Teaching Problem Solving Strategies to Young Children

teaching problem solving strategies to kids

One of the most important things we can do as teachers of young children is teaching problem solving strategies to our students. Not only is this a critical social emotional skill for them to learn, but it will also help alleviate problems for you to solve while teaching.

teaching problem solving strategies

Size of the problem

Before teaching problem solving strategies, you must teach students to identify the size of the problem. To most young children, any problem at all is a big, huge problem. But they need to learn the differences between small, medium, and big problems. Students will also need to know the differences in how to solve these different sized problems. I like to use this emergent reader and worksheets to help them explore with these different sized problems and reactions.

Small problems

Small problems are problems that can be solved individually. They are problems that can be solved on your own by being flexible or letting a friend know that what they are doing is bothering them. Examples of small problems are not getting to be first in line. Most students will shrug this off, but there are some students who this will be crushing to them, and they will cry or shout due to being so upset. If this happens, and they already have learned about identifying the size of problems, you can simply say, “this is a small problem. You can take a deep breath and be flexible” or you can ask, “Is this a small problem or a big problem? You are having a big reaction to this small problem”.

Another example is if a friend took a marker they were using. They can simply tell the other student that they were using that marker. Usually, the friend just returns the marker and that is that. They usually don’t even know they took it from them in the first place. Imagine how many problems you could be saved from solving if students can simply solve them between themselves! However, if the student doesn’t return the marker, then the problem becomes more of a medium problem.

Medium problems

Medium problems are problems that can be solved with a friend or a teacher. From the example above, if the student doesn’t return the marker after being asked to, then the teacher should be involved to help solve the problem. Another example of a medium problem might be if their backpack gets stuck in their locker. Students should first learn to ask for help from their peers (more on that later) but eventually, they will need an adult’s help to get their backpack unstuck. Even though they need an adults help, it is not a crisis or something that we need to cry or shout about, because we can easily solve it!

Big problems

Big problems are problems where there is danger or an emergency and/or if someone is hurt. For big problems, we need to get an adult right away.  We talk a lot about how the size of our reaction should match the size of the problems. Big problems are the only times we should really scream, because otherwise people will think there is an emergency. This does occasionally happen on the playground, so it’s always a good lesson to have.

teaching problem solving strategies

Bug and a wish

teaching problem solving strategies

This is one of the very first lessons I teach students in the beginning of the year. It helps them learn that they can solve their own problems with their friends. They don’t need a teacher to solve every little problem that happens between friends. For example, if someone is chasing them at recess, they will inevitably come to you and complain about it instead of telling the person chasing them that it bothers them. Enter the Bug and the Wish! They learn the language to use to tell someone that what they are doing is bothering or upsetting them. I use the book A Bug and a Wish (you can use my Amazon Affiliate link here) and then I use this sign as a reminder of the language to use. You can also get this sign in my Feelings and Emotions Social Emotional Learning Unit.

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Ask 3 Before Me

This is also one of the very first lessons I teach students at the beginning of the year. I do want to increase independence, and let’s face it, I can’t be everywhere at once! I teach students that before they ask a teacher for help, they should ask three of their peers. This is especially useful at snack time to help with opening containers or water bottles. As well as right after directions and students run up to ask you what to do after you just explained it. I simply hold up three fingers and say, “Ask three before me!” and without fail they quickly find the answers to their questions and solve their problems.


Teaching problem solving strategies should first teach students about the different sizes of problems, our reactions to those problems, and strategies to solving small problems on our own. Some of the best strategies for solving small problems are a Bug and a Wish and Ask Three Before Me. You can get other activities and resources in my Problem Solving Social Emotional Learning Unit!

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