Problem-solving skills begin in preschool

Problem-solving is not just a skill used by adults – it’s important to build a foundation for problem-solving skills in preschooler as they grow and develop.

December 20, 2012 - Author: Gail Innis, Michigan State University Extension

Children can be taught problem-solving during the regular course of each day through modeling, coaching and adult assistance.
Children can be taught problem-solving during the regular course of each day through modeling, coaching and adult assistance.

Every day of every year we use our problem-solving skills to make decisions. Our livelihood and employment depends on it. What should I wear if it gets cold? What time do I need to wake up to be ready for my new job? What route should I take to the meeting? Where should we eat on vacation? Which kid needs new shoes first? Where will I find employment? To answer all of these questions, most adults use a process that seems like second nature, but is foreign to most young children: problem solving.

Problem solving is learned by children in the same manner they learn nearly everything else: children watch adults, experiment with and practice ideas, and come to conclusions. Some children learn how to problem solve quite easily while others struggle and have a melt-down, waiting for a caring adult to come up with a solution.

Children can be taught problem-solving skills during the regular course of each day through modeling, coaching and adult assistance. Before beginning a problem-solving process, it is important for the child to know that there is a problem. This is easily accomplished by a nearby adult who states the fact, “I see you have a problem.”

The Vanderbilt Center for the Social Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL) has identified four steps for problem solving for young children:\

Have the child identify the problem. What is wanted or needed? Once a child knows that he has a problem, he then needs to be encouraged to state what the problem is. If a child is unusually distraught and is unable to verbalize the problem, the adult can step in and state the obvious. “You wanted the red truck and Isaiah is playing with it now. You have a problem.” It is easy for the adult to recognize the problem, but the adult needs to see the problem from the child’s point of view. In assisting a child in describing a problem, you can introduce feeling words that can expand a child’s emotional vocabulary. “It is so frustrating when you want something right now and you can’t have it.” Very young children learn early on when they are feeling “good” or “bad.” Adults need to teach young children other words for their feelings. You might observe out loud that Sam is "angry" or "annoyed" or "frustrated."

Brainstorm solutions. When you know what the problem is, you can now look at the many possible solutions for solving the problem. Have the child think of ways to solve the problem and state them out loud. “I could take the truck away from Isaiah.” “I want to hit Isaiah over the head.” “I could wait till later to use the truck.” “I could find a different truck.” If the child is struggling to find solutions, an adult should assist with some ideas. “Have you thought about taking turns with the truck?”

Ask what would happen if the child put the solution to the test. Ask the child if the idea that she chose is safe and fair, and how the other child might feel if she implements the idea. “How do you think Isaiah would feel if you grabbed the truck from him?” “Do you think it’s fair for you to have the red truck all the time, so Isaiah will never get to play with it?”

Try the solution. Have the child try his solution and see how it works. If the solution doesn’t work, you can assist the child in choosing another solution. “My, it looks like you need to try a different plan to solve your problem.” Of course, if the solution works, you can congratulate the child on finding a great solution! “You are a pretty good problem solver, Sam.” “I see you found a way for both you and Isaiah to use the red truck.”

Not all problems will need the four step process. Many times when you first acknowledge that a problem exists, the child will stop, think and then move ahead. There are times when a problem has caused a great deal of emotion, and it is best to take a time out before attempting problem solving. The children may have been fighting about Sam taking the truck. At that point, you might remove the truck from the play area and give it a “time out” until things cool down.

Always revisit the issue to bring it to a win-win solution. Sometimes, it is easier for an adult to jump in and just solve an issue. By rescuing a child, you may deescalate a temper tantrum, but you have also taken away a teachable moment to assist the child in learning the valuable life skill of problem solving.

When things are going smoothly, you may want to use your story time at home to explore how characters in children’s books solve their problems. After reading a story, you can ask the child what the problem was and how the main character solved it. You might also talk about what the character could have done instead. In the children’s book, “The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister, you can share a story of a beautiful fish that refused to share. The rainbow fish learns that in sharing, he makes friends. The book lends itself to a problem that many children share and helps find a solution to the problem of having no friends. There are many children’s books to help teach problem solving that can be explored on your own bookshelf, at your local library or on the web at the eXtension Alliance for Better Child Care in their story-stretchers data base.

There are some children who struggle with problem solving and may require additional direction and support as they learn the problem-solving steps that the rest of us take for granted. Children can become proficient problem solvers when the adults in their lives model good problem-solving skills, make teaching the skill a priority and give children lots of practice making simple decisions. Learning problem solving is a developmental skill that children will progress through as they gain important social-emotional skills.

Tags: approaches to learning, early childhood development, family, msu extension, social and emotional development

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