Five Steps to Problem Solving with Children

five step problem solving

“Stop!” I heard six-year-old Alan tell a couple of three-year-old girls. “I think you’ve got a problem.”

Lila and Susan, the three-year-olds, were tugging and grunting to see who would get possession of a puzzle. Alan continued, “I think you both want to do this puzzle by yourself. Do you want to work this out?”

Lila and Susan stopped, looked at Alan and nodded in agreement. “You can either take turns or choose something else. What do you think is best?” Alan politely asked them.

I watched this classroom scene unfold as Susan decided to choose another puzzle and Lila promised to let Susan know when she was finished using the puzzle. No tears. No hitting. I witnessed peaceful problem solving with no adult intervention.

“No way!” you are probably thinking. “That’s just not real.” As a friend of mine said, “Alan sure doesn’t sound like any six-year-old I know.” It can be a typical scenario if we will show young children a simple five-step problem-solving technique. By the time they are six, they will sound older than their years.

A basic ground rule in conflict resolution with children is that they must use their words to solve their problems. There is to be no hitting, biting, kicking or name-calling; in short, no action intended to harm others may be used. The adult’s initial role is to step the children through the process, acting as facilitator. Like Alan, at some point, the child will step into the facilitator’s role. Let’s look at this five-step problem solving method.

Step 1: Recognizing a Problem

In my example, six-year-old Alan saw two children struggling with a puzzle. So he said, “Stop. I think you’ve got a problem.” This statement helps those in conflict disengage and shift their focus. Sometimes just stopping will help us see our actions and change our behavior without any other intervention. If the behavior does continue, we need to make sure the children in conflict stop before we move to the next step in problem solving.

Step 2: Identifying the Problem

Alan at this point said, “I think you both want to use the puzzle at the same time.” Susan or Lila might have said, “No, that’s not the problem. She’s putting the puzzle in the wrong place.” As facilitators, we have to listen to make sure the problem is clearly stated and that everyone agrees to work on the problem before we move on to the next step.

Step 3: Brainstorming for Solutions

As adults, we’ll see solutions to the problem before the children. State these, and ask if they can think of any more suggestions. It’s easy as an adult to want to quickly resolve a situation and force our own solution. We’re trying to teach the process, so give the children time to think of other solutions and evaluate all suggestions before moving on to the next step.

Step 4: Choosing the Best Solution

After the group agrees that they have looked at all the possible solutions, it will be time to pick the best one. Restate all the solutions and have them choose the best one. State the selected solution clearly, as in our example: Susan will choose another puzzle, and Lila promises to let Susan know when she is finished.

Step 5: Checking Back to Make Sure It’s Working

This is the step that is easy to forget. It is important to check back with each person to make sure the solution is working. If not, call back the children, and restart the problem solving process again.

The first few times as a facilitator with children, this process may seem very long and formal. I used to have a handmade poster in my classroom to remind everyone of each step. Amazingly, using these five steps consistently, children realize they work and will begin to problem solve on their own. Even after they are independently problem solving, we may have to step in every once in a while to get the process back on track.

Remember, we all forget once in a while! Be kind if you or the children do the steps less than perfectly. Children are resilient. One of my favorite parenting sayings is: It’s hard to remember the objective is to drain the swamp, when you’re up to your eyeballs in alligators.

Parenting is tough. We’re all just trying to do the best we can.

Begin using this problem solving method with your three- to six-year-olds to create a foundation for a lifetime of effective problem solving. What you might get in return is a teenager who, instead of slamming a door, comes to you saying, “Mom, Dad, I have a problem. Here are some possible solutions. Can you help me think of any more?” Stranger things have happened.

Consider using this problem-solving tool today, whatever your children’s ages. Count to ten when the squabbling begins, and use this five-step method to help your children learn to solve disputes.

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19 Responses to “Five Steps to Problem Solving with Children”

  1. I like this.

    One example you gave in “Identifying” was a child fighting because the other child wasn’t putting the puzzle back in the correct place.

    My 7yr old does this a lot. He rushes in on his 3yr old brother all the time because he sees him doing something wrong and it can even be things like how my 3yr old is playing with a toy. My 7yr old thinks he isn’t playing with it right.

    It can be very frustrating and I have told him that this is how he chooses to play with toys and to leave him be but he complains about it.

    What solutions are good to provide in these types of situations?

    I feel like my 7yr old oversteps boundaries here a lot, but I want to help him resolve this with his brother and understand it is not something he need to be worried about. Although putting it that way I’m sure does not help him.

    I have told him when he plays with a toy he can play with it the way he wants and his brother will do the same. We have to respect that about each other, but he is not getting it. I’m sure there is something I missing. Thank you.

    • Melissa,

      Our older children, from about age 6 to 12 years, are very concerned about morality, justice and right and wrong.

      Perhaps the conversation with your 7 year old is about what do we do when we see something we think is wrong? What does wrong truly mean? Could we be wrong about thinking that certain things are wrong?

      Another thought: In our Montessori classrooms we offer freedom within limits of responsibility and safety. We allow the children to explore the activity materials as long as they don’t hurt the materials or other people.

      A question your 7 year old might use: Is my brother hurting anything or anybody by what he is doing?

      If the answer is no, let it go.

      If it is yes, then intervene and redirect behavior. “Brother, let’s go outside, or “Brother, stop. I think you are hurting the table.”

      I hope those suggestions help.

      Please let me know.

  2. Elsa Daly

    This has been a great tool to endorse and sharpen my soft skills.
    Greatly appreciated!

  3. This sounds great. I’m making a poster for my living room. My 2.5 and 5 yo boys fight (more often than not leading to hitting) about EVERYTHING. I’ve tried standing back and letting them sort it out on their own but that just turns into my 5yo angrily running the show and my 2.5yo getting walked all over.

  4. raju nand

    Nice.This will for sure sharpen my techniques and become better. Great ideas.

  5. Jayshree Shah

    It was a great idea. It was helpful to sharpen skills and to get better.

  6. Jayshree Shah

    it was the great idea. It was helpful to sharpen the skills and to get better. I can put the technique in practice.

  7. This shows very easy five steps to solve the problems of children. found great ideas .Found the skills to sharpen techniques and become better.

  8. Theresa Hawes

    I see this in my library alot, and its usually with the younger kids, lots of tattling, and my 4th graders, watching what the other students are doing on their computers and then coming to tattle… they have a big sense of justice!

    • Theresa, it is interesting to see how that sense of right and wrong play out in our children’s interactions.

      Their moral sense is strong, and I think it is important to help them learn to get to win/win in their interactions and conflicts.

      Thanks for sharing your observations with us.


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