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Want to know how to develop problem solving skills in children in 6 simple steps?
Wish your child could sort their own problems out a bit more?
I did too! Trouble is, sometimes I swoop.
It’s when we dive in at every available opportunity to sort out our child’s problems, rather than helping empower them to sort things out for themselves.
In fact I swooped the other day.
I was in the bath and my little lady was sat on the loo chatting about dinosaurs.
“When I’m a teenager, will I be able to run as fast as a velociraptor’’ she asked (she’s 5).
Urm, I’m not sure I replied. How fast can a velociraptor run?
Really fast, she said, pumping her arms back and forth like a piston.
Mortified by my lack of knowledge of 75 million year old dromaeosarid theropods from the Cretaceous Period (impressed much? don’t be, I looked it up on Wikipedia) I asked her if she would mind getting me a towel.
She stood on the loo and made great efforts to get the towel off the back of the bathroom door.
‘Do you need some help’ I asked?
‘NO’, she said, standing on one foot and leaning like a miniature leaning Tower of Pisa towards the towel.
After a few seconds, I stood up and hooked the towel off myself.
‘Urgghh’, said my daughter loudly.
‘What?’, I said, ‘I was trying to help’.
‘You did it for me…!’
‘AND’ she said (she narrowed her eyes accusingly at this point)
‘You made me give up…’
Give your kids the message – ‘yes, you can do it!’
Imagine, instead, the joy of being able to stand by and see your child work through a problem themselves, with tools you have taught them.
Here’s a brief (but powerful) video from Dr Markham of Aha Parenting that explains the power of teaching kids responsibility and problem solving from an early age:
I’ve found the following 6 steps invaluable in teaching my child to master problem solving.
Whilst the examples are my own, the actual steps stem from the work of Dr Laura Markham of Aha Parenting.
You can find more about these steps in Dr Markham’s book Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids).
How to Develop Problem Solving Skills In Children
1 – Model Your Behaviour
Modelling behaviour is a great way for kids to learn without them feeling like they are being preached at. So, you could use a situation where you’d lost your car keys , for example to model problem solving.
Saying something like ‘I can’t find my keys to the car. Want to try and remember what we did since we got home, so I can find out where I put them?’ gets them involved in solving the problem with you.
2 – Offer Tools and Strategies
Toddlers and preschoolers can so often find themselves in situations where a disagreement starts brewing with their peers and they don’t have the tools to work it out for themselves. Giving them the necessary tools and strategies to work it out together can work wonders.
Something as simple as ‘I see you both want that toy right now. What could we do so you both get a turn?’ offers them the chance to look for solutions themselves and reach a compromise rather than a Clash of the Titans battle of the wills. You can obviously help them with this if they need it.
In fact, I actually saw my little lady put this into action the other day.
We were at a friend’s for lunch and she was mixing pancakes with her friend. Their wooden spoons were competing wildly in the mixing bowl and batter was about to have a splatter fest all over the kitchen wall.
At this point I went to step in (yep, and take over!), when my daughter stopped and said ‘look, why don’t we take turns?’ Problem solved.
3 – Practice ‘Sequencing’
This really helps kids learn to understand a chain of events (or sequence of things) that are about to happen.
This way they can be prepared for (and therefore cope with) the transitions better. An example might be, ‘Ok, so I’ll do one page of your favourite sticker book with you, then we’ll need to brush your hair and put your shoes on, so we can get to nursery on time.’
4 – Support Emotional Regulation
My little lady was wrapping a birthday present recently. She was getting pretty irate with the sticky tape, which kept sticking to her fingers when she tried to hold the wrapping paper down. Without taking over or judging, I described what I saw happening and said:
‘I can see you’re getting a bit frustrated with that sticky tape, shall I hold the wrapping paper down, so you can stick it easier.’
She said yes and that was that.
However. if I had said ‘do you want me to do it’ she would have shouted ‘NO’ and got really cross, as I would have effectively been suggesting she couldn’t do it herself.
Or if I had left her to her own devices, she’s quite possibly have started screaming at the sticky tape, which would have likely found itself hurtling across the room.
Teaching your children ‘mastery’ as Laura Markham calls it, does take patience (we once spent 45 minutes writing Grandad’s birthday card!), but seeing the joy in your child’s face when they accomplished something themselves makes it worth it.
5 – Offer Gentle Reminders
My daughter dropped cereal over the sofa the other day. This is quite a frequent occurrence (yes I know, don’t eat on the sofa then!) and there have been days where I’ve got frustrated (none of us can model perfect behaviour ‘all the time’ and we shouldn’t expect ourselves to).
When I get frustrated though, she feels shamed, which leads her to get cross.
So, instead, offering a gentle, non judgemental reminder that we take responsibility for own mess, usually prompts her to get a cloth and clean it up (I do help her if she needs me to!)
That way, she feels empowered at cleaning up her own spillages and no one gets cranky.
6 – Offer Encouragement
My daughter loves her school gingham summer dresses. She has 2 and one has tricky buttons.
She will literally perservere for 10 minutes, working exceptionally hard on doing them up herself. I’ve learned not to offer any help!
What I do sometimes say though is something like ‘those buttons are so tricky, I love how you keep trying until they are all done up’.
This offers gentle encouragement and praises her effort.
The Bottom Line: How to Develop Problem Solving Skills In Children
Whether it’s working out how to paint a picture or navigate sharing toys, showing children how to develop problem solving tools is an invaluable skill they can take with them through childhood and into teenage and adult life.
Without doubt, it will frequently take a lot more patience than stepping in and doing it for them. But if you help them with the scaffolding (as Laura Markham calls it) between the ages of around 3 to 5, it will pay off huge dividends for both you and your child later on.
If you found the 6 steps above helpful, you might want to check out Dr Laura Markham’s book ‘Peaceful Parent, Happy Kid‘, as well as these 6 peaceful parenting books.
(Oh and if you’re wondering, a velociraptor may have been able to run up to roughly 40 mph. But only in short bursts. Apparently…)
Do you have any tips on how to develop problem solving skill in children?