How to Encourage Kids to be Independent Problem Solvers

mother helping in homework to her son

Whether you have a four-year-old working on a new puzzle, or an 11-year-old working on difficult math problems, there are effective ways to support the problem solving process. Your tone, words, intensity and approach are all important. Overall, the goal should be the child becoming a more independent problem solver.

Here are several tips to get you started.

  • A warm and positive exchange – If helping your child with homework becomes a shouting match, take that as your cue to stop. Supportive problem solving is meant to be just that, it requires that you keep your calm. Frustration and upset tends to close down problem solving.
  • Ask how they want to be helped –  If a two-year-old asks you for help, just help. If an older child asks for help, pause and ask how they would like to be helped. Then listen and do your best to follow their lead. The goal here is for your child to feel in charge of the problem solving process and to take as much ownership of the process as possible.
  • Best to tie new knowledge to what is previously known – If a child is moving up from 25 piece to 60 piece puzzles, remind them how to look for edge pieces or to group by color. If your child is learning multiplication, start by reviewing repeat addition.
  • Give hints and suggestions not answers – When a second grader asks how to spell ‘elephant’, the last thing you do is spell ‘elephant’. Look through a zoo book together to find it, sound it out slowly and have them write the letters they hear, or type “ele” in the Google search box and help him choose from the words that pop up. If you just spell it, you are doing all the problem solving. Get them started in one of these ways, and they are learning to problem solve.
  • Focus on giving minimal help – The goal is to give the child just enough to be able to move forward.
  • Corrections shouldn’t feel like corrections – This is an easier guideline when children are young. When a two-year-old says ‘ram-baid’ for ‘band-aid,’ hopefully you don’t come down on them in a heavy way. You might say, “oh, you need a band-aid. Let’s go get you a band-aid.” Clearly modeling a correction, but the child doesn’t walk away feeling corrected. This can be much harder as your child gets older. Let’s say you just helped your 11-year-old work through three difficult math problems, each with several errors. Your child confidently says he’s got it and moves on to the next problem to immediately make the same errors. You feel frustrated and say, “no! That’s not how you do it. You are doing it wrong again.” That correction feels like a correction. At this point, your child doesn’t want to sit next to you let alone do math with you. A better thing to say would be, “hmm, that one looks tough too. Let’s look at the one just above,” or, “look at the problem we just did together. Can you find how we solved that one differently?” Clearly a correction, but it doesn’t feel so heavy.
  • Allow your child to struggle – It’s not good to let your child struggle to the point of tapping out, but it is good to let them grapple some. Jump in at the first sign of frustration, and you may be stopping the independent problem solving process.
  • Be flexible in your support – The idea is to give more help when they struggle and less help as they succeed. Listen to their words and watch their body language to know when they are moving forward.
  • Ask open ended questions – Open ended questions are better than choice, and choice questions are better than yes/no. Open ended questions allow the child to think about the possibilities and consider options. While choice questions at least allow the child to make a decision. These are more flexible for problem solving than yes/no questions which just require agreement.
  • Talk through your own problem solving – If you are working next to your child on a puzzle, talk about how you are matching colors or looking for certain shapes. When working through a math problem, talk about each step in detail. Hopefully your language will become their language in independent problem solving.
  • Process is more important than product – If you want your child to take ownership of outcomes, they need to have ownership of the process. This means letting them make decisions and letting the work be theirs. In second grade, Alicen had to make a time line of her life. She picked the pictures, wrote the captions, organized, drew arrows and glued. I thought it looked great. She didn’t think people would be able to follow it. I pointed out the arrows and she said the arrows weren’t enough; that it needed numbers. She proceeded to write a big, purple, Magic Marker number covering every picture. That would not have been my decision, but, in the end, she was thrilled with the outcome and took full ownership of her time line.
  • Remain available – If you are unavailable when kids get stuck, they tend to give up.

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.

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