— MoMo Productions/Getty

After years of changing diapers, fetching snacks, and providing entertainment options, there comes a point where every parent yearns for their kids to develop even a modicum of independence. Underlying the ability for kids to accomplish these tasks on their own is the broader skill of problem-solving, which eventually progresses beyond figuring out how to complete basic tasks to finding solutions to difficult and more complicated problems.

Although it might not be apparent when responding to a 4-year-old’s eighth request in ten minutes, problem-solving isn’t beyond the reach of even very young kids. Understanding how to stack blocks, sort toys, and even push a chair up to the counter to grab a remote that had been purposefully put out of reach are all examples of how kids use creative thinking to achieve a goal.

“Children act like little scientists in the world,” says Tia Kim, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist and vice president of education, research, and impact at the Committee for Children. “They experiment, try things out, and figure out how things work.”

But kids can’t do it all on their own. “They typically need a bit of scaffolding, support, and facilitation from parents and caregivers, especially as they get older and the problems that they’re solving become more nuanced and complex,” Kim says.

Teaching kids how to problem-solve is a matter of maximizing their natural inquisitiveness and helping them develop the ability to persevere when their experimentation doesn’t initially work. It’s a task that the Committee for Children’s Second Step program tackles by encouraging the growth of social-emotional skills like working together to solve problems, managing strong emotions, and getting along with others.

“What’s really interesting about social-emotional learning skills and competencies is that they’re all interrelated,” Kim says. “Being able to manage your emotions will help you be a better problem-solver. And if you’re a better problem-solver, that helps you deal with emotions, increases resilience, and avoid conflicts or barriers.”

Facilitating the social-emotional learning skills that help kids become better problem-solvers requires time and intentionality. But breaking the process down into four steps can make it more manageable.

1. Identify The Problem Out Loud

It’s easy for adults to get lost in their thoughts when mulling over possible solutions to a problem. But kids benefit when they hear adults calmly identify problems out loud, as well as when adults encourage them to do so. Calm verbalization of flummoxing situations shows kids how to pinpoint an issue without getting caught up in the mental wheel-spinning that happens when we get overwhelmed by our emotions.

“Take identifying a simple problem like ‘I don’t have carrots for the stew I’m making tonight, and there isn’t time to get to the store, so I’m frustrated,’” Kim says. “Kids are always absorbing how adults around them act. By naming the issue and the emotion connected to it, we give kids a starting point for what to do when things don’t go according to plan.”

When kids have difficulty identifying the root of a problem or controlling their emotions when a problem arises, parents may need to take a more strategic path than simply asking them to identify what’s wrong. A better option: “You seem upset. Can you take a deep breath and then tell me why?” meets them halfway by acknowledging what they’re feeling, then giving them a self-regulation tool to use that will hopefully allow them to better engage in the conversation.

Or you can flip the script by pointing out the problem for the child before asking them to identify how it makes them feel. For example, “I see that you’re having trouble putting that puzzle together. How is that making you feel?”

Either way, they receive a gentle nudge that helps them focus on the task at hand.

2. Help Kids Brainstorm Possible Solutions

When asked to brainstorm, sometimes kids meet the request with silence and a blank stare. Other times, they respond with a flood of ideas ranging from genius to completely impractical. But as long as you can get the child engaged in the process of proposing solutions, you’re on the right track. It’s not a problem that the impractical ideas are bad. It’s just that it would be a bad decision to act on those impractical ideas.

This is where guidance and parental wisdom come into play. With limited life experience and priorities that often differ from those of adults, the value of the exercise isn’t necessarily in the child coming up with a workable solution on their own, but rather for them to be involved with the process.

When parents need to guide the conversation to a workable solution, it’s best to do so with questions. “Have you thought about this solution?” Or, “What about this other solution?” are invitations to collaborate that help kids feel like they have more of a voice in the decision-making process.

3. Consider Possible Solutions And Pick The Best One

Some brainstormed ideas should be rejected out of hand. Your kid may want to buy a whole new Lego set when they’re struggling to put together the one they already have, but that’s a financially unwise decision that will stunt their creativity and resilience.

But before punting on flawed ideas or rubber-stamping a good idea, involve kids in an evaluation process for one or two options. Measure the pros and cons, consider the possible repercussions of each choice, and identify why a course of action might be imperfect, even if it ends up being the most preferable at the time.

Speaking from experience, Kim acknowledges that there isn’t always time to guide kids through a thorough vetting process. Parents have to pick and choose their spots and sometimes make executive decisions in order to keep family life flowing smoothly.

“We want our kids to be successful, so it can be hard not just to implement the solution that gives them the best chance of success,” she says. “We have to take opportunities to talk things through when they arise. When we don’t have the time or capacity to do so, there’s still value in explaining your rationale and perhaps offering to talk things through more or try things a different way the next time.”

Kim points out that sometimes the brainstorming will lead to an idea that doesn’t immediately fix whatever has gone awry, but instead provides a path to avoid falling into the same circumstance in the future. “Working toward a better outcome in the future is always a good place to land if there’s not a clear path forward in the present moment,” she says.

4. Evaluate The Chosen Solution

Once the dust settles, don’t just focus on how things worked out. Take some time to consider why the course of action was or wasn’t successful and how the overall process compared to expectations. “A big part of supporting kids to be better problem-solvers and critical thinkers is always to go back and evaluate, even if you must do so briefly or at a later time,” Kim says.

There’s no shame in heading back to the drawing board, and kids shouldn’t be made to feel as though they’re a failure when the problem-solving process doesn’t work out like they anticipated. There’s always a lesson to be learned that hopefully makes things go at least incrementally better the next time around.

“You may not be able to implement a second option if the first one fails. But you can still talk about why an alternative may have worked better, now that you have both seen how everything played out, or why the route you chose may have been successful under slightly different circumstances,” Kim says.

And if everything turned out great? Celebrate that win and the process that led to it. Smooth sailing can tend to get overlooked, but reaffirming the thought process behind effective problem-solving will make kids more likely to calmly engage in the process the next time things go awry. Because if there’s one thing parents can always plan on, it’s that life isn’t going to go according to plan.