Scaffolding – How We Approach Problem Solving

Scaffolding is how you approach problem solving with your child. Think about a four-year-old who is struggling with a new type of puzzle or a nine-year-old plodding through difficult math homework. Scaffolding is the language you use to help them through the problem solving process; it is your approach. Here, it becomes important to realize there are effective and ineffective ways to help children problem solve. Effective ways move the child toward independently problem solving. They encourage the child to work and learn. Ineffective ways can bring the work to a screeching halt. Let’s focus here on the effective ways.

Whether they are four and working on puzzles or nine and tackling math, the following approaches tend to be helpful.

  • Give hints and suggestions rather than answers and directives. Even if you have the answers, let them grapple a bit. Yes, give them clues so they can keep going and hints so they can find the way, but let them find as much as they can on their own.
  • Corrections shouldn’t feel like corrections. It’s fine to ask them to reconsider, even okay to point out things to change, but let them have the final say and put your correction in hearable language. Rather than, “no, that’s the wrong piece,” try “hmm, maybe that piece is long. What do you think?”
  • The problem solving process far outweighs the product. This is a hard one for the Type A parent, but what they turn in isn’t as important as how they get there. Encourage them to take charge, let them make the decisions, help them to break down tasks into managable parts and learn to work from an outline. Gradually learn the benefit of practice and study. Learning to problem solve in a broad way is so much more important than the outcome of one task.
  • It is their project not yours. Again, hard for the Type A out there. When a child turns in a project or finishes a task, for them to feel really proud of the outcome, they need ownership of the process. This means they weigh the options and make the decisions.
  • Expect it to be a warm and positive experience. If your children don’t feel good about problem solving with you, the first place to check is your approach and language (not their attention span and motivation).
  • Be flexible in the amount of help you give. The rule is give more help as they struggle, less as they succeed. If the goal is independent problem solving, you want to constatnly be moving in that direction.
  • Ask how they want to be helped. Be sure the way you are giving help, is the way they’d like it. When learning to read aloud, they may not want you giving every word they struggle on for more than five seconds. They may just want the beginning sound, they may want 10 second or they may not want your help at all. Check in with them and let them lead.
  • Remain available. Even if they are having success and don’t want your help, stay available. Children who bump into real frustration if they are not able to sort through a problem, may give up and be done all together. Stay available.

Author: Dr. Rene Hackney

With a MA in school psychology and a PhD in developmental psychology, I founded and work as a parent educator at Parenting Playgroups. Somewhere in there I trained in the Developmental Clinic at Children's NMC and in the public schools. I have two beautiful, funny children who make me practice what I preach most everyday.

One thought on “Scaffolding – How We Approach Problem Solving”

  1. >Flexibility is a keyword here. Be aware of what frustrates your child. Pay attention to their body language. Recognize if they are tired. Sometimes giving them the answer once in a while gives them confidence that you are on their side. Give in sometimes. Be a team with your child. Another opportunity to teach will come around again. Again, be flexible.

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