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How to Teach Kids to Solve Their Own Problems

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Read Time: 5 minutes

I learned to solve my own problems by attending the School of Hard Knocks. At least that’s what my mom called it. Growing up, I heard, “You’ve got to figure it out on your own,” more times than I can count. When I needed help with homework I’d hear it. If I got into a fight with my brothers, I’d hear it. When I was afraid of dealing with the school bully, I’d hear it. To be honest, I sometimes got really upset when my mom would meet my problems with this kind of response. I mean, she was my mother. Wasn’t she supposed to help me figure things out? Isn’t that the job of parents and teachers? To help kids figure things out? 

Well, after graduating from the School of Hard Knocks, I can proudly say today that I am grateful for this education. I was allowed to solve my own problems when I was a kid. And today, as a teacher and a father, I can proudly report that I now have my own classroom at the School of Hard Knocks. Why? Because, like my mom, I believe that we, parents and teachers, should teach kids to solve their own problems. 

Here’s how to do that:

Move out of their way.

I know, I know. It is really tempting to want to jump in and just deal with your kids’ problems on their behalf. But doing that won’t always help them. To help kids learn to solve their own problems, the best thing we can do is to actually let them try to solve the problem themselves. 

People in general learn from trial and error. This means that failure is a necessary part of the learning process and not the end of it. For parents and teachers, one of the best things we can do for a child is move out of their way. They will learn a lot more from trying and failing than they will from having their problems solved for them. 

This doesn’t mean you withhold information or just watch your kid or student struggle. Sometimes, moving out of the way means showing students where to find answers.

I once got stuck on an algebra homework assignment. I asked my mother, who taught algebra 1 and 2 at the time, if she would help me. She shot me a big smile and said, “Sure.” She walked me to the computer, grabbed a sticky note, wrote “Khan Academy” on the note, and walked away. I eventually figured out that I had to google those words, then made my to the Khan Academy website where I searched the concept I was struggling with and watched Sal Khan show me how to solve this math problem. The next time I got stuck on an algebra problem, I knew where to go get help. 

Yes, my mom could have just shown me. But she gave me something more valuable by moving out of the way and teaching me how to find my own answer. 

Let kids solve REAL problems. 

One of the issues I see often with school projects or lessons is that they happen in a vacuum, meaning that students often don’t the chance to learn in the “real world.” It has long been considered easier and safer to use case studies or role play to engage kids in “real world” learning situations. Why not just use the real world though?

The Australian Council for Educational Leaders (ACEL) has outlined the ten design elements of a concept they call “authentic learning.” The first step in this design process is real life experience. In other words, the first step in creating authentic learning experiences is to engage children with the real world. 

This is no different with solving their problems. If we want kids to learn to solve their own problems, we have to let them solve real problems. 

Teach kids to identify problems.

My first car was a white 2002 Chevy Impala. I loved that car and proudly drove it everywhere I possibly could when I finally got my hands on it. To me, the car was perfect and just what I needed. One day, as I was driving, the needle of my gas gauge went from full straight to empty. I panicked and found the nearest gas tank. I realized that I had a problem: My gas gauge was broken and, at 18, I didn’t have the money to fix it. So from then on, I had to completely fill my tank every time I got gas and had to count miles to make sure I didn’t run out. 

That experience taught me that I would have a recurring problem unless I figured out a solution. 

I believe that one of the best ways to teach kids to solve their own problems is by teaching them to identify problems. You might be saying, “Right, Mike, this sounds great, but how do I do that?” 

I’m so glad you asked. I believe that we should teach students to be self-aware and reflective. The more we teach students to think about the things they do and say, the more they will be able to readily identify problems as they come up or, even better, before they come up. This can look like talking through decisions a child has made and acted on or casually reviewing the events of the day and talking through the choices they made. 

What to do when it’s just not working.

The truth is that teaching kids to solve their own problems is really hard. Why? Because it involves something no parent or teacher likes to watch: failure. Sometimes it isn’t easy to watch your child struggle through math homework to the point of frustration. It isn’t always appropriate to let a 6-year-old try to predict what problems may arise the next day. Sometimes the real world isn’t a friendly place and your child could be bullied or picked on. 

So what should you do when you get thrown a curveball? Cocreate solutions. 

Ultimately, one of the best ways to teach anything is to model it. One of the best things to do when this uncomfortable independence is too much (and it will be at times) is to step in and show the child how to move forward. Make a five-step plan where you are a part of two of the steps and the child has to take the other three steps on their own. That support and guidance will go so far. And your kids will graduate from the School of Hard Knocks—magna cum laude and ready to solve whatever problem life hands them.

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