Helping your children become problem-solvers

Do you ever find yourself watching your child with a bit of wonder and astonishment, wondering why the simplest of tasks has become so monumental? Wondering why the smallest of roadblocks sometimes results in tears?  Read on to find some ways to help your child develop his or her ability to overcome obstacles big and small.

As adults, we problem-solve throughout the day without necessarily being conscious of doing so. We might have to do little things such as to adapt our morning routine if we wake up a little late, take a detour on the way to work, tweak the dinner plan because an ingredient wasn’t available… Or we might have to problem-solve in a big way to resolve a disagreement with our spouse or come up with a care plan for an aging or ill parent.

Our children’s problems may not be like ours – they will need to resolve disagreements with playmates, figure out how to make a toy work, or figure out what to do when their zipper jams or their shoe comes untied. Here are some ways you can help your child be a better problem-solver.

  • Practice problem-solving when the stakes are low. During playtime, try to build a tall tower with the blocks. If it leans to one side, say, “Look at how the tower is leaning. How do you think we could make it stand up straight?” Let your child try. Doing this when there’s no pressure to succeed allows your child to develop a problem-solving process without fear of failure or concern for consequences.
  • Coach, but don’t solve. It is sometimes tempting to just solve the problem and move on with life. (And sometimes you have to do that – if the zipper is jammed and you are already five minutes late, it’s okay to fix the zipper and get out the door.) But you will provide your child with more skills if you coach. Maybe your child and a playmate are having a disagreement about what game they will play – ask questions to help them work it out. “What game are you playing right now? We still have an hour for playing – could we have an equal amount of time to play both games? How could we decide which game to play first?” Help your child develop the personal and interpersonal conversations that lead to problem resolution – help coach your child to think through a process and its potential outcomes and interpersonal consequences.
  • If at first you don’t succeed – try, try again. Sometimes what your child needs to master a skill is practice. This will sometimes result in failure and frustration. During those moments, try to bring down the stress and encourage your child to continue trying. If your child is struggling with a zipper, say, “It’s okay! We’ll get it! I’ll unjam it, and you can try again.” Have your child try again, encouraging him to take his time; if your child is feeling frustrated, you can say, “I can see your face is frowning – do you feel frustrated when the zipper doesn’t go? That’s okay, we’ll get it! Let’s try again!” After a set number of tries, you could put the zipper together and ask your child to finish zipping it up, giving him an opportunity to experience success.
  • Model your own problem-solving. If you burn the rice you’ve made for dinner, or you get turned around going somewhere with your child in the car, use this as an opportunity to show your child that it’s OK for things not to go perfectly according to plan. You may feel disappointed or frustrated, but demonstrate to your child how to handle those feelings appropriately. If you’re turned around and running late, pull into a parking lot and say to your child, “I’m frustrated because I don’t know where I’m going, so I’m going to stop in a safe place and put the address in my GPS so that we can solve this little problem and be on our way!” Take a deep breath. Demonstrate re-evaluating, regrouping, substituting, and not letting your disappointment get the better of you.

As your children grow up, their problem-solving will change. There will be larger friendship disagreements, there will be schoolwork projects, there will be math homework and sports competitions and many, many more problems (small ones and bigger ones!) to solve. Helping your child to work out the process of thinking about solutions, outcomes, and consequences will help set the foundation for your child’s success.

But as with all aspects of your child’s development, this will be an ongoing process which often takes time and coaching. But the benefit of this process is that you will be able to help your child think beyond his or her own immediate desires and needs – not only can your child learn to achieve his own goals, but she can learn to consider how this process influences others and their feelings as well. You will be helping your child to identify and apply wisdom and thought, and to become a problem-solver and a peacemaker.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”- Jeremiah 29:11

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