Ministry of Education, Guyana

How to Raise a Good Problem-Solver

Three-year-old Marcus is trying to find where the pieces fit in a challenging puzzle. Four-year-old Ruby is working on how to keep her block tower from falling down. Omar and Zoey are looking for what they can use as superhero capes when Omar’s mom won’t let them use her scarves. These are all examples of kids hard at work solving problems.

The ability to face a challenge and come up with effective solutions is an important skill for success in school, relationships, and navigating life. It is also known as “executive functioning,” which includes the ability to:

  • Manage emotions and control impulses
  • Focus and maintain attention
  • Draw on knowledge gained from past experiences
  • Think creatively — to fix mistakes and try something new when facing an obstacle

You see this in real life when a child faces an obstacle, like not being able to fit the square block in the round space of the shape-sorter. Despite the frustration, your child does not give up and toss the block across the room (which has been known to happen). Instead, he is able to stay calm enough to keep focusing on the task. He has done shape-sorters before and knows that he has to keep trying different spaces, so he does keep trying until he finds the correct one!

Here’s how to support your child’s problem-solving ability:

Frame problems as a normal, expected part of life.
Our tendency is to think of problems as negative — something to fear and avoid. But, in fact, problems are just an expected part of everyday life. Framing “problems” in this way sets both you and your child up to approach these moments with a positive growth mindset. Stuff happens, and you can deal with it.

Recall past experiences when your child successfully muscled through a challenge.
Remind him of how he calmed himself and persevered, and how that resulted in something really positive for him. For example, rebuilding a tower of blocks that fell; finishing a difficult puzzle even though it took a lot of tries to find the correct spaces; or working hard to figure out how to balance on his scooter after he almost gave up.

Avoid solving your child’s problems. (Learn to get comfortable with your child’s discomfort!)
It’s completely normal to not want our children to struggle. Often, our first response is to rescue or “fix” whatever is causing our children distress. One frustrated cry from my 3-year-old challenged by a puzzle resulted in my instantaneous, mom-to-the-rescue response — fitting the pieces in their correct spaces to make him feel all better. It solved a problem in the moment, but over time set the stage for me to always be the “fixer.”

Learning a new skill means we’re going to feel uncomfortable for a little while. Struggling is not bad or harmful to kids, it is part of the learning process. Picture your child working on riding a bicycle. If you never let go of the bike, your child won’t experience the teetering that can feel a little scary and uncomfortable. But those scary moments lead to him figuring out how to eventually maintain his balance, and experience the incredible sense of pride when he masters the challenge.

When we run to the rescue, we are actually sending the message that we don’t think our kids are capable of overcoming challenges on their own, and that only adults can solve their problems. It also teaches that failure is something to be feared or ashamed of, when, in fact, it is important to the learning process. If we act as a supportive coach instead of a fixer, we can build self-confidence in our children, and help them learn to muscle through life’s challenges.

Position yourself as your child’s problem-solving partner.
Let your child know that you have confidence in him — that he can learn to solve the problems he encounters. You will always help your child think through the challenges he faces and help him come up with solutions. But you won’t solve his problems for him, because that is his job. See yourself as a coach:

  • Identify the problem: “The tower is having trouble staying up!”
  • Acknowledge your child’s emotional experience. Don’t miss this step! Remember, the ability to solve problems involves being able to manage emotions. When big emotions take over, a child’s brain shuts down. They are not able to think clearly or take in any new information. One of the most effective and loving ways to help kids calm is to validate their emotions: “You are working really hard on this tower and it’s so frustrating that it keeps falling down.”
  • Ask your child for solutions: “How could we fix this?” In the example of building a tower, you could think about past experiences building with blocks. “What helped the tower stay up?”
  • Help your child think through creative ways to solve the problem. Be sure to first ask him if he would like to hear some of your ideas for solving the problem before jumping in when he is struggling. Recently, at a preschool where I work, a child fell apart because it wasn't his turn to be the snack helper. I suggested other jobs he could do, which led to more frustration and he responded: "No, no, no--don't tell me that!" I pivoted and tried: "I have some ideas about how you might solve this problem. Do you want to hear them?" He quickly calmed and was all ears. This seemingly minor change can make a big difference. Asking for permission to provide input shows respect for his boundaries and makes it more likely that he will actually absorb the ideas you are sharing.

Helping children become good problem-solvers from their earliest years is a gift that keeps on giving. The ability to manage their frustration and be persistent in muscling through a challenge will serve them well now and far into the future.


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