How to Teach Kids Problem-Solving Skills

You know that look: Your child is faced with some problem—a playmate who won’t share, a school project he saved for the last minute—and his eyes flicker up to you. “Fix it,” those eyes say. Although it would likely be faster and easier for you to fix it yourself, often the biggest favor you can do for your child is to let him try to figure it out on his own. In teaching kids problem-solving skills, you teach them independence and help build their confidence.

Here’s how to help kids of all ages improve their problem-solving skills.

Teaching problem-solving skills to young kids

Play is one of the best ways for young minds to learn how to solve problems. Shape sorters and puzzles are classic problem-solving toys. Board games help kids think critically and detect patterns. Even hide-and-seek gives the brain a workout as kids think about where to hide or look.

Creativity is a big part of problem-solving. Leave plenty of unstructured time so your child’s imagination is free to roam. If a conflict arises with another child, don’t swoop in to solve it. It’s important to step back and allow your child space to try figuring it out. But if you see him continue to struggle, offer some solutions for how he can handle it, such as taking turns or trading one toy for another.

In general, when a child does need your help with a task, first show him how to do it and then offer as little help as possible so he can practice (unless there’s a safety issue, of course):

  • Put your hand over his, and guide it as he pulls the zipper.
  • Answer questions with another question: “I don’t know. How do you think it works?”

Teaching problem-solving skills to older kids

With older kids and teens, we often wish they would come to us with their problems. If you’ve already taught them the skills, they may not need to, but it’s still important to empower them to be problem-solvers.

  • Let natural consequences do the teaching. Your child will learn that if he doesn’t study, he will get a bad grade or that she made the basketball team because she practiced every night.
  • Break down problems together. If your child always forgets her homework at home, ask how she thinks it happens (“I have too many papers”). Then brainstorm ways to fix it (creating a special folder by the door, packing her bag the night before, etc.).
  • Weigh the pros and cons. Teach your child to evaluate the situation along with her options. Many children benefit from writing out a list of pros and cons when they are struggling to make a decision.

Similarly, if your child is dealing with a peer conflict, ask her how she thinks it should be resolved, and give her a chance to try it. When you talk to her afterward, ask for permission to share some advice. “It’s your child’s right to take or leave your advice, and that’s very empowering to her,” says licensed therapist, Jody Baumstein, LCSW.

Teach problem-solving by role modeling

Each day, we have plenty of opportunities (big and small) to model problem-solving for kids. For example, “I have to give a big presentation at work. I’m nervous, but I know if I write out what I want to say and practice ahead of time, I’ll feel much better.” Or maybe you wish you handled a problem differently and want to share that with your child: “I was a little rude to that waiter just now. Next time I will take a deep breath and remember he is just doing his best.”

It’s very beneficial for children to watch their parents make mistakes, admit them and then right their wrongs. No one is perfect, but if you solve your own problems calmly and rationally, your child will learn to do the same.