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The Scientific Benefits of Nurturing Your Child’s Problem-Solving Skills and How to Do It

While you shouldn’t give up on memorization essentials like flashcards and sight words, the most advanced and successful students are the ones who don’t simply commit information to memory. Instead, these students have solid problem-solving skills, giving them the ability to figure things out independently or with some limited direction.

These skills are crucial for students because they encourage analytical and critical thinking, instill a sense of achievement, and boost confidence. Children in their early pre-school years are capable of improving their problem-solving skills. It’s something parents should start encouraging before kids walk through the door of their kindergarten classroom for the first time and beyond.

It’s essential to hone these skills in a child’s younger years because brain plasticity, which is the capability of the brain to adapt and reorganize to create a strong base for learning, diminishes with age. In other words, to help a child reach their full potential you should make the most of those early years.

Here are some strategies for nurturing and practicing problem-solving skills in 4- to 8-year-olds. 1. Play Board Games

Board games are an excellent way to develop and enhance problem-solving skills in this age. Children love board games and having all of their parents’ attention, so this method is a win-win situation.

Board games require children to make choices, adjust their game-playing strategy as needed, and learn through trial and error what works and doesn’t work. Some good games to try for this age group include Jenga, checkers, Connect Four, and for kids who can read, Scrabble.

Children’s brains are shaped, in part, by what is known as serve and return interaction. These are the interactions between parents and children that serve as building blocks for cognitive development. Playing games together is one way to build those serve and return interactions.

2. Break Out the Puzzle

Puzzles are a fantastic tool for practicing problem-solving skills. Kids naturally gravitate toward puzzles, and this form of play will help them reason things out. If a puzzle piece doesn’t fit, they know it immediately, making it a self-correcting learning tool.

To successfully use puzzles for this age group, you don’t want to make it too challenging. Those 500-piece puzzles you might work on in the evening will be way too advanced for your child. It will lead to frustration, which will likely make your child stop working on the puzzle. Look for puzzles appropriate for their age group, and then as they become better at those, you can throw some harder ones into the mix.

3. Give Them Some Space

Some children don’t excel at problem-solving because adults don’t allow them the space to do so. Many parents feel the need to swoop in and help their children as soon as they see them struggling with a problem.

It’s okay for them to be stuck on a problem – that’s when growth and learning occur. Being a helicopter parent erodes your child’s ability to think and act for themselves, and it zaps their confidence even to try.

After you’ve given a problem to your child to solve, whether it’s a math problem or a puzzle, give them some breathing room. Carry on with another activity and only come to their rescue if they’ve asked for help. If they ask for assistance, offer guidance and instruction instead of performing the activity for them.

4. Praise Their Successes

If your child completes a puzzle or another problem, tell them how pleased you are. Instead of just saying, “I’m proud of you,” you should state the specifics of what it took for them to solve it. You could, for instance, say something like, “I love how you kept working at the puzzle, even when it seemed hard at first.” Or you could say, “I like how you realized all the pieces that had a straight line on it belonged on the outside of the puzzle. That was smart of you.”

By using specifics, you let your child know that problem solving isn’t just about finding an answer -- it’s about never giving up and rethinking your strategy until you are successful.

5. Let Them See You Struggle

Kids sometimes think everything is effortless for adults, but we’re doing a disservice to them by letting them believe that. They would take far more inspiration from the fact that many of us struggle with things every day. It lets them know that solving problems is a life-long endeavor, rather than just something they need to do while in school.

Knowing that it’s common to struggle can help children turn their stress into what scientists refer to as positive stress. Here’s how it works: When children feel threatened or upset, their bodies react just as adults do, with an increase in blood pressure, stress hormones, and heart rate. With the help of supportive and trusted adults, children learn to master these frequent challenges. The physical changes caused by temporary stress quickly return to normal. They become adaptive to the stress, rather than have it negatively affect them. Without that adaptability and strong support systems, toxic stress can develop, leading to negative changes to brain architecture. Neurons in the brain are actually impaired by toxic stress and have fewer connections than healthy neurons which have a lot of connections.

So, if you’re doing a puzzle or working on a crossword, it’s a great idea to tell them how tough it is. But follow that up by telling them that you’ll keep working on it. And when you’ve completed your task, you can tell them how good it feels to be successful at figuring out a way to have finished it. 6. Tell Them to Take a Break

One of the best tools you can teach your child about successful problem-solving is that it’s okay to take a break from an activity or obstacle. That’s not the same as giving up. It’s setting the problem aside for a few minutes, or even a day, and coming back to it with fresh eyes. A break can lead to a breakthrough.

Contrary to what some people think, our brains aren’t in rest mode when we take a break. Our brains are still extremely active during that time, using it to process memories and plan for the future.

7. Teach Collaboration

Although independent problem-solving is highly valuable, so is teamwork. Inviting other kids to work on a problem together can create energy your child might learn from. They may see someone else working tirelessly toward a solution, and that might inspire them to do the same.

They’ll also see the merit of having more than one perspective or idea, which can help them learn to think outside the box.

Keep At It For the Best Results

Problem-solving skills will serve your child well throughout their life. They can help them become independent thinkers who never believe something is unachievable. By spending some time cultivating these skills, you’re setting your child up for a lifetime of success, both personally and professionally.

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