Teaching Children to Solve Problems

Conflict is a part of everyday life. How we deal with conflict determines whether we reach solutions or create bigger problems. By teaching children the important skill of problem solving, we can give them an important tool to use throughout life.

Young children need adult help to learn how to solve problems. Adults can guide children through problem solving by being a positive role model. A child who learns to look at problems and seek positive solutions will be more likely to find constructive ways to resolve conflicts. Remember that young children do not understand conflict the way adults do. Problem solving skills are learned through peer interactions and relationships. The following are basic steps of problem solving that you can help children learn. This process works best with children ages 3 and up.

– Approach the situation calmly. If two children are fighting over a toy, stay calm. Encourage them to calm down before solving the problem. Get down on the children’s level to discuss the issue.

– Listen to both sides. Each child should have a chance to say what happened. Acknowledge both children’s feelings. Teach each child to listen carefully to the other child’s explanation, without interrupting.

– Restate the problem. This shows the children that you understand what happened. As children become better at problem solving, they may begin to do this themselves.

– Brainstorm possible solutions. Spend a few minutes thinking up every possible solution. Help them negotiate until they arrive at a solution that is acceptable to everyone involved.

– Use “I” statements. For example, tell them, “I am glad the two of you can work out this problem together.” Using “I” teaches children not to blame or accuse others.

– Carry out the plan. Help the children put their solution into effect.

– Evaluate the outcome. Check in later to see how the solution is working. If the conflict has not been solved, help the children negotiate a better solution.

A Problem Solving Example

So how do you help children learn these problem solving steps? Here’s a practical example:

You come into the room to find Kelly and Chris fighting over who plays with a blue car. First, stop the action. Take away the car, and have both children sit down and take a deep breath. Ask each child to explain the problem. Remind each child to listen without interrupting. Kelly may say, “Chris won’t let me play with the blue car.” Chris may respond, “I had the blue car before Sara.” When each child has described the problem, restate it. You might say, “I hear you saying that you both would like to play with the blue car.” Encourage each child to suggest some possible solutions. Kelly might suggest putting the car away so neither can play with it. Chris might say that Kelly can play with the car tomorrow. After talking about the ideas they might agree to get out another car and trade after ten minutes. When both children agree, help them put the solution into effect. Check back a little while later and see how things are going.

After practicing the process a few times, children become good at identifying the problem and can be very creative in proposing solutions. By teaching children how to solve problems on their own, you help them build a positive self-concept, and you help them learn how to get along with others.


Crary, E. (1984). Kids can cooperate: A practical guide to teaching problem solving. Chicago: Parenting Press.

Innis, G. (2012). Problem-solving skills begin in preschool. Michigan State University Extension. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/2vJnvSm.

Spires, C. (2010). Resolving conflict constructively and respectfully. Ohio State University Extension. Retrieved from http://ohioline.osu.edu/factsheet/HYG-5196.

Diane Bales

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