Problem-Solving 101 for Children (and Adults)

Problem-Solving 101 for Children (and Adults)

Two children sit on the carpet during free play and argue over a truck. “It’s mine!” yells one “I had it first!”

“No!” shouts the other “This is MY truck!”

You, as a teacher or parent, can tell that this yelling back and forth may soon escalate into grabbing and shoving and then it will all end in tears…….What is a parent/teacher to do?

One of the best social skills for children to learn is problem-solving. Studies show that children who are better at figuring out how to address a social problem and putting that solution into place are more likely to have friends and get along well with others than their peers who simply grab and yell.

But this is also a really hard skill to learn because it means that the child has to take a step back from a potentially heated situation, take the other person’s point-of-view, and work out a compromise that will make everyone happy. Phew!! Some adults can’t do all that!

As a parent, teacher, or caregiver there are a number of things that you can do to help children grow their problem-solving abilities. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Help children develop a sense of empathy. This is the skill required to understand how other people might feel or think. And it’s pretty complex because children (and adults) have to be able to put their own feelings, beliefs and interests aside temporarily in order to be able to take another person’s perspective. One great way to teach empathy is to read books. While you are reading you can ask questions like “How do you think (a character) is feeling?” “Why do you think s/he feels that way?” “What do you think (another character) is feeling?” This is a good way to help your child take the perspective of others when he is calm and the outcome doesn’t affect him (versus when he is in the middle of an argument with a friend over who gets the next turn on the swing). Another great way to teach empathy is to model it for your child. So while reading a book or watching a movie or even watching other friends play you might point out a child who looks sad and say something like “That little girl looks sad. I bet she is feeling unhappy because her friend won’t share the sand toys…..I would feel bad if my friend wouldn’t share with me. What about you? How do you think she feels?” Talking about other people’s feelings and thoughts can help children develop empathy towards others.
  • Name the problem. When your child is having a disagreement with a friend, it can help to name the problem for her. She may not be able to see beyond the “It’s mine” argument. You can help by saying something like “I see that you two are having a problem. Sabrina, you want to play with the truck and I can see that your friend Jenny thinks that that is a pretty neat truck, too. So she would also like to play with it.” You have then helped to reframe the issue as being about both wanting to play with the same cool toy (instead of asserting ownership) and you have presented the other child’s feelings. Sometimes just taking that moment to state the problem can give children enough time to calm down and work out a solution.
  • Help the children find a solution. As tempting as it may be to just swoop in and solve a problem by telling children what to do, in the long run helping them to find a solution themselves will develop their skills. You may need to suggest some solutions to children who are newer at problem-solving. That could sound like “I wonder if you, Sabrina, could play with the truck for five minutes and then let Jenny have a turn.” By wondering, instead of telling, you let the children think through the solution and own it. They may even decide that they would rather play with the truck together than trade off turns. For older children, you may be able to just ask “How do you think you could solve this problem?” But be ready with a few suggestions just in case they get stuck. Remember, if the children come up with a solution that they can agree on, even if it is not what you would have done, let them try it out. That way, they can learn to feel confident in their own abilities.
  • Reinforce problem solving attempts. As with all new skills, children are likely to repeat things that they find reinforcing. So if your child agrees to let Jenny have the truck in five minutes, reward her for her problem-solving by saying something specific like “I really like how you solved that problem with Jenny in a friendly way.” If a child comes to see himself as a good problem-solver, in the future he will be more likely to stop and find a solution before he gets into an argument.

 Problem-solving is a complex skill and children need lots of practice. The social world presents children with all sorts of opportunities to resolve conflicts and find solutions. As a parent or teacher, you can guide your child in learning the abilities to see situations from others’ points-of-view and to work towards peaceful compromises when disagreements occur. This is likely to make your home and/or school more peaceful in the future!

Image: © Mauricio Jordan De Souza Coelho | Dreamstime.com

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Katherine Pears
Dr. Katherine Pears is a senior scientist at Oregon Social Learning Center (OSLC). She earned her Ph.D in clinical psychology and has worked with OSLC since 1998. Katherine is the principal investigator and co-developer of the Kids In Transition to Schools (KITS) program. Currently, she oversees all the clinical and research activities for KITS. When she’s not in her office, you’ll find Katherine in the kitchen whipping up her latest creation or outdoors hiking a scenic trail.

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