I Have A Problem!


I Have A Problem!

I just finished reading a blog post about teaching kids problem solving skills. The author started her post with a series of pictures showing how her daughter had solved a problem. The mom asked her daughter about her solution and why she hadn’t tried some different ideas. Although the mom felt that the solution wasn’t necessarily the way she would have solved the problem, it was working for the daughter and she left her to it. This mom then went on to describe how she and her husband have been working on problem solving skills with their children from an early age. She described another scene in which her husband used his communication to help her daughter work through the process of how to ask for what she needed, rather than just making a statement and waiting for something to happen.

So why did I just rattle on about another person’s blog post? I have been spending a lot of time lately talking with parents about the ability to solve problems in multiple ways. The interesting thing that happens when children and parents begin working on this skill is that it sheds light on how children think about problems and the process of solving them. The other thing I have started to see is that many times the child has an idea for solving the problem, but efficiency gets in the way and causes frustration. The other thing that happens is we find that the adults are impatient and jump in to “rescue” their child too quickly, which results in the child never having the experience of feeling successful at solving problems.

The first step in helping children become good problem solvers is to allow them the opportunity to be successful at solving problems. Improving efficiency and the ability to find multiple solutions to a problem comes after children feel competent in their ability to solve simple problems.  Examples of ways to begin working on problem solving with your child includes such ideas as having a cup of sugar sitting on the counter next to a bowl you are using to make cookie dough. You might say to your child, “We need to get this sugar in this bowl. I wonder how we can do that.” You would then provide the child time to think about the solution. For some children, the solution will come very quickly; for others, it may take a lot of thought; and for still others, you may have to provide some external verbal thinking such as, “Hmm, when I needed to get the flour in the bowl, I poured it from the cup into the bowl.” This type of verbal prompting is not giving the child the direct answer, but provides enough information to start the thought process.

Once your child is successful with solving simpler problems with your support, it is time to give him/her the opportunity to try solving simple problems without you. Taking the approach of solving simple problems first will continue to foster the sense of competence, and allow your child to master the skills needed for solving more complex problems. This is the stage where you may allow your child to struggle a bit or even make mistakes before you provide support. Giving him/her the chance to learn from a mistake can be just as valuable as finding the solution. This builds the child’s resilience. When your child becomes a master at solving simple problems, s/he is ready to move on to more complex problems.

Another aspect of problem solving is the insight that there may be more than one way to solve a problem. This concept can be very difficult for some children to grasp. Perhaps this is due to difficulties with flexibility, or it may be a difficulty with seeing another person’s perspective. When I am working with a child on finding multiple solutions to a problem, I first like to have them think about how they would solve the problem or approach the task. I then share my thoughts and ideas. Then we try out both options (with the understanding that both options are feasible and safe). One example that I often use with parents is the task of making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. There can be multiple ways for doing this task; but I usually see how the child will approach it, and then I offer a different way. We then try both ways and compare what we thought. My intention isn’t necessarily to change how the child does it, but to have him/her begin thinking about the idea that we used different ways of approaching the task – but in the end we came up with the same solution, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. For example, the child might suggest that we get out the bread, put peanut butter on one piece and jelly on the other and then put the pieces together, and cut it in half. I might then suggest that we get out the bread and put the peanut butter on one slice first, and then cover the peanut butter with the jelly, and then put the other piece of bread on top and cut it in half. You could also use the idea of spreading the peanut butter or jelly with a spoon rather than a knife, or you could suggest cutting the sandwich a different way to make the solutions more or less complex.

The ability to solve problems is crucial to every day life. The inability to find solutions to problems makes life frustrating, and promotes rigid thinking. Helping your children learn strategies for solving problems gives them the ability to face challenges, and make new discoveries within their world!

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