Teaching Your Child to Problem Solve

Families juggle so many tasks every day. Often one of these tasks is supervising young children as they play and solve problems that come up when they try to play alone (e.g., “she’s not sharing” or “he hit me”). In fact, doing this can often prolong or make completing other tasks, such as laundry and making dinner, seem impossible.

Teaching children what to do when they encounter a problem while playing together can help increase their independence in play and support positive relationships with one another. Below, we outline steps and strategies families can use to teach their young children to solve problems.

These strategies can be modeled for and introduced to children of any age. As children become more familiar with these strategies (usually between ages 3 and 5), they can start to use them more independently.

1. Teach children to stop and identify the problem.

First, help your child learn to stop and recognize when they are having a problem. Encourage children to talk about how they might feel when they have a problem. Model this by saying “I’m feeling frustrated because I don’t have any cars to play with.” Then, help children talk about the types of problems they have. Some problems might include:

  • Wanting a toy their sibling has
  • Wanting their sibling to stop doing something
  • Disagreeing on a play idea

Helping children talk about the types of problems they experience will help them recognize when a problem is happening. When problems do arise, you might say, “it sounds like you’re having a problem. You want the red marker, but your brother is using that marker right now. I wonder what you could do?”

One resource that can help you introduce problem-solving is Problem Solving Steps from the National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations (NCPMI). These steps give clear language around stopping to identify the problem and introducing the process for trying out solutions.

2. Give your children potential solutions.

It can be hard for children to come up with appropriate solutions to problems on their own, so adults can provide solutions for common problems. Options might include:

  • “Ask nicely” or “trade” when you want a toy
  • “Find a different place to play” when you want someone to stop something

The solution should meet the child’s need, so having a variety of solutions is helpful. NCPMI’s Solution Kit for families (also available in Spanish and Somali) provides many options. You can follow these solutions verbatim or use language for solutions that works best for your family. For example, if you don’t use the word “share” you could say “give your sister a toy.” Consistent language for solutions helps children learn and apply them faster in real-life settings.

3. Support children’s use of problem-solving in the moment.

Once your child has learned potential solutions, be available to support their use as problems arise. Helping children find success is crucial in encouraging them to use solutions in the future. When problems arise, provide reminders of solutions (pictures or verbal reminders) or offer a choice between two possible solutions. Pictures of solutions and choices can help narrow down options.

When your child selects a solution, support them in applying it by:

  • Modeling the solution
  • Helping them get their sibling’s attention
  • Encouraging them to try a new solution if the first one isn’t successful

4. Acknowledge problem-solving afterward.

After the problem is resolved, celebrate the brave work they did! Say, “Wow, when you picked a solution, your sister listened and traded toys with you. What great problem-solving you used!” Give positive attention to both the child who identified a solution and the child who went along with the solution.

When problem-solving isn’t successful, highlight the effort put forth. Say, “I see you tried three different solutions and they didn’t work today. You worked so hard to problem-solve. I’d love to help you find something else to do while you’re waiting for your brother to be ready to problem-solve, too.”

Supporting your child as they learn and practice these skills will take time at first. Remember, you can spend as much or as little time doing this as you are able, and it can change based on your priorities and schedule. As little as five minutes per day may help solidify these skills for your child.

Be gentle with yourself; you’re doing great and any amount of support you can offer may help! As children learn to use solutions, they are likely to play more independently and build positive relationships with other children.

Abby Taylor Abby Taylor

Abby Taylor works as a doctoral student studying early childhood special education at Vanderbilt University. She has been supporting teachers and childcare programs in the Nashville area in implementing the Pyramid Model on several IES-funded projects since 2016. Abby is passionate about supporting teacher’s promotion of children’s social-emotional development.
(Biography current as of 2021)

Brandy Locchetta Brandy Locchetta

Brandy Locchetta is a doctoral student in early childhood special education and applied behavior analysis at Vanderbilt University. She has worked in early childhood since 2001 serving as an educator, childcare program administrator, advocate, consultant, and most recently as a state-level program director of inclusion and behavior support services.
(Biography current as of 2021)

Marina Velez Marina Velez

Marina Velez is a doctoral student in early childhood special education at Vanderbilt University. She has worked as an early childhood special education teacher and conducts research to support social and emotional development in young learners.
(Biography current as of 2021)

About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Home

Intended audience(s):
  • Parents / Family

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
  • Preschoolers (Age 3 Through Age 5)

Reviewed: 2021