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Problem Solving Skills for Preschoolers

Posted on May 28, 2014 by

problem solving skills

When is the best time for parents and teachers to begin helping young children learn problem solving skills to use with their own day to day issues?  I hope that we can all agree how great it would feel to send our children into the world knowing that they can identify and solve large and small problems themselves because they had years of practice under our care.  This is one of those skills that will benefit a child for a lifetime.

Elementary school age children are definitely ready for democratic family and class meetings to raise personal concerns with the group and brainstorm fair agreements, but how do they get to that point? They can’t magically make that leap if all of their problems were solved for them as preschoolers.

Also, I don’t know any adult raising children who enjoys the role of policing and deciding how to solve every conflict throughout the day. Sometimes we fall into that trap because it is quicker, we like to control, or we just don’t realize that preschool age children are very ready to begin practicing problem solving with some careful guidance from their adults.

So, first we have to understand them…

Preschoolers Are All About Fairness

The 3-6 year old child has some unique qualities, especially in his or her way of thinking.

First, they actually like rules. A three year old learns to follow rules. A four year old sees in “black and white” and can be very offended by someone else who does not follow the rules. The five and six year old is more flexible, and can usually allow exceptions to a rule. For instance, they will graciously let a younger child go first, even if it was their turn. Empathy is beginning to bloom.

Second, while preschool children are beginning to understand the point of view of others and are on the way to developing ToM (Theory of Mind), they are still mainly concerned with their own needs and feelings. When a friend wants to play with someone else or has a different idea than theirs, it can be hard to accept. It is “Not fair!”

Third, preschool age children need a great deal of modelling with language. Expressing their opinions in a kind way, using precise words to identify feelings, and wording their problems without blaming or tattling are all worthy and age appropriate language goals.

Steps for Solving a Problem “Preschool Style”

With older children, you can ask them to write their problem down and bring it up at a weekly meeting. Preschool age children need a more immediate resolution, and in the beginning, adults need to be there to actively walk them through the steps.

1. When your child runs to you with a problem for you to fix, “Ryan still won’t let me play!” you say, “It sounds like you have a problem.”

2. Then help them identify the problem in one sentence. This takes practice, and with preschool children, we often have to help them clarify it. “So your problem is that you really want to play with Ryan, you want Ryan to leave the sandbox and swing, or you just don’t want to play by yourself?”

3. Brainstorming is also a skill that improves with practice.  Ask, “What are some things you could try?”  As the adult, you can offer an idea or two, but it should be kind of a silly or ridiculously bad one like, “You could go grab his truck until he agrees to swing with you” or, “You could yell in his face.” The point is, we want the child to have the best idea so they learn they are good solvers.

4. Your child may come up with an idea that you suspect won’t work, but if it is not dangerous or hurtful, go ahead and let your child try. Do not rescue them from learning something!

5. In the beginning, you will probably need to walk over to Ryan and help them with their conversation. Make sure they both stop and listen, have eye contact, and use a respectful tone of voice. Insure they understand each others point of view, and are OK with the agreement. Let them arrive at their own solution, even if it is not how you would have done it. If it doesn’t work, they can go back to the drawing board.

6. Later, remind both of them about how nice it is to be able to talk and listen back and forth when there is a problem to work out.

When the Problem Is Yours

Sometimes we get frustrated with our children.  Our preschoolers don’t listen to us, they tattle, they don’t pick up their toys, don’t eat at mealtime, or maybe have a problem with bossiness or  hitting others when they are mad.  Adults have a problem with those behaviors, and we have a wide range of parenting styles that lead to very different responses to our frustration.

The positive parenting strategy that works the best for me, is democratic.  I call a meeting and ask for their help.  It always gets their undivided attention when I start  a meeting with, “I have a big problem.  I don’t know what to do, and I need your help.”  First of all, when are children ever invited to help solve adult problems?  They sit up straight, and are all ears to hear my big problem.  I say, “When I ask you nicely to do something in the morning before we leave for school, and you ignore me, I feel very frustrated.  It makes me want to yell at you to listen, but I don’t like that idea.  Can we please talk about this and make a good plan for all of us?”

Model problem solving skills 101.  Identify the problem, ask why they think it happens – there could be good reasons that I did not know about.  Write down all ideas for solving it.  Yes, I realize they don’t read, but if it is in writing, it is more real for all for us.  With preschool age children, I pick my two or three favorite solutions, and we vote.  Then we talk about what should happen if they don’t listen next time. Often they think of very harsh punishments, so I steer them more toward a logical consequence.  Vote again.   Follow through.  Revisit in a few days, and adjust if needed.  Thank them for their help.

This respectful and democratic family meeting is a positive parenting tool that can be used for years to solve large and  small problems for all family members.  Forever, really.

Start Teaching Problem Solving Skills Early

This is a process that takes time and repetition. Preschool age children who are given communication skills and techniques for problem solving, develop a feeling of competence that will only get better with time. Let’s get out of the middle of children’s conflicts with siblings and friends, and spend our time helping them learn the personal skills to feel independent and self-assured when a problem pops up.


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