scaffolding

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.

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.

Helping a Child Be Resilient

Hi Dr. Rene,

My two-and-a-half-year-old is going through a lot of the typical two year old stuff. He has a growing imagination, talks lots, tests boundaries and is experiencing new fears. I am taking this all in stride, but I do find myself thinking that he doesn’t seem very resilient. He seems so sensitive to small pains, slights and annoyances. He is also pretty tuned in to loud noises, new tastes and textures. I don’t expect him to manage on his own or become resilient overnight, but I’d love tips on how to help him better weather the little upsets.

Sincerely,

Diane

Dear Diane,

Thanks for the question. It’s a big one. There are many ways to help build resiliency across childhood. I apologize for this list, most of the bullet points represent what should be a whole book of content. For now, give lots of empathy and teach problem solving at every turn. When you can, focus on problem solving in the moment. If he is too upset, remember to go back later and discuss or brainstorm what could have happened for a better outcome.

  • Model and Encourage Optomism – If you are an optomistic person, this is an easy one. Unfortunately, if you are a pessimist, this can be near impossible. The idea is to model looking on the bright side, focusing on solutions and having faith things can be resolved.
  • Use Descriptive and Avoid Evaluative Praise – Evaluative praise to avoid sounds like, “good job,” “you are such a good boy,” “that was great,” “thank you so much,” “I really like that,” “I like the way you…,” and, “I am so proud of you.” Descriptive praise to use sounds like, “you handed a block, that was helpful,” and, “you waited while mommy was speaking, that was patient.” This means to describe the behavior, and then give it a related label.
  • Focus Your Discipline on the Behavior NOT the Child – This means using ‘I messages’ and avoiding ‘you messages’ as you enter into a discipline exchange. When a child runs through the living room and knocks over your lamp, it’s saying “I’m angry, my lamp is broken,” or, “I’m frustrated, people are running in the house.” It’s avoiding, “I am mad at you, you broke my lamp,” or, “I’m frustrated, you always run in the house.” I messages label emotions and blame the behavior or the situation not the child.
  • Learn Scaffolding – Scaffolding is the language of problem solving. When you help a four-year-old with a new puzzle, or a fourth grader working on hard math, your language and approach is your scaffolding. There is a review of effective scaffolding guidelines in this previous post: https://parentingbydrrene.wordpress.com/?s=scaffolding.
  • Avoid Rescuing – This is a difficult one to practice when your child is a toddler, but it’s important to keep in mind as they grow. If they steal a trinket from a store, have them return it rather than doing it for them. If they purposefully break a toy, avoid replacing it.
  • Teach Decision Making and Offer Choices – Allowing greater decision making is a gradual process. At two years old they might decide what snack to have, at four years old what toy to buy, at six years old what clothes to wear, at eight years old what sports to play and at ten years old what instrument to learn. Of course, you are providing guidance as needed, but focus on teaching them how to make decisions rather than making decisions for them.
  • Positive Attitude Towards Learning and School – The idea is to build a “home-school connection,” so the child grows up feeling my parents value my school, and my school welcomes my parents. Read to them everyday, know what they are learning about in school and participate as a room mom and in extracurricular activities. Check their homework, teach them to study and meet their teachers.
  • Check and Build Social Skills – A child’s sense of social connectedness and acceptance from others is a big part of their developing self esteem which overlaps strongly with resiliency. In childhood, social competence is defined loosely as the ability to play while keeping friends. If play isn’t going well on a regular basis for your child, step back and check their social skills. Work together to improve as needed. This includes their conflict resolution skills. Friends also provide a social network to cushion the blows of life.
  • Focus On and Develop Talents – A second foundation of self esteem is a child’s growing sense of skills and abilities. Look for their strengths and provide opportunities to build their talents.
  • Provide Downtime – The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests children have a minimum of an hour of downtime everyday. Downtime is truely unstructured, go play time. This can be with other children as long as it’s by choice and child led.
  • Sense of Faith or Spirituality – Not one better than another, but children raised with a sense of faith or spirituality tend to be more resilient in the face of life stressors.

As a side note, your descriptions, “he seems so sensitive to small pains, slights and annoyances. He is also pretty tuned in to loud noises, new tastes and textures,” lend themselves to possible sensory concerns. This could easily be well within normal limits and not an issue. If this continues to be the pattern or seems worse overtime, you might read The Out of Sync Child by Kranowitz, or take a consultation with a pediatric occupational therapist. Either will also give you additional ideas about resiliency more related to sensory processing. Please let me know if you have additional questions about this.

Please enjoy this link to an article about building resiliency written by the American Academy of Pediatrics: www.healthychildren.org.  –  http://www.healthychildren.org/english/healthy-living/emotional-wellness/pages/Building-Resilience-in-Children.aspx?nfstatus=401&nftoken=00000000-0000-0000-0000-000000000000&nfstatusdescription=ERROR%3a+No+local+token

Sincerely, Dr. Rene

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