My teacher gives too much homework”, reframe to something like “I have homework to do when I really want to go outside right now.”
Brainstorm solutions. Together with your child, think of all the solutions or ways to handle the problem. There are often several different perspectives and several different ways to solve a problem. Write all solutions down, regardless of whether it’s a “good” one or not. Help your child think of all the different options.
Evaluate solutions. Assist your child in asking what would happen with each solution. Would this solution make the situation better or worse? Would this solution work for everyone involved? Role play the solutions.
Pick a solution and try it. If the solution does not work, try another one. Or, modify the solution a little and see if it is better.
Let’s go through an example together. Let’s say that your child has left their homework at home after completing it. And, maybe you and your child have worked so hard on it together. How tempting would it be to simply drop the homework off at school for them? It may be simple and easy, no big deal, and your child and you would be happy with the homework grade. On a larger scale, however, is this really teaching your child how to make sure they have their homework each day? Instead, we might want to use the problem-solving steps as given below:
1. When your child returns home from school, help them cool down (and yourself), if needed, before talking further. Maybe they need a snack or drink, and maybe you need some quiet time first.
2. Help your child identify the problem. Perhaps we want to say, “You are going to get a bad grade because you can’t get organized.” Or maybe we want to say, “You need to figure out how to stop forgetting your homework.” Instead, try to collaborate with your child. It would help to ask, “What went wrong?” or “I wonder if it’s organization that we need to work on, or if it’s more memory, or both?” Once the problem or problems are identified, move to the next step.
3. Brainstorm with your child. Grab a dry erase board or piece of paper, and write every idea down. We can ask:
“What has helped in the past? “Is there anything that you have tried, but really doesn’t help at all?” “Would it help if we bought a new notebook and organized it together?” “Would it help if you placed your homework in a “homework section” of your notebook immediately after you completed it?” “Can we do a homework check every night to make sure it’s in your book bag each night?” “What else can we think of?”
4. Now process each solution with your child. “Let’s say we go and buy a notebook. Would this guarantee you keep your notebook organized?” Or maybe going through the next one, your child will say, “It would make me feel like a little kid if you did a homework check each night.” Perhaps you settle on organizing together and your child checking for homework each night themselves.
5. Lastly, follow through with the chosen solution and see if it works! If there is still a problem, you and your child would try these steps again.
When we go through this process with our children consistently, they will learn how to problem-solve independently and then generalize the skill to other areas and problems. By doing this, we are shaping how our children think, promoting critical thinking, and giving them an invaluable life tool.