Problem Solving Skills for Kids

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Learning how to solve problems - whether math problems, social problems, or any other type- is one of the most important aspects of a child's education. As a skill that affects every area of life, problem solving ought to be, and is, a significant focus in the classroom. This lesson will give you some ideas on how to help provide children with problem solving skills.

Why Problem Solving Matters

So much of living a full life comes down to being an effective and thoughtful problem solver. If we think of a problem as a situation that is nuanced and difficult to resolve, then we can see how many of the choices and questions we encounter on a daily basis require problem-solving skills. Problem solving is a crucial aspect of critical thinking, deep thought that acknowledges differing perspectives.

Children need experience solving problems, and they also benefit from explicit instruction in problem-solving skills. Sometimes this happens in very concreted ways, such as the solving of math problems, while other times, it happens in more subtle and nuanced ways, like navigating complex social situations. In this lesson, Ms. Wilkes will share some of the strategies she uses in her classroom to teach her middle school students problem-solving skills.

Define the Problem

Ms. Wilkes has noticed over the years that students who struggle with problem solving often do not have a solid handle on what it is they are trying to do. For that reason, she instructs her students to approach problems by starting with a definition. They might define the problem by:

  • writing the problem down in one or two sentences.
  • sketching the problem graphically.
  • stating the problem out loud to a friend or trustworthy adult.

two people

By clearly defining the problem, Ms. Wilkes finds that her students are better able to consider different possible outcomes.

Consider Outcomes

Rather than thinking in terms of solutions, Ms. Wilkes guides her students to think about possible outcomes for a problem. How might the resolution to this problem look? In a social situation, an outcome might involve hurt feelings, companionable feelings, or an incredibly fun time. With math problems, outcomes often involve, but are not limited to, the solution of an equation or set of equations, but students can understand these solutions better if they phrase them in real-life terms.

Ms. Wilkes explains to her students that some problems have only one possible, correct outcome, but many problems have a variety of possible outcomes. She encourages her students to consider the problem from this perspective and think about what outcome they would most like to work toward. The outcome thus becomes a sort of goal, and then her students need to figure out how to get there.

Consider Paths to Outcomes

Once Ms. Wilkes' students have defined their problems and considered possible outcomes, she asks them to define the strategies they will use to get to the outcome of their choice. Ms. Wilkes strongly encourages students to write down or sketch how these strategies might work, or at least to talk them through with a classmate or trusted adult. Sometimes, Ms. Wilkes' students tell her that they cannot think of any strategies. In this case, she asks them to redefine the problem so that they might think of strategies. After all, not having strategies can be a problem in and of itself. Here, a path toward a desirable outcome might mean consulting a book, a classmate, or the Internet for advice.

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