Julie McIsaac
June 4, 2024

Teaching problem-solving to kids

Teaching problem-solving skills to kids is hard. But with the right scaffolding, you can build their confidence and independence.

This article has been updated by the ELI team.

“Mom, there’s no clean cups in the cabinet!” 

“Can you just do this for me? It’s too hard.” 

“I can’t find my shoes!” 

Sometimes it feels like our kids will never gain more independence.  

Other times our children blow us away with their skills and knowledge, but then they lose their bus pass for the 4th week in a row and show up at school without their backpack… again.

So let’s talk about teaching problem-solving to our kids.

Why is problem-solving important for children’s development?

Problem-solving is the process of finding solutions to difficult or complex issues. Learning anything new involves solving problems.

In the classroom, “scaffolding” is the way teachers create the conditions that allow children to solve problems and learn new things. We teach addition first because children need to know how to add before they can multiply. 

Just like the scaffolding on a building under construction, the platforms provide a base. If you want to build a 20-story building, you don’t start with the top floor – you start with the foundation and go up.

Each step builds on the step before. If you jump to the top step, your foundation is rocky. You might be able to do it, but it’s not as stable as it could be. 

We want our children’s foundation to be stable. We want to build their skills from the base. We do that by providing scaffolding along the way. 

Parents naturally scaffold at home, often without realizing it. You probably put your toddler on the toilet before they knew the feeling of needing to use the bathroom, or you bought shoes with velcro closures so your child could put their shoes on independently before they could tie laces. 

We can use scaffolding deliberately when we introduce new concepts to our children. Each child develops in their own way at their own speed,but with the right scaffolding in place, they continue to move forward

Problem-solving isn’t just about how to solve specific problems. It’s about helping kids learn to manage their emotions when they are trying something new. Instead of getting frustrated or giving up, kids with problem-solving skills are confident that they can figure out an answer. This confidence helps them to be creative and keep working at it.

How do I help my child or teen with problem-solving at home?

  1. Observe! 

Notice your child’s behavior patterns and think about what might be causing them. 

What are they drawn to and what do they pull away from? Is there a pattern related to the type of activity? Does your child fall to the floor every time writing is involved, even if you know they know the answer?

  1. Break it down into small chunks. 

For example, if your child struggles with writing, think about all of the skills involved.

They have to hold the pencil properly and have fine motor control. They need to understand letter formation. They have to hold ideas in their mind or copy something from the board. This may involve story recall, the ability to reflect, or the ability to express what they’re thinking in writing

When you break it down into very small parts, look for times when your child engages with you or shows interest. This is your clue about what’s working and what might feel too difficult

  1. Wait and wonder. 

It’s so tempting to just help our kids solve their problems. Can’t find your shoes? Look by the back door. Or outside. Or in your room. Fine, I’ll look with you.

But give it a minute. 

By waiting before you give the answer, or ask a question, or solve the problem yourself, you are giving your child the opportunity to wonder.  

You can even wonder out loud with your child. “Good question. Where are your shoes?” When you do this, you create the space for them to think it through. You are giving them time to figure it out, and you know they can because you built their foundation. You’re giving them just enough support to propel them forward. 

Ask open-ended questions, encourage curiosity, and get comfortable with silence, even when you know if you give them one little clue they’d arrive at the answer. Wait it out and give them the gift of that a-ha moment when they figure it out on their own. 

Watch: it will build their confidence.

Research has shown us that learning only happens when we recognize and support each other. As parents, when we deliberately build our child’s foundation and then support them in building up from there, we are teaching problem-solving. And that’s how they learn.

Learn more:

  • Julie McIsaac, Ph.D.

    Child Development and Disability Advisor

    Julie specializes in working with children and families with diverse developmental profiles She uses reflective practice, emotion-coaching, play and a relationship-based framework to support skill building in the areas of emotional-regulation and problem-solving. Julie consults with families, schools and community organizations. As a parent, she understands the need to have a cohesive team supporting a child and family.

    Profile Photo of Julie McIsaac
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