Encouraging children to be problem-solvers

Encourage your child to apply his mind and be a problem-solver with these quick tips.

By Chitra Satyavsan

Encouraging children to be problem-solvers

Eight-year-old Indranil loved watching his favourite TV show at 5.30 pm daily. But it was also the time when he was supposed to join his grandmother in the evening prayers. Tired of his evasions, one day his grandmother complained to his mother Debashree that Indranil was watching TV during prayer time.

Debashree’s initial reaction was, ‘He is not interested in prayers or helping his old grandmother. He is just lazy!’ She thought of confronting her son, and scolding him for his ‘irresponsible behaviour’ and ‘disobedience’. But with a little thinking, she decided a softer approach may work better. So she casually asked Indranil, “Grandma is saying that you are not helping her with the evening prayers. Can you tell me what the problem is?”

To this, her son replies, “How can I help her? I’ll miss my cartoon show!” Immediately, Debashree realizes that her son is not saying that he hates prayers or helping his grandma; the problem lies elsewhere. The TV show time and the prayer time were clashing.

Being a teacher herself, Debashree decided that the best way to solve this problem was to brainstorm together for the solution, instead of hurling accusations at Indranil. And to her surprise, his 8-year-old mind offered a few solutions, out of which they chose the most doable one. Now, Indranil helps his grandmother with the prayers, and watches his TV show a couple of hours later, when there’s a repeat telecast!

Components of problem-solving

Like the 8-year-old Indranil, many children have a latent skill for problem-solving.

And if researchers are to be believed, children face and solve many problems on their own, as they critically think through their problems. Some of their daily questions look like – ‘How can I tie my shoelaces correctly? Will my teddy bear sink in a tub of water? How can I prevent my blocks from toppling? What happens when I break a glass? Which chair or box will help me reach the cookie jar on the top shelf?’

Creative thinking and critical thinking are both a part of the problem-solving process. Creativity, as we saw earlier, involves thinking out of the box and risk-taking; while critical or logical thinking involves breaking down a problem or an idea into parts and analyzing them.

“Kids have a natural motivation to try to solve problems But they must learn the problem-solving skill components, how to put the component skills together and when to use them,” says Ming Ming Chiu, Professor in the Department of Learning and Instruction, University at Buffalo.

What are these components? 

According to Ming, problem-solving consists of:

  • Identifying/understanding one or more goal(s) (or problem finding)
  • Finding means to achieve these goals
  1. Create possible solution strategies
  2. Evaluate each strategy
  3. Select a strategy (or a sequence of strategies)
  4. Implement strategy(ies)
  • Evaluating the outcome’s degree of success

Encouraging little problem-solvers

Ming believes that children should be given opportunities to ‘identify problems and sub-problems, and solve them on their own’. The last step would be to ‘ask them to evaluate their solution attempts’.

Ming illustrates his ideas with an example.

“Suppose you are taking your daughter to play with her friend at the park. Ask her what she needs to do before walking to the park. Her answers would range from changing clothes, getting an umbrella in case of rain, to bringing food, drink, or toys. You ask her to do them.

The next step would be to evaluate both the good and the poor solutions.

“You can ask her if these are the right clothes to play in at the park, and in this weather. The food that she has chosen for herself, her friend and the mothers – Is that enough food for all of us? Questions like these can help them become good problem-solvers,” adds Ming.

Debashree believes that with younger children, instead of always giving commands, it is better if you ask them to think and suggest answers on their own.

“If it’s cloudy outside, instead of saying take your umbrella, a parent can ask –‘Do you think it will rain?’ If the child says yes, ask her – ‘So what should we do?’ You’ll be surprised to hear all kinds of answers like raincoats and umbrellas to not venturing out today from your little one! For older kids, get interesting puzzles and logical thinking exercises. This way, problem-solving becomes a challenging fun,” she says.

Benefits of problem-solving

Problem-solving is a desirable skill to possess as we want our children to solve problems themselves, without depending on us. Instead of throwing up their hands when faced with a problem, they will take it as a challenge, and, what’s more, take pride in having solved it on their own.

“Nowadays change happens rather too quickly. One cannot predict what our world will look like after five years. We do not know what our schoolchildren in will face ten or fifteen years later. We cannot simply presume the kind of problems they will encounter. So achieving the processes of solving a problem is very important. Those who take quick and correct decisions achieve success,” says G Rajendran, creative head of Ignite Minds, an organization offering educational services.

Research suggests that when children become good problem-solvers, they become more confident. Besides, problem-solving will help them both inside and outside the classroom. Qualities like flexible thinking, creativity, patience and self-reliance will go a long way in making them successful and independent thinkers in their adult lives. And critical thinking will also prepare them for Math and Science later.

Rajendran says, “We take decisions many times a day. If there is only one option, there is no need to take a decision. Whenever we take a decision, there is always more than one option to select. We select after analyzing various factors. Which option will be correct? Which option has minimum risk? Which option do I select to arrive at a solution quickly? These are the questions we ask during problem analysis,” he says. Rajendran believes that problem-solving will help children become good decision-makers as they grow older.