problem solving skills

This module is about helping you teach your child problem solving skills so they can use these skills to manage situations that are worrying them and where they are not sure what to do.

In our previous module Becoming a Thought Detective we looked at helping children challenge their thoughts, and evaluate if what they are thinking is true or accurate. But if your child’s perception of a situation appears to be valid you might look at whether the problem can be solved, at least to some degree.

We all encounter problems or challenges on a daily basis, some more complex than others, and we all need to learn how to deal with them. Problem solving is one of the most important life skills that we can teach our kids. Children face a variety of problems ranging from learning difficulties, peer issues, bullying, anxiety, difficulty completing a task, problems in the playground or sporting field or even deciding what outfit to wear.


When kids learn problem solving skills they:

  • gain confidence in their ability to make good decisions for themselves
  • gain independence in managing their own challenges
  • feel empowered to influence outcomes
  • gain a way of dealing with difficult situations
  • learn to think through their choices rather than acting impulsively
  • learn to take calculated risks; choosing the best thing to do in a situation and evaluate what would happen

Teaching your Child how to solve problems

Children benefit from direct instruction in problem solving, where they learn to specify a problem, devise solutions, select a solution, implement it and evaluate its effectiveness.

Below is a structured processes for teaching your child about problem solving:

a. Introduce the idea of problem solving to your child. Explain to your child that problem solving can be used when he or she isn’t sure of the best thing to do in a situation.

b.Watch the below video together of Olivia’s problem and talk to your child about how it is possible to solve a problem by looking at different solutions and then working out what would happen if you did each possible solution so you can choose the best one to try. Have your child think of another solution that Olivia might have considered.

“Video coming soon”

c. Briefly explain the 5 steps to problem-solving (explained fully in the next section):

  1. Specify the problem
  2. Brainstorm possible solutions
  3. Select the best solution to try
  4. Put the solution into action
  5. Evaluate how well the solution worked. If it didn’t work, try some of the next best solutions.

d. Go through the completed worksheet (“coming soon”) of Olivia’s problem to show your child how the various steps are recorded and to help them get a better idea of problem solving.

e. Use our blank problem solving worksheet and choose a simple recent problem your child has faced or create a hypothetical problem and both work through the problem solving steps.

f. Once they understand the idea of problem solving, you can try to use problem solving as a skill to help manage situations that are causing them distress.

5 step approach to problem solving:

A collaborative, structured approach where both you and your child can influence the outcome.

Below are some simple guidelines:



  • Talk to your child to identify the nature of the problem. Gain information and facts about the problem. The aim is to develop a clear picture of the problem.
  • Summarise what your child has said. Check the accuracy of your understanding of the problem, making sure that you know what your child actually means.
  • You may need to question your child’s or your own assumptions and emotions about the problem.
  • Are there in fact numerous problems? Is there a problem at all?
  • Communicate your empathy with your child in a sympathetic and calm way.

BRAINSTORM possible solutions

  • Ask your child to brainstorm all the possible ways in which their problem might be reduced.
  • Ask your child what they can change if applicable – the situation, their reaction or both.
  • You may want to ask your child what they have done in similar circumstances in the past.
  • Make sure you don’t just take over the task for your children. Rather, help them come up with their own suggestions on ways to solve their problem. Naturally you will need to do more for younger children.
  • It is important to also consider what might happen if nothing was done to solve the problem.
  • Be sure not to become critical of your child’s suggested solutions or past behaviours.
  • Praise children for ideas they have generated. The fact they are engaging with you in the process of trying to constructively solve their problem is a very positive and important step.
  • This step is all about generating a range of possible solutions without evaluating them at this stage.

Select the best solution to try (or combination of)

  • For each idea ask your child “What would happen if you did this?” If the child doesn’t know gently point possibilities out to them. For instance you might say, “I wonder if ___________ would happen if you did ____________. What do you think?
  • Help your child work out if each idea would lead to a good or bad outcome. (Alternatively the advantages and disadvantages of each idea). It’s important for children to recognise the positive and negative consequences of their actions.
  • You may find it useful to have your child score each idea on a scale of 1 (not at all helpful) to 10 (very helpful) to help them draw a conclusion about which option seems best.
  • Making a decision on which course of action to take can be difficult for some kids. You may need to provide some guidance with this if this is not your child’s strength. Decision making is an important skill in itself.
  • Remember your overriding goal is to encourage your child to find solutions.
  • Praise your child for trying to come up with outcomes for each idea or strategy.

Put the solution into action

  • You and your child should commit to taking action; talk about when, where and how it will be attempted.


  • With your plan in place, discuss it with your child and consider what was successful, what was difficult, and what your child learned that could be used next time.
  • Identify if your child is needing any further support or help
  • Explain to your child that if they choose a course of action and it doesn’t resolve the problem, they can always try something else.
  • If it didn’t work, you could go back and try some of the next best solutions.
  • Encourage them to keep trying to solve a problem until it is resolved.
  • Not all problems of course can be made better. In such cases children may need to learn to change their response to these problems by modifying their thinking. They may need to accept the status quo and switch their focus to other aspects of their lives.
  • Make sure you acknowledge, reinforce and reward your child’s progress and effort just as much as their successes.
  • Re-visit the issue periodically to see if any further changes are necessary.


Example transcript:

In the transcript below we use anxious child, Olivia, to illustrate the 5 steps of problem solving.

Olivia’s example

Olivia has been sick and away from school for the last 5 days. She is extremely worried that she will have missed too much work and will never be able to catch up.  Olivia is an above average student who works hard at school, but is self critical and consistently underestimates her abilities. She rarely asks for help for fear of people recognising her perceived inadequacies.

Step 1:  Olivia and her parents sit down to find out what the problem is.

PARENT:  Olivia, we can see that you are worried about going to school tomorrow.  Can you tell us exactly what is worrying you?

CHILD:   Oh, I’m not sure.

PARENT:  (helping Olivia identify her thoughts and emotions] What’s going through your mind when you think about going to school tomorrow?

CHILD: (Thinks) Ummm. (Sighs) I don’t want to go.

PARENT: [continuing to understand the problem and possible distortions in Olivia’s thinking] Can you tell us why. What is it you are worried about?

CHILD:  That I’ll never be able to catch up with my school work.

PARENT:  [checking understanding]  So, you don’t won’t to go to school because you are worried that being away last week will mean you won’t be able to catch up with your school work?

CHILD:  Yes.


At this point Olivia’s parents may decide to work with her to evaluate her thought.  Olivia has learnt to be a Thought Detective and identify and evaluate her thinking in previous work with her parents.

PARENT:  [providing learning] Okay. You remember how we have talked about how our thoughts make us feel good or bad. Sometimes our thoughts are true, sometimes they turn out not to be true, and sometimes they are a bit true.  Can we look at this thought “I’ll never be able to catch up with my school work”, and see how accurate it seems?

CHILD:  Okay.

PARENT:  [The Evidence Questions] What’s the evidence that you will never be able to catch up with your school work?

CHILD:  Well, I have been away from school for the last week and I have missed a lot of work?

PARENT: Anything else?

CHILD: (Thinks) No. I guess not.

PARENT:  Okay, now is there any evidence on the other side, that maybe you will be able to catch up?

CHILD:  Ummm….I have been sick before and I was able to catch up.

PARENT:  [Summarising] Okay, just to summarise, you have been sick and missed a week of school. But remembering, you have missed school before and have been able to catch up.  Right?

CHILD:  Yeah.

PARENT: [Assessing the evaluation] Good. Now how much do you believe the thought: “I’ll never be able to catch up with my school work”?

CHILD:  Oh, a fair bit. Last time I was only away for two days. This time I have been away for five days.

Olivia still believes the original thought and her worry level has only reduced marginally In addition her perceptions have some validity, so her parents focus on problem solving.


Step 2:  Olivia’s parent help her generate some ideas to solve her problem.

PARENT:  So it looks as though you will be a little bit behind at school….and that is no fault of your own. You couldn’t help being sick could you.

CHILD:  I guess not.

PARENT: Okay, Olivia. We need to think of as many things as possible that can help you catch up with your school work and that you can do to feel better about it.   What do you think you could do?

CHILD:  I don’t know.

PARENT:  What did you do last time to catch up?

CHILD:  (Thinks for a moment.) Well, I did some extra homework to catch up.

PARENT:  That’s a good idea. Can you think of anything else?

CHILD:  I could stay at home and not go to school.  Then I wouldn’t have to worry.

PARENT: We’ll that’s one idea. At this stage, we’ll write down all the ideas and then we can decide on one later on.  Anything else?

CHILD:  No I don’t think there is anything else.

PARENT:  Who could you ask for help?

CHILD:  I guess I could ask my teacher.

PARENT: Great, Olivia. Let’s write that down. “I can ask my teacher for help to catch up”.  You’re trying really hard to come up with some good ideas.  That’s excellent.  Anything else?

CHILD: (No response)

PARENT: How about the fact that you can ask us for help if you need it?

CHILD:  Okay.

Step 3:  Olivia’s parents help her identify advantages and disadvantages for each idea and to choose the best solution or combination of

PARENTS:  Right. Now Olivia, we’ve got a few different ideas written down that could help you feel better about catching up with your school work.  Let’s go through them one by one and find out the good and bad things about each idea.  We can also look at what thoughts might get in the way. Okay?


PARENT:  Let’s start with the idea that you could do extra homework to catch up.  What is good about that idea?

CHILD:  Well, it would help me understand the work I have missed.

PARENT: Okay, write that down.   You know, Olivia, you are good at understanding new work.  Look how you seem to grasp how to do this problem solving.

CHILD: I guess so.

PARENT:  Is there anything bad about doing extra homework?

CHILD:  I have a lot of homework already and I have sport on after school. How will I fit it in?

PARENT:  How about if needed we review what you have on and we can schedule in your activities to make sure you can fit it all in. Okay?

CHILD: Yeah.

PARENT: How about your idea of staying at home and not going to school.  What would happen if you did that?

CHILD:  I wouldn’t be thinking about my school work.

PARENT:  Yes maybe that would make you feel better for a short time. But is it possible that it would actually make you more worried because you would fall further behind.

CHILD: Probably.

PARENT: How about your idea of asking your teacher for help?  What do you think would happen if you did that?

CHILD:  I would feel scared?

PARENT:  Waite a minute.  Don’t you think your teacher enjoys helping her students? I know if I was a teacher I would like my students to ask lots of questions. It means they want to learn.

CHILD:  I guess so.

PARENT:  Now let’s think why it could be a good idea to ask your teacher for help?

CHILD:  Well, she could suggest what I need to do and explain it to me?

PARENT: Great Olivia. You might even find out that they didn’t start any new work and there is only a little bit of catching up. Is that possible?

CHILD: Yeah.

PARENT:  Okay that’s the end of our list.  Well done, Olivia. You have done a really good job looking at the good and bad points to each idea and what would happen if you did them.   How are you feeling now?

CHILD: A bit better.

PARENTS:  Okay now what we need to do is look at the list and the things that would happen if you choose each idea.  Which ideas do you think would be best to do?

CHILD:  I could remind myself that staying at home would make me more worried.  I could also do some extra homework this week.

PARENT:  Good.  Should you ask you teacher for help first and that way you know if you need to do extra homework at all?

CHILD:  Uh-huh

PARENT: Olivia, it sounds like you are nervous just thinking about asking your teacher for help, though it’s something you want to be able to do?

CHILD:  Yeah.

PARENT:  How about before you talk to your teacher you remind yourself that your teacher likes her students asking questions.  [Role-playing for practicing social skills] What would you say to your teacher?

CHILD:  (Thinking for a moment) Miss X, I am worried that I have been away and won’t be able to catch up with our work. Can you help me?

PARENT:  That’s excellent Olivia.

Step 4: Olivia’s parents help her put a plan in place

PARENT:  Okay, When would be a good time to talk to your teacher?

CHILD:  Monday morning, I guess.

PARENT: Okay, so you are going to talk to your teacher on Monday morning.  I am proud of you for being able to figure out how to cope with your worry in a helpful way.

Step 5:  Assuming that Olivia talked to her teacher, they would praise her effort and evaluate how well the solution worked.  They may also organise a special reward to acknowledge her bravery.

PARENT:  We are so proud of you for talking to your teacher about your worry.  You did what you agreed you would do.

CHILD:  Yeah, Miss X was very nice and I only have a little bit of extra homework this week.

PARENT:   It sounds like it all worked out.  What did you learn from what we did?

CHILD:  That I don’t have to worry about asking Miss X for help.  That if I am worried about something I can think about different ideas to deal with it.

PARENT: What about being a Thought Detective?

CHILD:  That helped when I was able to think about other times I have been away from school and didn’t fall behind.

PARENT:  Very well done. Is there anything you would do differently next time?

CHILD:  Yeah, I’d enjoy my sick days more next time!


The completed problem solving worksheet from this example would look like this.



  • Just talking about your child’s problem can bring your child instant relief.
  • Don’t rush to solve your child’s problems. If you see your child struggling with something, allow your child an opportunity to figure it out before helping.
  • Role model problem solving skills to help your child learn what to do in real life situations.
  • Allowing your children to experience natural consequences after making a choice is a strategy to help teach problem solving skills. It’s important however to make sure that there are not any safety concerns.
  • As a logical extension you may want to help turn your child’s problems into goals to work on. Recording goals, including any reflection and feedback, can also help with future problem solving scenarios.
  • Motivating and engaging kids with difficult problems can be hard. Learn how to create motivation.
  • Help your children learn problem solving skills when they are young and work with them through the teenage years.
  • Some anxious children are chronic worriers about problems that are highly unlikely to occur. You may need to help them differentiate between low-probability and higher-probability problems and between taking reasonable and unreasonable precautions.  You also need to help them accept uncertainty, and increase their sense of self-efficacy (belief in one’s own ability to complete tasks and reach goals), so they have more confidence that if problems do arise, they will be able (by themselves or with the help of other) to handle them.