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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Helping Children Problem-solve

This is a frequently visited post from July 2009 focusing on issues to do with resilience. New posts will return after my wedding in February....

An important factor in the ability to “bounce back” in difficult circumstances is the ability to use effective problem-solving strategies. There are many factors that can effect how a child approaches a problem.

The cognitive problem-solving process

Problem-solving happens in our heads. We either consciously or unconsciously work through the issue. Some of us do it very rapidly, others take longer. The bigger the problem, or the bigger the problem seems, the longer it may take.

However, successful problem-solving usually involves self-talk. And it usually goes something like this:
1. Whoa! I’m feeling really angry/upset/frustrated/etc!
2. I better take a deep breath and relax!
3. I am angry/upset/frustrated/etc because….
4. But I am good at… or I think I may need some help with …
5. What I could do is…, but if I do that … will happen. Can I live with that?
6. Yep, I can live with that. Here goes…
7. Well, that didn’t work…. but that worked well… I might do …. next time
8. But I did a good job just having a go!

An unsuccessful problem-solving event may go something like this:
1. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!

1. I’m feeling really angry/upset/frustrated/etc!
2. I better take a deep breath and relax!
3. I am angry/upset/frustrated/etc because….
4. But I am no good at anything. I need help. I can’t do anything …

Skills and strategies to help with problem-solving

Step One: Identifying your emotions
When a child is on the edge of a melt-down or explosion it is not a time to be trying to discuss what is happening.

Anxiety or any other strong emotion can interfere with the cognitive processes that are involved in the problem-solving. Children may not be calm enough to find the words they need. Or they may not be able identify or express with words exactly how they are feeling. Or they may feel that words are inadequate.

One strategy that is used is a feeling’s thermometer. There are many versions out there, but follow these links to find a few I like:

Or find Paul Stallard’s book, Think Good Feel Good. Chapter 10 has a great thermometer.

But I would prefer to use one that has some strategies for the child. This means it is not just about identifying emotions, but about managing them as well. This is my version:

Step two: Controlling your emotions
I talked about the Stop, Think, Do program by Lindy Petersen in a previous post. This can be a very effective tool in helping children relax and more effectively work through the problem-solving process.

More coming soon….

References and resources to follow up:

Alabama Federation Council for Exceptional Children (nd). Tips for Teachers: Managing Students' Behaviours: Fostering Independent Learners through Self-management Strategies. Online at:

Barrett, P. (2005). Friends for life. Queensland: Australian Academic Press
Find out more at

Stallard, P. (2002). Think Good- Feel Good. John Wiley & Sons: Australia


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