How to Teach Kids Problem-Solving Skills

How to Teach Kids Problem-Solving Skills


Whether your child can’t find his math homework or he’s forgotten his lunch, good problem-solving skills are the key to helping him manage his life.

A 2010 study published in Behaviour Research and Therapy found that kids who lack problem-solving skills may be at a higher risk of depression and suicidality. Additionally, the researchers found that teaching a child’s problem-solving skills can improve mental health.

You can begin teaching basic problem-solving skills during preschool and help your child sharpen his skills into high school and beyond.

Reasons Kids Need Problem-Solving Kids

Kids face a variety of problems every day, ranging from academic difficulties to problems on the sports field. Yet, few of them have a formula for solving those problems.

Kids who lack problem-solving skills may avoid taking action when faced with a problem. Rather than put their energy into solving the problem, they may invest their time in avoiding the issue. That’s why many kids fall behind in school or struggle to maintain friendships.

Other kids who lack problem-solving skills spring into action without recognizing their choices. A child may hit a peer who cuts in front of him in line because he’s not sure what else to do.

Or, he may walk out of class when he’s being teased because he can’t think of any other ways to make it stop. Those impulsive choices may create even bigger problems in the long run.

Teach Kids How to Evaluate the Problem

Kids who feel overwhelmed or hopeless often won’t attempt to address a problem. But, when you give them a clear formula for solving problems, they’ll feel more confident in their ability to try.

Here are the steps to problem-solving:

1) Identify the problem. Just stating the problem out loud can make a big difference for kids who are feeling stuck. Help your child state the problem, such as, “You don’t have anyone to play with at recess,” or “You aren’t sure if you should take the advanced math class.”

2) Develop at least five possible solutions. Brainstorm possible ways to solve the problem. Emphasize that all the solutions don’t necessarily need to be good at ideas (at least not at this point). Help your child develop solutions if she’s struggling to come up with ideas. Even a silly answer or far-fetched idea is a possible solution. The key is to help him see that with a little creativity, he can find many different potential solutions.

3) Identify the pros and cons of each solution. Help your child identify potential positive and negative consequences for each potential solution she identified.

4) Pick a solution. Once your child has evaluated the possible positive and negative outcomes, encourage her to pick a solution.

5) Test it out. Tell her to try a solution and see what happens. If it doesn’t work out, she can always try another solution from the list that she developed in step two.

Practice Solving Problems

When problems arise, don’t rush to solve your child’s problems for him. Instead, help him walk through the problem-solving steps. Offer guidance when he needs assistance, but encourage him to solve problems on his own.

If he’s unable to come up with a solution, step in and help him think of solutions. But don’t automatically tell him what to do.

When you encounter behavioral issues, use a problem-solving approach. Sit down together and say, “You’ve been having difficulty getting your homework done lately. Let’s problem-solve this together.”

You might still need to offer a consequence for misbehavior, but make it clear that you’re invested in looking for a solution so he can do better next time.

You can also use a problem-solving approach to help your child become more independent. If she forgot to pack her soccer cleats for practice, ask, “What can we do to make sure this doesn’t happen again?” Let her try and develop some solutions on her own.

Kids often develop creative solutions. So she might say, “I’ll write a note and stick it on my door so I’ll remember to pack them before I leave,” or “I’ll pack my bag the night before and I’ll keep a checklist to remind me what needs to go in my bag.”

Provide plenty of praise when your child practices her problem-solving skills.

Allow for Natural Consequences

Natural consequences may also teach problem-solving skills. So when it’s appropriate, allow your child to face the natural consequences of his action. Just make sure it’s safe to do so.

For example, let your teenager spend all of his money during the first 10 minutes you’re at an amusement park if that’s what he wants. Then, let him go the rest of the day without any spending money.

This can lead to a discussion about problem-solving to help her make a better choice next time. Consider these natural consequences as a teachable moment to help work together on problem-solving.


By Amy Morin, LCSW,