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Teaching problem solving to children

Social Work professor offers caregivers insights on teaching independence

Girl gets help reading with adult male.

It’s inevitable that children of all ages will struggle with the social and academic expectations of their grade level and maturity. Parents can easily feel overwhelmed with providing answers, especially as children continue to struggle with stress and anxiety from the disruptions of pandemic shutdowns.

Cheri Shapiro, a research professor at the University of South Carolina’s College of Social Work, talks about how parents can instill problem-solving skills for their children and the path toward teaching children how to make their own decisions.

The expectations for how to succeed in school come from so many sides — peers, social media, teachers, administrators, to name a few. How can parents cut through the noise?

Shapiro: I want to make my stance very clear. Parents know their children best. Parents and caregivers are the ones who decide the goals for their children. Whether that's academic goals, social and emotional goals, friendship goals, skill goals, that's something parents take the lead in. I’m talking about parents, co-parents, parenting partners, caregivers, and whoever's acting in a parenting role.

What should a parent do when a child approaches with a school-related challenge or problem?

Shapiro: The first step is to clearly identify what the problem is, in a calm way. This will lead to working with your child to generate a whole range of solutions.

Is the problem social or academic? What are different things you could do to address this problem or challenge? This will lead to figuring out which one of those is the best option and putting that plan into place. You can then check back in a day or two to see if that option worked.

If it didn't, you can go back to the drawing board and redefine what the challenge is. Think of a range of options, pick the best one and test it out to see if it's helpful.

What we're aiming to do here is introduce a standard set of problem-solving strategies. We want our children to be able to solve problems independently in the future.

How can parents introduce problem-solving strategies to their children?

Headshot of College of Social Work professor Cheri Shapiro

Shapiro: One way to help scaffold that is to start working on problem-solving directly with a child, and do it several times. They will start to understand what the steps of problem-solving are. Then be on the lookout for when your children do those things independently.

Think about having check-ins or checkups within a family about how the children are doing. There are different ways to do this.

One important way is for parents checking in to make sure that whatever the goals and expectations are for the school year are shared between those parenting partners so that the grownups and the parents are on the same page about what those goals and expectations are and how they can each support their child through that process.

How often should parents initiate problem-solving talks with their children?

Shapiro: One of the other most important things parents can do at the start of anything big is really having an opportunity to actually talk with your child. Look for opportunities for talking about things on a daily basis. It's calm conversation, sharing what happened during the day, hearing things that you like, sharing challenges, sharing successes, just looking for those opportunities through the day, to have these brief conversations.

Parents don't need to sit down and have a half hour conversation about how you're feeling every single day. The idea is to make this part of our natural everyday experience. Talk to our children as often as we can about things that are going on in the house, things that are going on at school, things that are going on with friends or family.

That builds conversational skills and sends the message to a child, “I'm here for you.” It sets the base so that if there is a problem it's more likely the child will come to the parent about the problem, because they're used to talking to them.

Cheri Shapiro is the director of USC’s Institute for Families in Society. A licensed psychologist, her research focuses on prevention of social, emotional and behavioral problems in youth and implementation of evidence-based interventions in community settings. She is overseeing the project in Lexington School District 1, “Raising Adolescents to be Tomorrow’s Leaders,” which trains counselors and social workers in middle and high school settings to support parents of adolescents.