3 Key Tools To Develop Problem-Solving Skills In Children

Finding a great solution to a problem can leave us with feeling like we have super powers. We feel confident, excited and in charge. As such, being a great problem solver is one competency every parent would love for his or her child. The foundations of being a problem-solver are developed in the first five years and are closely linked with emotional well-being.  This connection affects a child’s ability to functionally adapt in a variety of social situations such as school or the playground and to form successful relationships throughout life. Consequently it is essential that young children’s emotional well-being, or feelings, get the same level of attention as their thinking in the early years in order to create powerful problem solvers.

The architecture of a child’s brain is built from the bottom up, as children grow and become more capable at recognizing, understanding and using their feelings they also increase in their capacity to plan, judge and make decisions which are intimately involved in the development of problem-solving skills.



Problem solving then is the capacity to activate 3 things: self-control, utilize working memory and then how flexibly these two factors can be integrated. Psychologist, Dr. Deborah Phillips from Georgetown University puts it like this, ‘just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.’

The development of self-control is the ability to set priorities and resist impulsive actions or responses. Self-control is rooted in the foundations of emotional well-being. Indeed, learning to man­age emotions is more difficult for some children than learning to count or read.  Research tells us that to build strong emotional health children’s environments in which children live and play must have deep connections to draw on and model off. They need to be supportive, nurturing and a safe place to try things out, get things wrong and learn how to make right choices. A great example of modeling emotional well-being and self control is our behaviour when we are faced with a car park problem and ‘our spot’ is taken. What we do and say while our children watch us feeds into the architecture of their brain development. Do they witness a calm, focused approach with language which models thinking and a steadiness of spirit or do they witness a verbal rant, a slapping of steering wheel and language equally erratic!


Working memory governs the ability to retain and manipulate distinct pieces of information over short periods of time to achieve a certain goal. Consider taking turns for example; a child firstly needs the self-control to pause till it is their turn. Then their working memory engages to remind them what to do when it is their turn and then what to do next once their turn is done.  Working memory also allows for competency to be displayed and confidence built, while simultaneously strengthening social bonds and reinforcing the power of their cognitive function.

The final component is the combining of self-control and working memory. This mental flexibility helps the child to sustain or shift attention in response to different demands or to apply different rules in different settings. This is where we see problem solving skills truly at work. The brain is a highly integrated organ with multiple functions which operates in a richly coordinated way and as such is able to weave these two critical factors together to produce flexible thinking when required i.e. finding unique solutions to problems. This can been seen as a child successfully negotiates any changes or challenges they may encounter. Using the turn-taking example, if changes occur a competent problem-solver quickly retries the required information about the task and then using their self-control navigates or experiments with ideas to find a new solution. This maybe an invitation to an adult to join or assist, it maybe a comment to get the turn taking back on track or a decision to suggest a new option so the activity continues. speech17.jpg

So in summary, to ensure that children have that super hero feeling which being a brilliant problem-solver can offer, we need to:

  1. offer a safe and nurturing environment which models and explores strong emotional well-being everyday.
  2. explore working memory by reflecting, being curious and talk about what children know, understand and choose to do.
  3. offer and celebrate opportunities which demonstrate the combining of strong emotional well-being and a active working memor

The result will be a child ready to solve problems of every kind, no matter where they are and what they are doing. In short a true super hero



National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2004). Young children develop in an environment of relationships. Working Paper No. 1. Retrieved from http://www.developingchild.net

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2004). Children’s Emotional Development Is Built into the Architecture of Their Brains: Working Paper No. http://www.developingchild.net

Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2007). A Science-Based Framework for Early Childhood Policy:

Using Evidence to Improve Outcomes in Learning, Behavior, and Health for Vulnerable Children. http://www.developingchild.harvard.edu


Written by: Rod Soper

Rod is the cofounder and director of Thinkers.inq, an early learning school for 3-5 years. Thinkers.inq is situated in Terrey Hills on the northern beaches of Sydney. Rod has been an educator and head of school for more than 17 years and is passion about creating educational change for the current Australian context. He is a researcher, writer and speaker. Please visit www.thinkersinq.com to learn more about Thinkers.inq or work with Rod.


Julie Williams

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