7 Ways to develop your child’s problem-solving skills

Apr 30, 2014 at 7:30 p.m. ET

You can help your child sharpen his or her problem-solving skills right at home. Use some of the below strategies to get started.

mother studying with son

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Problem-solving skills are essential life skills that, while complex, can be honed with practice. The following strategies can assist you in addressing several common roadblocks to working through the problem-solving process, and they will help to ensure your child is comfortable examining issues from multiple angles.

Break it down

One of the simplest methods to approach an intimidating problem is to break it into smaller components. Defining your first steps or initial priorities within the problem, and then confronting them one at a time, can make a task seem less daunting. It can also shed light on the problem’s complexity. In the case of group work, this also divides the task evenly.


Occasionally, what seems like a complex problem is actually quite simple when you approach it correctly. Teach children to ask themselves what the purpose of this task or challenge is. While this is most effective for design or people-oriented problems, it does no harm to ask the same of math homework. Why was your student assigned this question? What did he or she learn recently that might apply? An alternative way to simplify and define a problem is to generalize it by removing the details. What kind of problem is it?

Practice brainstorming

Generating multiple solutions, no matter how wild, is an excellent way to promote creativity and to approach the second step of problem-solving. Free writing, listing and concept mapping can all benefit a student at this stage. It is important not to judge ideas at this juncture, just produce them.

Sit with "wrong" answers

Dismissing incorrect answers or extreme solutions undermines the skill-building that is inherent in problem-solving. Attempting to solve a problem and experiencing a poor outcome is better than abandoning the thinking process. Wrong answers provide information that can then be utilized. As Thomas Edison said, "I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work."

Practice objectivity

Students can become emotionally involved in the problem-solving process, especially after several attempts with one issue. Whether they are angry with themselves or others, or frustrated with the problem itself, a healthy break from the material can ease strong feelings and allow objectivity to return. Questions that may help a student stay grounded include: Will this problem matter in 10 days/months/years? What would I say if this were someone else’s problem?

Practice lateral thinking

Lateral thinking puzzles (such as these) flex problem-solving muscles, and they are fun! Lateral thinking challenges students to recognize assumptions and preconceptions about various problems. Learning to ask questions about what drives a problem or task can sometimes reveal underlying issues that are more easily addressed, or even more important.

Thought experiments

Another strategy to build problem-solving skills in your student’s free time is to create thought experiments for fictional problems or problems that do not have solutions at this time. Thought experiments create no-consequence situations that have no time limit, such as, "Where is the first place you would go during a zombie apocalypse? Why?" or "How would you address the national debt/global warming/poverty issue?" These open-ended questions can be re-examined repeatedly, and solutions can be refined multiple times as more information is gathered, thus making ineffective solutions a positive experience for children.

For more tips and strategies to help your student succeed in school, visit www.varsitytutors.com.

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