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 eleven 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 out right.

  • 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 ask 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.  Part of the goal here is your child feeling in charge of the problem solving process, taking as much ownership of the process as possible.
  • Best to tie new knowledge to what is previously known – A child moving up from 25 piece to 60 piece puzzles, remind him how to look for edge pieces or to group by color.  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 him write the letters he hears, or type “ele” in the 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 him started in one of these ways and he is 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 guidelines when children are young.  When a two year old say “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 is 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.  Your child doesn’t want to sit next to you let alone do math.  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 solthat one differently?”  Clearly a correction but it doesn’t feel so heavy.
  • Allow your child to struggle – Not good to let your child struggle to the point of tapping out, but good to let them grapple some.  Jumping 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.  Choice questions at least allow the child to make a decision.  These are more flexible around 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.  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, letting the work be theirs.  In second grade, Alicen had to make a time line of her life.  She picked the pictures and wrote the captions, she 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 and 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 be done.
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