As small children explore their world, they naturally engage in problem-solving processes. "What happens if I ..." or "I wonder if I can ..."
This exploration allows them to understand their world better, as well as to develop independence, self-concept, and executive skills. As an adult, you can facilitate the development of these abilities in engaging and meaningful ways.
The executive functioning skills are all those competencies that have essentially made humankind what we are — the abilities to plan and organize, to acquire and use our memories to make decisions, and to analyze and solve problems rationally. These are the core lessons learned through the problem-solving process, and the skills that help kids achieve success inside and outside the classroom.
The Problem-Solving Process
For kids, the problem-solving process is greatly simplified, of course. It can be broken down into five straightforward steps, such as:
- Uh oh! There’s a problem!
- Let’s stay calm.
- What can we do?
- Let’s try!
- Did that work? If the answer is ‘no,’ go back to step 3.
While every process is some version of these steps, problem-solving will look different for a child at each level of development. When children are about eight months old, they start looking for reactions to their movements, learning cause and effect. When they reach one year of age, babies can make simple choices — like which toy to play with — and can imitate the adults around them in order to solve problems. Once toddlers are two years old, they can use their memory to solve problems that they’ve successfully tackled in the past or that they have seen others solve. From here, the human capacity to problem-solve continues to develop up until a person reaches 25 years old.
And as these problem-solving skills develop, the child (or adolescent) will be better able to resolve social conflict, work out tough math problems, manage her own life with less adult intervention, and become more confident.
Problem-Solving at Home
Are you ready to start? Here’s what you can do to encourage those budding executive functioning skills in your child:
It’s hard not to intervene — we all want to help struggling kids! In fact, a little frustration (though not too much) can be good motivation for working something out. And the only way to build independence and confidence is to give your child a chance on her own.
Keep it open-ended.
When you are brainstorming solutions to a potential problem, avoid yes-or-no questions. Instead, ask "What do you think about that?” or “What could happen if we did this?”
Try to keep your activities open-ended as well. For example, give your child materials to build, but don’t tell her what she should be building. For a younger child, give her access to a water table with a variety of old containers and objects that both float and sink. You can also give your toddler toys that react to her or that have buttons, zippers, and twists so she can learn the consequences of her actions.
Make it real.
Kids of all ages learn best when the lesson is meaningful to them. When your toddler’s ball rolls out of reach, use it as an opportunity to problem-solve a little. If your child has trouble sharing with friends, role-play a situation in which two friends have the same difficulty and allow your child to help them work it out.
The Boston Children’s Museum has a wonderful free STEM resource for young kids that encourages observing, asking questions, and exploring the world around them.
Problem-solving isn’t composed entirely of victorious moments. There are going to be some rough patches as you find that productive level of frustration that makes minds grow.
Explore alternatives to language.
Verbalizing a problem can sometimes be more frustrating for young children whose language skills are less well-developed. Take time to calm your child down, and help her find alternative ways to explain what she’s trying to say. For example, have her draw a picture of what she’s having difficulty with.
Alternatively, choose a hands-on task, such as a puzzle or a building project, and ask your child to narrate what is happening. Encourage her to contribute to the “story” of solving the puzzle.
Step in strategically.
Read cues, and as you see frustration build, learn to step in before it really escalates. Some frustration is okay — if you never had any problems, you wouldn’t learn how to solve them! But escalated frustration can lead to aggression, tantrums, or poor self-esteem, making a child a less independent problem-solver in the future. Knowing that she can count on a little support from you, though, is comforting and instills confidence that — one way or another — a problem can be solved.
Guide her toward a solution.
Offer enough support. If your child seems stuck, don’t rush in to fix it. Empathize (“Wow, that seems tricky!”) and offer some choices, as in, “Do you think moving the bookcase would work, or should we try to reach under?” Your child will still have to think about the options and choose one, learning that she has some control over the situation.
Teaching kids how to solve problems from a young age leads to the development of essential skills like critical thinking and grit. And, of course, understanding that it’s fine to experiment and stumble as you find your way are all part of the learning process.
Looking to teach problem-solving to older kids? Check out: Thinking Outside the Box: Programs that Teach Kids Creative Problem-Solving Skills.
Chapman, Sara. Building Problem Solving Skills in Toddlers and Preschoolers. Retrieved from Abilitypath.org.
Problem Solving in Action. Retrieved July 30, 2015, from Scholastic.
Teaching Problem-Solving. Center for Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation. Retrieved from the Georgetown Center for Child and Human Development.
Understanding Executive Functioning Issues. (2014, March 19). Retrieved July 30, 2015, from Understood.