Helping Your Child to Learn to Solve Problems

Lauren Wilson, this week’s guest author, helps to illustrate how parents and individuals working with children with autism or other neurodevelopmental challenges can help children learn to think. 

Being an effective guide is ninety five percent mindset and five percent of what you actually do.  Our mindset and point of view are the roots from which all decisions are made.  When I explain what RDI® is, I focus on a simple phrase that encompasses a guiding mindset:

“Spotlight the problem, not the solution.”

Guides recognize that learning, and from there competence, comes with doing. It comes with struggling, thinking, failing and succeeding. Guides recognize their ability to make the most of regular ole’ interactions when they focus on spotlighting problems rather than solutions.

Teaching Your Child to Think for Themselves

Bear with me during this illustration. Consider the following two phrases. Imagine them being said to you:

  • “Pick it up and put it here.”
  • “This is hard to figure out!”

Try to  feel your brain working as each is said. “Pick it up and put it here.” What’s your brain doing? Right, not too much; it’s pretty much basic compliance. A great skill to have no doubt, yet as a guide, we know how limiting this can be for real world application.

How about the latter? “This is hard to figure out!”  What’s your noggin’ doing now?  It’s really trying to work something out.  It’s refocusing on the problem, slowing down. It’s doing some dynamic thinking.

Consider the relationship that would grow out of the two phrases. One could perhaps be characterized by a director and actor, ever in need of direction.  The other, guiding.

Here are a few more examples.  Notice how the focus changes from the solution to the problem and the effect it has on the relationship and what learning and opportunities will happen next.

“Say hi to Daddy”“There’s Daddy!”
“Pick it up”“Oh no!”
“Sit down”“Circle time”
“Try again”“This is just not working”
“Good job!”“We’re doing it!”

RDI® and Problem-Solving

Providing solutions robs individuals of the chance to make those dynamic problem solving connections that we so want them to have.  Providing solutions can also give a false sense of the true abilities of an individual.

Nowhere was this more evident to me than during an observation of a first grader. It was reported to me that he could independently manage classroom routines and a paraprofessional was probably no longer necessary. In a three minute period of my observation, I counted how many solutions he was given. I could barely keep up with the tallies. In three minutes he was given over 40 solutions:

“write your name”, “erase- you need capitals”, “push in your chair”, “go to the carpet”, “cross your legs”, “raise your hand” and on and on and on.  Many were given within a second of other children performing the action and often repeated more than once.  I cringe just remembering, and acknowledging that I was once that solution focused voice on quick repeat.

I offered the paraprofessional a much needed break and sat back and truly observed. The class moved along and he sat falling farther and farther behind.  He had no ownership over any of the learning that had been taking place.  He had been complying on auto pilot failing to take note of his role in his own actions. Solutions had been given and therefore his dynamic problem solving abilities remained stagnant.

“Spotlight the problem, not the solution.”

After modeling, practice, adjusting work load and figuring out what his unique processing time was, we put this mindset into practice. The goal was no longer for him move along, it was to see his wheels turning; to see him practice dynamic thinking.  And think he did.

This change in mindset is big and it is hard to do. When we see someone struggling for a solution, our mirror neurons fire rapidly. We literally feel them struggling and are pulled to relieve that tension by providing a solution. And then, seemingly overnight, it becomes an automatic response.  Before we know it, we’re anticipating the problem and providing the solution before the child even recognizes it. We become the solution managers instead of the opportunity givers, decreasing rather than increasing our child’s ability to function in the world. We wind up doing all the dynamic thinking work for our children who need the most practice at it.

We know that change is possible, and it starts with us, the guides providing an environment where dynamic thinking can thrive.  Start by taking time to do…well, nothing. Slow down. Observe your child, you’re looking for their edge of competence and that’s a moving target. What I find most often is that folks are surprised by what problems their child can solve on their own. What competence building moments for our children!

Opportunities (problems) will start to arise. Shoes will be lost. Zippers will get stuck. Play ideas will make one person happy and not the other. Your turn will be skipped.  As you slow down, you’ll see your child resolve many of them leaving you an opportunity to spotlight their competence.  thers will loom larger and you’ll see the solution and want to blurt it out immediately.

Hold that thought.

It’s in this moment that your child needs you to guide them. To scaffold, what you see so clearly. Clarify the “problem” for them; guide them in the right direction. You might have to do this more than once. That’s ok. What’s important is you leave that room, no matter how small, for your child to discover the solution. And who knows, it might be better than the one you had in mind!

Here are a few more examples to consider:

Child takes your turn while playing         Give “the look” and smile
It is taking longer than expected and you
can see it on your child’s face
“This is taking a loooong time!”
Shoes are lost.“I forget where we found them last time.”
There are 2 cookies and three people.“Hmm, this is a problem.”
Child looks hungry.“I think we skipped snack today.”


Lauren has enjoyed working with families and individuals on the autism  spectrum for many years. She has been a Relationship Development  Intervention Certified Consultant since 2006 and received her Masters of Social Work from the University of Hawai’i at Manoa.  She is  pleased to provide family support, behavior planning, teen/young adult mentorship and RDI program services.  Contact Lauren at , or by phone at 808.264.3007. 


1 Comment

  1. Terry

    This was so useful! So many times I think for my child each day that I have to continually remind myself to let him figure things out. This will be helpful to our care givers and own family…

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