The Best Way to Teach Problem-Solving Skills in the Classroom

person holding brown wooden stick

Teaching kids goes beyond academics.  We are also teaching life skills and problem-solving skills.  There have been so many students that I have taught that have no problem-solving skills.  I mean none.  It’s almost amazing to see them try to figure out how to do some pretty basic things.

Why are kids lacking the ability to solve simple life problems?  I can’t be sure, but I do know the best way to help them is figure it out is to challenge them a bit.

Case Study – How to Clean Up a Spill

I once had a fourth-grade student who truly lacked problem-solving skills.  

Water bottles have become a regular part of the classroom.  When I was a kid I had to have a special note to have a water bottle, but now everyone has them.  The metal ones that clang constantly, the glass ones that might break, or the plastic ones that get crunched in fidgety fingers.

The student I was working with spilled his water bottle.  This happens all the time in the classroom, but this student didn’t think, “Hey, I should clean that up.”  He literally just stared at it.  

He was used to mom helping him out.  She volunteered at lunch and threw away his trash for him.  I can only imagine how she would jump in to help with a spill.

Us teachers were not going clean up a spill for a fourth-grader.  We did have to walk him through how he could clean it up step by step.  It went something like this.

Teacher: “Aaron if that’s spilling you should probably stand up the bottle.”

Aaron: “Oh, Right.”

Teacher:  “Now there’s a puddle. What could you do about that?”

Aaron: “Uhhhhh.”

Teacher: “Maybe get some paper towels?”

Aaron: “Yeah.”

He proceeded to get paper towels and try to figure out how to use them to clean the whole spill.

Teacher: “I think you might need to throw those away and get some more.”

Aaron started to carry a drippy clump of paper towels across the room and leave a lovely trail of water.

Teacher: “Do you think it would help to bring the trash can over?”

Aaron dragged the trash can over and put the rest of the paper towels in.  A classmate got him some more paper towels and he continued to wipe up the spill.  We instructed him to put the trash can back when he was finished.

This whole process took at least 10 minutes to complete in class.  This was 10 minutes where he wasn’t getting his writing or math done.  But he was learning important life skills.

When we told him he did a great job afterward he had a big smile on his face.  He had accomplished something.

Why Kids Struggle to Solve Basic Problems

We can never be completely sure why the students who enter our class lack problem-solving skills. I tend to think that parents do more for their kids these days, rather than teach them how to do it.  Parents want to protect their children (I want to protect mine). This causes parents to do too much for their children so they never learn how to do it independently.

The lack of problem-solving skills can be academic skills or life skills (functioning skills). 

When it’s academic students might avoid the work.  They might accept a bad grade because they have never had to think critically about how to do the assignment. They don’t know how to plan the project from start to finish.  They don’t even know how to go about thinking about this.

When it’s a life skill students might stop and freeze because they don’t know what to do.  They might also act out, like pushing another child because they don’t know how to solve the problem another way.  

I think if they lack academic skills then they might also lack life skills.  Both involve critical, creative thinking.  

Why This is A Problem in the Classroom

Clearly, we do not want children fighting or fail our classes, so problem-solving skills are important.  We need to teach them and give students challenges that will test their ability to think creatively and critically.

Who has time to teach another thing though?  We are already struggling to fit all of the required content into the school year.

Like so many things we need to find a way to make time for this.  If students lack life skills, I believe they will also lack academic skills because both involve problem-solving.

When kids are in preschool and kindergarten they learn through play and manipulatives.  I believe that we need to teach students problem-solving skills with hands-on tasks.  They need to do something to problem-solve before they can carry the skill over into schoolwork where it is mostly mental.

I have created seven Life Skill Choice Boards that can be an academic assignment for students to practice life skills and learn to problem-solve.

Basic Steps to Help Them Learn Problem Solving

Here are some of the basic steps of problem-solving.  We know them but let’s give ourselves the list as a reminder. 

Sometimes before we can dive into these steps it’s good to look at the behavior that made us want to talk about this with our students.  Ask them what they were thinking when they did ____. Or what they were trying to accomplish by _____.  “Why” isn’t a specific enough question.  It leaves room for too much, like blame or excuses. It doesn’t get to the root of what happened and what we want to know.  We really want to understand what they were trying to do so we can walk them through this process.

A great way to lead them into the problem-solving process is to ask, “How can we problem-solve this so it doesn’t happen again?” either before or during step one or two.  This question also makes you their partner in the process.

  1. Identify the problem.

The questions we may have just asked could be used here.  

  • Ask them what they were thinking when they did ____. 
  • Or what they were trying to accomplish by _____.   

They can help us identify the problem.  Or maybe as you watch the situation unfold you can see and verbalize the problem for the student.  

  • “You don’t have anyone to play with at recess.”  
  • “You’re not sure where to start to clean up that spill.”  
  • “You need some help to solve this math problem.” 
  • “You don’t know what classes you should sign up for.”

Ask, ”How can we problem-solve this so it doesn’t happen again?”

  1. Think of at least 5 solutions

Students can think critically and creatively here.  The solutions can be far-fetched because at least they are thinking and sharing.  As they get better at this process they will become better at offering solutions.  They will learn there is more than one way to solve a problem.

  1. Identify the pros and cons of each solution.

This is why it is okay if some of the solutions were far-fetched.  Here the student will cross off the unreasonable ones.  It also helps them understand that the first solution isn’t always the best.  It helps them learn that we should pick the solution that makes the most sense for solving the problem.

  1. Pick the best solution

They have already looked at the list of solutions and determined the pros and cons of each.  Now picking a solution should be easy.

  1. Test out the solution

Now it’s time to try out the solution they thought was best.  If it doesn’t work they can go back to the list and pick another one to try.  It’s important that students understand their original solution might not always work.  Sometimes we have to try again.

Natural Consequences 

There is one more important topic to discuss as part of problem-solving.

Natural Consequences.  My sister is a big believer in natural consequences.  For example, she doesn’t make her kids do their homework.  She believes that if they want to do it they will.  They will figure out that their grades are important and not doing homework lowers their grades.  She is a great example of some who believes eventually they will figure it out from the natural consequences.  

Sometimes natural consequences work out as an easier way for students to learn.  Whatever the problem is will work itself out quickly because of natural consequences.

I love this idea.  It’s less work for me.  It’s very true. But…how can I let a student of mine fail a class because I didn’t make sure they have problem-solving skills?  I can’t.  

If natural consequences are going to take too much time for the student to learn and solve the problem I want to speed up that process by giving them steps.

Also, some students will learn from natural consequences and others won’t.  It depends on who that student is.  

As teachers, we know that no two students are alike.  It’s important to let them struggle a little and try to figure it out.  It’s also important that when we see them struggling endlessly we are there to guide them through the process of problem-solving so they are prepared for life.

If you want to welcome problem-solving skills into your classroom with hands-on tasks be sure to grab my Life Skills Choice Boards.  

These choice boards are easy to assign in digital or printable.  They also get students off of their computer screens to learn life skills.  There is a presentation piece that allows for accountability of work and a rubric for easy grading.  

Good luck teaching your students to problem-solve.

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