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In our everyday lives, at work and at school, we are constantly being challenged with problems to solve.  Some people rise to the challenges and see them as opportunities for development.  They have a clear and systematic way of tackling problems which works in most cases, gives them a greater sense of self-confidence and contributes to their sense of self-esteem.  Other people fear the challenge.  They have little or no set routine for tackling a problem, no matter how minor or trivial it may be.  They usually fail to identify the nature of the problem and therefore are not in a good position to apply the correct analytical tools to solve it.  Frequently, they fail to solve the problem and as a result feel like failures.  This is a downward spiral which seems to perpetuate itself – but it need not be like this.  Parents can help their children to realise that problems are a challenge which can be solved.  If parents then help their children to break the problem down into its parts, they can begin to provide their children with valuable skills which they can apply time and time again in many learning situations.

So what is problem solving?


The ability to solve problems can be broken down into two separate but related parts.


Analysis: this is the ability to break a problem down into its sub-parts and look at these closely to see how they fit together.


Synthesis: having broken the problem down into its sub-parts, we then need to learn how to put the parts back again in such a way as to make sense of the original problem we are tackling.


The two aspects of problem-solving, analysis and synthesis, are vital steps towards a proper understanding of how to tackle problems.  However, it has been found that many young people have great difficulty applying these steps.  They fail to appreciate that problems can be broken down into more manageable blocks and tend to see them globally – as a whole – rather than in an analytical sense.  As parents and teachers there are a number of steps we can take to help children grasp this point.




If you have ever tried your hand at DIY you may well have fallen foul of “self assembly syndrome”.  That build-it-yourself furniture looks so easy to put together on the instruction sheet - but how many times have you found yourself with vital pieces missing, or, more worrying still, with some pieces left over.  A similar thing happens when you are trying to repair an item which has many parts which all depend on each other.  Examples like these make an excellent starting point for helping children recognise how problems, like everyday items, are invariably made up of smaller component parts.


If you feel brave enough, you might be prepared to allow your child, under supervision, to experiment by taking apart various simple household items.  A simple toy makes a good starting point – or perhaps a broken utensil.  Notice how they go about taking it apart.  Is there a pattern to the way they work, or is it a random trial and error?  Do they make a “map” of where each piece comes from – or is it all in the mind?  When you ask them to put it together again, are all the parts assembled in the correct order?  If parts are left out or placed in the wrong position, why did this happen?  From simple exercises like this, children begin to grasp the principle that potential problems, if they are dismantled in a logical and systematic manner, can often be better understood – allowing them to be put back together in a way that enables them to work.  However, if there is no pattern or plan to the way the problem is tackled, there is substantially less chance of being able to solve it.




A penknife

Two 20p pieces

A used cinema ticket

A necklace

A pack of chewing gum

A baby’s dummy




This is a simple and fun activity.  Take a selection of everyday items like the ones listed here.  You could put them all in a bag.  Tell your children that they are detectives and these are the only clues they have to help identify a mystery person.  They have to use all the clues to build up a composite picture of who the owner might be.  Encourage them to examine each clue carefully and individually.  Try to stop them from jumping to conclusions based on only one or two of the clues – perhaps by presenting them with only one clue at a time.  This helps children to appreciate the importance of examining each part of a problem individually.


I’ll do as I’m told


Ask your child to write down as accurately as they can all the steps necessary to perform a simple task with which they are familiar (such as making a cup of tea).  They may prefer simply to tell you each step orally (perhaps as you write?) or to draw each stage (perhaps adding necessary notes).  Now carry out the task as literally as possible – allowing your child to observe you.  Do not carry out any steps which have not been listed, no matter how obvious.



You might encourage your child to comment on your performance.  Remember that any remarks they make about your ineptness are really an analysis of the accuracy of their own description.  Discuss the process with your child – preferably with huge dollops of good humour.  What can you learn together about the order in which the process needs to be carried out and the degree of detail required in the description.


If your child is interested in science, take a look at the investigations in Sci-box



Other articles to help you release your child's potential


Developing confidence in mathematics

Developing self-esteem in your child

It's good to talk

Let me tell you a story


See also:

Creative problem-solving



Puzzleboxx contains puzzles of all kinds to help develop children's problem-solving skills.