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Problem-solving with kids

Allowing a child to work through a problem can help the lesson stick.
Allowing a child to work through a problem can help the lesson stick.
Photo by Steven Depolo via Flickr

The world needs great problem solvers – people who can look at a problem, analyze the situation, and come up with possible solutions, considering the pros and cons of each possibility. Developing these great problem solvers starts in childhood.

Steps for problem-solving with kids (example follows):

1.Identify the problem.
2.Validate emotions. Remember that all emotions are okay, but not all behaviors are.
3.Explain why the behavior is not acceptable.
4.Ask the child what other ways there are to deal with the problem. All answers are acceptable here, even completely inappropriate ones. The next step allows the child to sort through which options are appropriate to use.
5.Allow the child to analyze each option. Why is that a good option? Why isn't it a good option?
6.Let the child make a choice as to which option is best for dealing with the current problem.
7.If the child does not make an acceptable choice, help them see why and lead them to a more acceptable option.
8.Continue discussing appropriate ways to deal with problems when things are calm.

You walk in and see Child A hit Child B. On the surface the problem is that Child A is hitting. However, when you ask Child A, she tells you that Child B took her toy. Now you see that the problem is that Child A reacted to her anger or sadness about losing a toy by hitting. The following conversation may occur:

Adult: Child A, I understand that you are angry. It is really upsetting when someone takes something from you without asking. Hitting hurts people. See how Child B is holding his arm? We cannot hit. What could you have done instead of hitting when Child B took your toy?

Child A: Take it back. Yell at him. Ask him to stop.

Adult: That's right. Those are all things that you could do. What do you think would happen if you took the toy back?

Child A: He would be sad.

Adult: Just like you were sad when he took it from you, right? What about if you yelled at him?

Child A: It would hurt his feelings. He would be scared, and he might cry.

And so the discussion would go as each option was covered. Notice that the adult is not providing the answers but simply responding to what the child says. After all options have been analyzed, the conversation continues.

Adult: What do you think you should have done when he took your toy?

Child A: Asked him to give it back.

Adult: Let's give that a try.

Child A runs off to ask for the toy back. Later when everyone is happy, the discussion will continue. This does not have to be in the form of a lecture. A simple, “It feels good when we use our words instead of our fists, doesn't it?” or “When we work together, everyone can be happy with the outcome,” will do wonders to reinforce the concept.

This was a very straightforward example where things went as planned, but what if the child is not coming up with the appropriate solutions?

In the preceding example if the child had insisted that yelling at the other child was the appropriate solution, the adult could talk about how yelling would make the other child feel. If the child was not feeling empathy toward the other child, it would be appropriate to say, “I understand that you are still upset and really want to yell at Child B. I cannot allow you to mistreat someone, so let's try asking nicely instead.”

Conversations need to remain age-appropriate. You will need to use fewer words and give younger children more help with finding solutions and analyzing options than you will with older children. The more practice children get at problem-solving, the less help you will need to give. It takes a lot of effort in the beginning, but it does pay off in the end. The better you children are at problem-solving, the less often you have to intervene in their disagreements.

Practicing when there is no real problem can also be helpful. You can even turn it into a game where everyone tries to think of the most outrageous solutions, but in the end a realistic solution should be picked.

Keep in mind that there will be setbacks along the way. No one is perfect, and sometimes emotions get in the way of rational thought. Do not hold it against your child. Empathize with them, and remember that they have many years to get it right.

Do you have a discipline question about a specific behavioral issue? Send it to me at, and I may feature it in an upcoming article.

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