Problems with Problem Solving? 

Picture this: you sit down to help your child complete their homework – solving worded maths problems. “Jimmy went to the shops with £10. He bought an apple for 50p and two chocolate bars costing £1.50 each. How much change did he get?” Your child can read the problem but just has no idea how to attempt to solve it. To you, it’s obvious! You need to subtract the money spent from £10. Without telling your child this, how can you help them ‘get it’?  

Firstly, don’t panic. Children often struggle with worded problems. Anything related to problem solving, understanding what a question is asking, reasoning, making inferences are all areas which require a deeper understanding AND an ability to explain this understanding. These questions require a huge range of skills – communication, reading, perhaps a fluency in the maths calculations. 

1. Number one solution – Developing Growth Mindset 

As parents or teachers, we can’t always be there to solve every problem for our children. In fact, this isn’t our job. Our job is to TEACH our children how to solve problems by themselves. This way, they can become confident, independent, and successful individuals.

Instead of giving up or getting frustrated when they encounter a challenge, children with problem-solving skills manage their emotions, think creatively, and persist until they find a solution. Naturally, these abilities go hand-in-hand with a growth mindset.

Developing children’s growth mindset takes time and perseverance. Praising children for process over product will in turn help them to find fulfilment from the process, rather than simply wanting to get to the solution.  

2. Teaching Problem Solving – Step by Step 

Recognising that problem-solving is a skill that takes practice is important. Like learning anything new, repetition is key. In order to repeat something, we need a set of steps that can be replicated. 

This diagram shows the steps that children can follow when solving any problem. Feel free to print this and use it with your child at home. Teaching them the steps to solve problems ensures that they can replicate this in any context. 

Let’s look at some basic examples of how you can use the problem solving steps with your child in their school work. 

Maths: Jimmy went to the shops with £10. He bought an apple for 50p and two chocolate bars costing £1.50 each. How much change did he get? 

1. Read and understand the problem. Underline the key words. Draw the problem. Act it out. 

2. Think of possible options to solve the problem. Add? Subtract? Which numbers? Again, doing a drawing alongside this can help children visualise the problem. 

3. Select a strategy and write it down. E.g. 50p + £1.50 + £1.50 = Answer   £10 – Answer 

4. Solve it!

5. Check it. Could this be a true answer? Use estimation skills to check. Compare the answer to the question and drawings. 

Reading Comprehension: How did Little Red Riding Hood feel when she realised Grandma was a wolf? 

1. Read and understand the question. Underline the important words. 

2. Find any clues in the text that might reveal the answer – underline the any clues. E.g. she ran away. She screamed. 

3. What do the clues tell us? What can you infer from the evidence? 

4. Write it. Use the question to answer and the best evidence. Give children a sentence stem if they find this part difficult, e.g. I think she felt ____ because in the text it says ______. 

5. Check it. Read the question again. Did you answer it? 

Repeating these steps again and again can help children break down problem solving into steps to make it manageable.

3. Model the Strategies Yourself! 

As creative problem-solving skills for kids are being learned, there will likely be moments where they are frustrated or unsure. Here are some easy ways you can model what creative problem-solving looks and sounds like.

1. Ask clarifying questions if you don’t understand something

2. Admit when don’t know the correct answer

3. Talk through multiple possible outcomes for different situations 

4. Verbalise how you’re feeling when you find a problem. Frustration is normal, learning to overcome this frustration creates resilience.

4. Practical Tips at Home

So far, I have discussed the overarching solutions and strategies to support your child’s problem-solving skills. Here are a few more practical activities to practice at home: 

1. Talk, talk, talk! Making time and space to really speak with children is important but so difficult in a busy household. Dinner time and bedtime are nice opportunities to really have a good chat with your child. Asking discussion questions to get children thinking. What do they think about X? Why do they think the girl responded that way? Today this happened to me, what do you think I could have done to solve it? 

2. Activities that take time. So many toys and activities that children play with are about instant gratification. Introduce games or activities that take longer to complete. Big puzzles that will take a few weeks to complete, maths logic puzzles like Sudoku. If you read to your child at night, choosing a longer chapter book to read a little of each day instead of a short story. If you don’t enjoy these types of activities, it can be difficult to encourage your child to. Find something that you enjoy too! 

3. Open ended questions. Instead of telling your child the solution, ask them probing questions to help them solve it. Encourage them to answer your questions in detail. 

4. Ask your child for advice when you have a problem. Don’t pretend like you know all the answers – it is so tempting as an adult to do this! This teaches children that it’s common to make mistakes and face challenges. It also gives them the opportunity to practice problem-solving skills. Plus, when you indicate that their ideas are valued, they’ll gain the confidence to attempt solving problems on their own.

5. Take a step back. You want to protect your child from experiencing failure, but it is inevitable! It is OK for them to make mistakes in their homework – this will give your child the opportunity to learn from their mistake (whilst showing their teacher what they are finding difficult.) Model that it is OK to make a mistake as this is how we learn. 

There is no quick fix to developing these skills. It takes time and effort, but once your child has the skills and confidence to tackle problems, it will set them up well for school and all aspects of their life! 

If you have any questions or need further advice, feel free to contact us here at Primary Tutor Project.