Kidaptive Blog

How to turn your preschooler into a master problem solver


A common challenge for parents is helping their preschoolers deal with the frustration that inevitably comes with trying new things and solving new problems. It is of course important to comfort kids when they are feeling this way, but we can do one better by giving kids actual strategies with which to tackle problems on their own. This blog entry gives tips on how to help children manage their frustration and become independent and effective problem-solvers.

The first step is to help kids learn to identify problem-solving opportunities. Try these methods:

  • Point out problem-solving opportunities children may not have identified. For example, say, “I see you are dropping some of your things as you walk. Can you figure out a way to carry them all at once?”  Or, “Your fort looks a little wobbly on this side. Can you figure out how to make it stronger?”

  • Teach children that frustration is a sign that there’s a problem to solve. When you see a frustrated child, rather than saying, “Don’t be frustrated,” say, “When you get frustrated…” and then present a problem-solving strategy. We want kids to know it’s OK to feel frustrated, and that when they feel frustrated it’s a sign to look for a way out.

The next step is to teach kids how to solve problems. In Appisode 2 of Leo’s Pad, “Rocket to the Stars”, we present three strategies kids can put in their problem solving “toolbox”. The tools come from Emma Ludwick, who has been an early childhood educator for over a decade and regularly teaches early childhood education classes at Stanford. You can help children use these strategies effectively by talking about them at home and helping kids figure out when and how to use them.

Problem-solving tools for kids

  1. Make a plan. This is a good strategy for solving multi-step challenges, from building a rocket (like the Leo’s Pad characters do) to getting dressed in the morning. Tips for teaching planning to children:

    • Model it: To model an activity is to demonstrate it by doing it yourself. For planning, one way to do this is to lightly involve children in your own planning processes. Next time you plan your Saturday activities, voice your thought process out loud (e.g., “Next, I need to figure out what supplies I need for grandma’s.”) and ask for your child’s input as you work it out.

    • Scaffold it: Scaffolding means providing enough help for children to be able to accomplish tasks they can’t do on their own, then decreasing the help until children are acting independently (just as construction scaffolds are removed once the building stands on its own). For example, when your child announces she wants to build a block tower to the ceiling, suggest she make a plan and help her devise it. The next time, simply prompt her to decide on her own by asking questions like, “What should we do first?  What should we do after that?”

  2. Research. Children can use this strategy to find information. Research can mean looking things up in a book or on the Internet, but it can also mean observing the world and trying stuff out: Children can figure out where to place Rover’s dog bed by testing out different spots for the bed and seeing which Rover prefers. The key is for kids to learn that instead of just festering in curiosity or asking mom and dad for answers, they can find information on their own. How to encourage research at home:

    • Model it: If you are wondering what kind of gift to give to your nephew, talk to your child about it and observe with your child what kinds of toys your nephew has and what colors he seems to like.

    • Scaffold it: If your child asks how big dinosaur eggs are, suggest she look in a book, on the Internet, or in the library, and sit with her to look it up together. Then next time, ask her, “Well, when you want to find information, what can you do? Do you have any books that can help you?”

  3. Ask for help. To grow children into independent problem tacklers, it’s best to encourage this strategy as a backup. You can also point out that children can ask each other for help in addition to asking adults, since peers can help with extra manpower or special expertise (like mad castle-building skills). To encourage help-asking at home, try asking your child to help you solve a problem! She’ll feel great about helping you figure something out for a change.

  4. Brainstorm (extra credit). Brainstorming wasn’t covered in the appisode, but it is a great first step for children to take before planning, researching, or asking for help. How to encourage brainstorming at home:

    • Encourage children to ask themselves when faced with a problem, “What ideas do I have?” and “What could the answer be?” This sets the stage for productive use of the planning and researching strategies.

These problem-solving tools help kids solve problems and persevere through challenging situations, and get kids thinking like little scientists in their everyday activities.  Happy teaching!