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.

Best New Learning Builds on Previous Knowledge

When your child is challenged by a new problem, the idea is to remind them of what they already know and build from there. This can help make the task seem more manageable and provide a familiar strategy.

Let’s say your child has mastered 25 piece puzzles, and they are starting on a 60 piece puzzle for the first time. If they get to a point of frustration, you might remind them of previous strategies such as, “I remember the last puzzle, you started by finding all the edge pieces.” This helps them to break the big task into smaller tasks, and puts them on a familiar path towards problem solving.

When your third grader is starting to learn her multiplication tables, you might start by showing her how multiplication is repeat addition. She’s already mastered addition, so multiplication may seem a more managable task this way.

Corrections Shouldn’t Feel Like Corrections

The theme this week is working through problem solving with your children. Our third guideline is ‘corrections shouldn’t feel like corrections.’

This guideline is easier to follow with younger children. When a two-year-old says, “I need a ram-baid,” we don’t tend to correct in a heavy way such as, “no, you said that wrong! It is band-aid, not ram-baid.” Rather than feeling like a correction, you might say, “oh, you need a band-aid. let’s go get you a band-aid.” You might very clearly enunciate the correct word, but the words all together didn’t feel like a correction.

This guideline is harder to follow as children get older. When your fourth grader has gotten the last two math problems wrong, and is working through a third in the same incorrect way, it is common for parents to say, “no, you’re getting this one wrong too! Why aren’t you thinking?” When corrections feel like corrections, we tend to turn children off to the problem solving process. By all means, you may need to correct the math problems, just use lighter language. This might be something like, “I see your having some trouble working through, how can I help?” or, “hmmm, this seems tough. Why don’t you walk me through the last problem, and we’ll work together?” Yes, you are correcting, but it doesn’t feel like correction.

The idea here is to keep them engaged in the problem solving process.

Give Hints and Suggestions Not Answers

Continuing the theme of helping children become independent problem solvers, give hints and suggestions not outright answers.

A few examples:

  • When your first graders asks, “mommy, how do you spell elephant?” Avoid spelling it for them. Give hints and suggestions for how they can spell it. You might offer to help them learn to look it up in the dictionary. If your school encourages inventive spelling (and I hope they do through second grade), you might say, “listen to the word and try to figure out what sounds you hear, those are the letters to write down,” and then slowly, stretch out and clearly enunciate, “el-e-phant.” Here you are teaching them ways, not just to spell elephant, but also how to figure out future words.
  • When your fourth grader asks you for the answer to a long multiplication problem, you might offer to do the first step, or you might offer to work through another similar problem to teach them the steps, and then stay with them while they work through their own. You might offer to read aloud the pages of their textbook that cover how to solve these problems.

The idea is to give them enough to get back on track. You are supporting the problem solving process without doing the actual work for them. You are also hoping to provide them strategies for the next go around.

Ask Them How They Want to Be Helped

Whether your four-year-old is working on a hard puzzle, or your fourth grader is struggling through math homework, when they ask for your help, start by asking them how they would like to be helped. If you swoop in and give them your brand of helping, you may be doing too much, which discourages independent problem solving or frustrating the system.

I learned this the hard way. When my older daughter was learning to read, she asked me to please just give her the word when she got stuck. I explained that, if I just gave her the word, she wouldn’t learn how to best sound out words on her own. Her valid point back was that when she was reading and had to stop to sound out words, she would lose the storyline and be confused going forward. She also said she was getting plenty of practice sounding out new words at school, thank you very much. So, I started just giving her the words when she was stuck. This lasted a few months as she was gaining skills at school and then it tapered off.

When my younger daughter was learning to read, and she would get stuck on a word, I just gave it to her. We went on like this for the first several months. One day after I gave her a word, she stopped and said, “please stop doing that! If you keep giving me the words when I am stuck, I will never learn how to read them myself.” She was right, I was slowing her progress and should have asked her how she wanted to be helped.

Soon after they are old enough to ask for help, they are likely old enough to explain how they would like to be helped.

Teach Children Goal Setting

Goal setting is identifying the successful endpoint of a plan. We talk about goal setting in our Look, Listen and Learn classes each week and then follow up to help children identify success as they play. Goal setting is easy to incorporate in daily life. Talk with children about the task at hand and what it would look like if it goes well. Talk through the individual steps that are part of the larger process, and then work to recognize if they are met. Take a soccer practice for example, success might be participating in every activity, beating their time for a relay and talking to one new friend. I know that is a lot to lay on a six-year-old who is just there to have fun, but it can teach them in a low key way to think more about their process and how to move through in a better way. Goal setting is another piece of teaching self control.

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.
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