Cincinnati Family Magazine

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February 23, 2024

Teach Problem Solving Skills to Young Kids

Helping kids sort through their emotions is tough, and when it comes to problem-solving, they need need YOU as their guide. Here's how!

If your child is struggling and unable to get past their problem, it may be time to actively teach problem solving skills to them. When they are quite young, still 3 – 4 years old, or even 5, there are ways to show them how to move forward and grow. Doing everything for them won’t help them in the future, but showing them how to solve their issues is a skill they’ll always have. Is it time to tackle problem solving skills at home?

Maybe Joey or Susie is frustrated because things didn’t go how they thought they would. Could Ashlyn figure out how to work through this on her own? Maybe Tamika is upset but doesn’t know how to feel better. Let’s look closer at simple ways you can teach young children to understand the situation and learn the skills they need to get beyond them.

How can you Teach Problem Solving Skills to Young Children?

There are a few steps you can take which helps both open the conversation between you, and gets your child actively involved in the solution. If your child becomes frustrated, sad, angry or upset in some way, it may confuse them. They are used to simply reacting.

Ask them how they feel.

First ask them what they’re feeling and validate the feeling. With that, you’re also going to name the emotion, so they understand the connection.

  • Ask them how they feel
  • Validate the feeling
  • Name the emotion

Help them process the problem.

Once you’ve figured out what they’re feeling and given a name to it, so they can identify the feeling, you’re going to guide them into processing the emotions. You’ll first figure out what the problem was by them showing you or telling you.

  • Process the emotions with questions
  • Why does this upset you?
  • What is the hard part you got stuck on?
  • Why doesn’t this work?

Getting your child to stop and think about the situation is an important part of processing their emotions. It slows them down, draws attention to what’s going on and why it’s going on. Clarifying the issue allows them to work toward a solution.

Help them solve the problem.

You don’t fix the problem for them, but rather guide them to them find answers. You might ask questions like how could we fix this? What could we do? Let them come up with answers or guide them with clues to what they might be able to do to resolve the issue.

  • What can we do to fix this?
  • What might work?
  • What won’t make it better?
  • What happens if…?
  • What else could you try?

Ways to Help Them See the Problem and Solutions

Two ways that can help your child work through a problem is by visualizing what’s happening and finding answers that way.

  • Creative play
  • Drawing it out on paper
  • (Bonus) read fun books on topics that show problem solving in action

Creative Play:

Creative play is a great opportunity to teach your child, so they understand what’s happening. Acting out the situation and using objects to get the point across can help them visualize the problem. They may work through solutions by seeing it in action. We process visual information faster and it encourages the learning process.

Go through the steps of what was happening, and then stop to “brainstorm” solutions with your child. What could we do? How can we fix this? Acting it out shows the – what would happen if I … scenario. By going through the emotions, and slowing down to analyze the situation, it can help your child start to see there are solutions.

Maybe they are upset that their block tower keeps falling down, but they don’t build a wide enough base. Maybe they want dessert but didn’t finish eating their dinner yet. Maybe they are having trouble sharing crayons with their brother or sister. No matter how trivial the situation may be to you, by working through the issue, you’re teaching them important skills they can then expand on later.


Drawing out what’s happening may amplify what’s really going on. Sometimes what we think is the issue, may not be. By explaining the issue in another way, you may find that they aren’t upset that the block tower fell down, but that it fell in the wrong direction and that’s what they were really frustrated about. Or maybe they’re upset that they don’t like something like having to share, but it’s not the sharing as a selfish manner, but a fear they won’t get their toy back at the end of the share cycle.

Until you know what the actual problem is, it’s easy to assume and end up focusing on the wrong thing. Drawing out what they are feeling or why, you can then help redirect the situation. Show them how to see circumstance in a way they hadn’t thought of. Consider journal sharing with your little ones.

By changing the circumstances of the moment, they may think clearer and can work out the issue. What if you’re expecting another child, and they draw a picture of you with the new baby, but they are far away from you on the other side of the page. Move the picture of them right by your side so they can see a truth they may not have understood.

When it comes to problem solving with small children, the best step is by teaching them to identify what they’re feeling, and then go from there. This is all new. We learn many different ways, and so do your children.

Steps to Problem Solving with Young Children (Ages 3-5)

Here’s a quick reminder of what we went over, and the simple steps to problem solve with your preschooler or kindergartner.

  1. Identify what they’re feeling and validate it.
  2. Name the emotion so they create a connection of understanding.
  3. Help them process the feeling by asking simple questions.
  4. Consider solutions that might help. Guide them with thoughtful questions.
  5. Go through the motions of, “What would happen if I…?”

Children are very reactive when they’re young, but by helping them slow down and understand what they’re feeling, why they’re feeling it, and how to fix the problem, they’ll be able to build crucial problem-solving skills in similar circumstances.

Each time they learn to fix a problem on their own, it’s a win. It can be challenging to stop and slow down, but by simply fixing the issue yourself, you’re missing out on a great teaching experience that will benefit them for years to come.

Other resources:

Scholastic has helpful articles with more tips on problems solving for preschool aged children, along with children a bit older. You can find one that speaks to the stages of problems solving here, and another that looks specifically at preschool problem solving here. Along with a past article “Are you listening to your kids?”.  In our hectic lives we need to remember to slow down and listen.

About the Author

Kelly Hater

Kelly Hater, owner of Mama Bear Domain, has over 15 years of coaching experience along with a B.S. in Health Promotion specialized in Exercise Science. She specializes in helping clients overcome mom burnout, providing a clear, decisive plan that leads her clients on a path of success. Her clients no longer let mom guilt steal their identity and goals. Moms deserve to be happy and live a fulfilling life. She personally has overcome overwhelming struggles herself. Get the accountability needed to take action. As a mom of two she gets it. Get your E-Book: Mom, Open Your Eyes to Self-Awareness.