Spotlight on Problem-Solving
02:18 | 06/01/2014

Problem-solving is a critical thinking skill that helps babies be successful now, later in school, and the rest of their lives.  In the beginning, the problems babies solve seem simple:  How do I make the tambourine rattle?  How do I make the jack pop up out of the box?  But figuring out the answer to these dilemmas requires a lot of thought and trial-and-error.  When they are successful, children feel confident and proud, which motivates them to explore and learn more from the people and world around them.


Problem Solving at Infant


Babies learn to solve problems by examining and learning about new objects and people they encounter.  Then they apply what they have learned to new situations. For example:

  • A 7-month-old has figured out who she knows and who she doesn’t.  So she holds her arms out so you will pick her up, but buries her head in your chest when a new person tries to talk to her. 
  • An 11-month-old waves bye-bye when her dad puts her in the crib for the night.  This is after seeing her parents wave bye-bye to her many times when they leave for work.


What you can do:

  • Provide support for reaching goals.  Watch your baby carefully.  See what she is trying to make happen and help her solve the problem. If she is trying to roll over to reach an interesting object, encourage her to go as far as she can and then bring it close enough that she can get it and explore it.
  • Model problem-solving. Take the top off the container and take the blocks out. Then put them back in and let her have a try. Young children learn a lot through imitation.


Problem Solving at Toddler


When you see your toddler getting into everything, think of it as his way of problem-solving – figuring out how things work. He is using all his new physical, thinking, and language skills to be a good problem-solver. 


  • Toddlers problem-solve by using their bodies and their minds to make a plan to reach their goals. For example, toddlers are solving a problem when they tip over their sippy cup to see how to make the liquid come out.
  • Toddlers are also solving problems by using their past experiences to help them understand new situations. For example, your child may begin throwing everything into the trash—garbage or not. He is remembering that throwing his napkin out after lunch makes you happy. He just hasn’t learned yet what not to toss out!
  • Children also learn how to solve problems by imitating what the people who care for them do. So when they see these adults staying calm and not giving up when they face a challenge, children learn to keep trying, too.


What You Can Do

Teach problem-solving skills to your child

You can help your older two- and three-year-olds come up with solutions to everyday dilemmas and encourage cooperation at the same time. Here are steps to try to help you teach problem-solving skills to your child:

  •  State the problem. "You want to draw on the wall but mommy says no."
  •  Ask a question. "Where else could you draw?"
  •  Try a solution. Offer two options, both of which are acceptable to you—perhaps either paper or a cardboard box. If she insists she wants to draw on the refrigerator, set a limit. "I’ll put the crayons away until we agree on a place to draw."
  • Then re-direct. Most young children need help finding acceptable ways they can channel their desires. "You can put magnetic letters on the refrigerator


Suggest problem-solving strategies. How about while Marco has a turn on the tricycle,you pretend to be the traffic light and say “stop” and “go?” Then you two can switch.


Support your child in reaching her goal.

If her block tower keeps falling, suggest she add some more blocks on the bottom for support.


Do chores together.

Pushing a broom, for example, helps children solve problems like how to get the crumbs into the dust pan.


Teach your child to ask for help.

When you see him getting frustrated as he tries to solve a problem, you might say: It can be hard to get that jack-in-thebox to pop up! Would you like some help? Let’s try turning this knob together.


Problem Solving at Big Kids (30 – 36 months)


What Your Chid Can Do

I am using my new thinking skills to solve problems.

• I can remember what happened yesterday.

• I act out my own stories.

• I’m becoming a “logical thinker.” When I am pretending that it is bedtime for Teddy, I put a blanket on him and sing him a lullaby.


What You can Do

At dinnertime or before bed, talk with your child about her day. This builds memory and language skills.

Encourage your child to use logic in everyday situations: It’s raining. What do we need in order to stay dry?


You can help your child learn to be a good problem-solver. To guide and support your child in his problem-solving efforts but not do for his what he has the skills to accomplish himself. Sometimes, your child’s times of greatest frustration are in fact golden opportunities for him to develop feelings of confidence, competence and mastery. He’ll learn that he can depend on you to encourage him. Meanwhile, he’s the one who finds the solution.

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    - Harvey Karp, MD, FAAP, Professor of Pediatrics at the UCLA School of Medicine, author: The Happiest Baby on the Block

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