We all solve problems on a daily basis. Problem solving is not a skill that we are born with – it’s cultivated over time with practise and experience. Children need to be taught how to identify problems, generate ideas for a solution and then learn to couragously try and solve the problem. They 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. Teaching problem solving as a general skill is invaluable to children’s learning, confidence and independence.
What is problem solving?
Problem-solving is a process - an ongoing activity in which we take what we know to discover what we don't know. It involves overcoming obstacles by generating a theory, testing those predictions, and arriving at satisfactory solutions.
Problem-solving involves three basic functions:
- Seeking information
- Generating new knowledge
- Making decisions
Why is problem solving important?
Rather than being looked on negatively, problems help build character, resilience and perseverance. They afford us opportunities to see things differently and do things in a different way and evoke lateral thinking. A child who lacks problem solving skills may avoid trying new things, may ignore certain situations altogether or act rashly when presented with a problem.
- Problems are a part of life so it’s important to teach children how to solve and/or cope with them. Life brings challenges that children must learn to overcome.
- Children have to learn how to make decisions independently; to be personally responsible for their life learning.
- It produces self-confidence and builds self-esteem.
- It develops creativity, persistence, a proactive mindset and prepares children for real life in the real world.
- It creates language for children to talk about things that aren’t going right, in relationships and learning. It helps them advocate for themselves.
- It teaches children how to collaborate and work together, especially with people that are different from themselves.
How do we teach problem solving skills?
The following steps are a useful guide to teaching your child about problem solving. Encourage your child to take part so that they can
slowly learn to do it for themselves.
1. Identify the problem
This step can be difficult as children do not always have the words to tell you how they feel or know exactly what the problem is. Teach children how to recognise a simple problem. Eventually, work up to more challenging problems. Help them learn to ask questions so that they also understand the problem. Your child will benefit from your help in trying to understand what might be happening, particularly when they are having difficulty identifying the problem. Remember to step back and not jump in to solving the problems for your child at this stage.
2. Find solutions and try them out
Once you have a better sense of what the problem is, you may like to generate some solutions with your child. Brainstorming 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. With practice and support from others, your child will gradually be able to come up with more of their own solutions. However, you may need to make some suggestions in the beginning.
Once you and your child have identified some options, you can decide together which one to try first. Work out a plan for how they will try out their solution. Do they need support from you, another child or a teacher? When will they get a chance to try it out? (eg at home or in the school playground.)
3. Check in: how did it go?
Once your child has tried the solution, check in with your child as soon as possible. Did it work? If not, why not? What could your child try next? Remember to give your child lots of support and encouragement if the solution didn’t work out. Sometimes we have the right solution, but need to practise it many times. Other times, we may need to return to step one to see if the issue was correctly identified.
You can help to support your child’s problem solving skills
Model your own problem solving. Next time a daily problem arises (eg losing your car keys) talk through the problem and solution out loud.
This will help to show your child that everyone has problems and that we can work through them by coming up with different solutions.
- Encourage your child to utilise support people to assist them with problem solving. These could be family members, friends, educators and teachers. This will promote help-seeking behaviours in your child and enable them to feel supported when they have a problem.
- Allow them to fail. As tough as it is, this allowing your child to fail provides an amazing learning opportunity. It also provides the message that it's ok to make mistakes.
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.