Problem Solving: Understanding, Approach & Skill Building

Jaclyn Baharestani
Special Projects Coordinator, Winston Innovation Lab

Our Understanding of Problem Solving
As students strive to meet their academic, social and personal goals, they are sure to encounter obstacles varying in size, scope and complexity. While problem solving can be difficult for people of all ages and abilities, breakdowns in comprehension and executive functioning skills which involve skills such as sorting, organizing, prioritizing, and decision making, impede the ability to effectively and consistently identify and solve problems.
At Winston Preparatory School, we explicitly address Problem Solving skills, enabling our students to meet each problem with the ability to analyze the situation, identify possible solutions, and choose the one most appropriate to the situation. Further, we recognize that flexibility and adaptability are key components of effective Problem Solving skills, as part of finding an effective solution is the willingness to try another approach when the first is not successful. We work to help our students make this connection, so that they can become creative problem solvers who ask questions, embrace failure as a way to learn, explore new ideas, are self-motivated, resourceful, and understand themselves.

Assessment, Support and Strategies
At Winston Preparatory School, we approach this work by first understanding how and why an individual student is struggling with Problem Solving skills. Are they able to see the relationship between cause and effect? Can they conceptualize the bigger picture and identify patterns? Are their Self-Regulation skills hindering their abilities to identify, pause, reflect and analyze a current problem? Asking ourselves and our students these questions provides insight into where the breakdowns lie and which strategies and methods might begin to bolster our students’ independent Problem Solving skills.  Importantly, this problem solving is not done in isolation, but rather while working in teams and with partners in and outside of the classroom. One particularly effective strategy is to practice thoughtful cueing. Given a set of questions to respond to before approaching a task, event, or social situation, the student is encouraged to think about what a situation might call for, what problems might arise, and how they would be able to address challenges if they come up. Research shows that, especially when executive functioning is impacting performance, anticipating challenges and pre-planning solutions leads to more appropriate responses and follow through of solutions than if left to problem solve after the fact alone. When facilitating Problem Solving skills after a challenge has been identified, what often impacts a child’s ability to independently problem solve is overestimating the urgency of the situation. This misperception leads to feeling overwhelmed and ‘stuck’. At Winston Preparatory School, teachers promote this awareness by using a simple “How Big Is My Problem?” visual tool. Connecting concrete examples (mouse, dog, elephant) to the abstract nature of a ‘problem’ is helpful in promoting awareness and understanding. The goal of these tools is to develop the ability to mindfully  pause, allowing themselves time and structure to better understand the problem they are facing, the root causes, and how different solutions might produce desired outcomes. Still, before immediately jumping into a solutions-oriented mindset, it is important to provide our students with the time and space to sit with the problem. We find that this is an effective way to not only encourage Self-Reflection and thoughtful analysis but also allows them to become ‘comfortable with the uncomfortable’, developing the skill of Resilience. 

Creating Opportunities at Home
As a parent, you can empower your child to identify and solve problems on a daily basis by resisting the urge to directly offer a solution as soon as a problem arises. Instead, you can foster your child’s ability to independently analyze problems and brainstorm solutions by prompting them to consider different ways that they might solve the problem and subsequently talking through potential solutions together. Even if you can predict that a solution they came up with will not be successful, have them give it a try anyway and then reflect upon why it did not work out as they had planned. Experience can be a wonderful teacher! Through these reflective conversations you can guide your child to think about what may go wrong with a solution and highlight how failure is part of the discovery process. Additionally, presenting your child with hypothetical scenarios, whether academic or social, and exploring possible solutions is an excellent way to support them in the problem solving process and to prepare them for navigating complex situations that lie ahead. We also encourage modeling as a way to talk your child through your own problem solving thought processes. Through these “Think Alouds,” you can not only begin to normalize daily life challenges that we all face, but also, share your own reflective thinking and problem solving approaches with your child to make explicit a process that may seem otherwise abstract and hard to grasp.
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Winston Preparatory School is a leading school for students with learning disabilities, including dyslexia, executive functioning difficulties (ADHD), and non-verbal learning disorders (NVLD).

WPS does not discriminate against applicants and students on the basis of race, color, national or ethnic origin. The Winston Preparatory School provides programs and services and equal opportunity in the administration of its educational and admissions policies, financial aid programs, employment, and the selection of its governing board without regard to gender, race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, handicap status, or any status recognized by federal, state and local civil rights and non-discrimination laws.