Kids and young adults need to be able to problem-solve on their own. Every day, kids are faced with a huge number of social situations and challenges. Whether they are just having a conversation with a peer, working with a group on a project, or dealing with an ethical dilemma, kids must use their social skills and knowledge to help them navigate tough situations. Ideally, we want kids to make positive choices entirely on their own. Of course, we know that kids don’t start off that way. They need to learn how to collaborate, communicate, cooperate, negotiate, and self-advocate.
Social problem solving skills are critical skills to learn for kids with autism, ADHD, and other social challenges. Of course, all kids and young adults benefit from these skills. They fit perfectly into a morning meeting discussion or advisory periods for older kids. Not only are these skills that kids will use in your classroom, but throughout their entire lives. They are well worth the time to teach!
Here are 5 steps to help kids learn social problem solving skills:
1. Teach kids to communicate their feelings. Being able to openly and respectfully share emotions is a foundational element to social problem solving. Teaching I statements can be a simple and effective way to kids to share their feelings. With an I statement, kids will state, “I feel ______ when _____.” The whole idea is that this type of statement allows someone to share how their feeling without targeting or blaming anyone else. Helping kids to communicate their emotions can solve many social problems from the start and encourages positive self-expression.
2. Discuss and model empathy. In order for kids to really grasp problem-solving, they need to learn how to think about the feelings of others. Literature is a great way teach and practice empathy! Talk about the feelings of characters within texts you are reading, really highlighting how they might feel in situations and why. Ask questions like, “How might they feel? Why do you think they felt that way? Would you feel the same in that situation? Why or why not?” to help teach emerging empathy skills. You can also make up your own situations and have kids share responses, too.
3. Model problem-solving skills. When a problem arises, discuss it and share some solutions how you might go forward to fix it. For example, you might say, “I was really expecting to give the class this math assignment today but I just found out we have an assembly. This wasn’t in my plans. I could try to give part of it now or I could hold off and give the assignment tomorrow instead. It’s not perfect, but I think I’ll wait that way we can go at the pace we need to.” This type of think-aloud models the type of thinking that kids should be using when a problem comes up.
4. Use social scenarios to practice. Give a scenario and have kids consider how that person might feel in that situation. Discuss options for what that person might do to solve the problem, possible consequences for their choices, and what the best decision might be. Kids can consider themselves social detectives by using the clues and what they know about social rules to help them figure out the solution. These are especially fun in small groups to have kids discuss collaboratively. Use these free social problem solving cards to start your kids off practicing!
5. Allow kids to figure it out. Don’t come to the rescue when a child or young adult has a problem. As long as it’s not a serious issue, give them time to think about it and use their problem-solving skills on their own. Of course, it’s much easier to have an adult solve all the problems but that doesn’t teach the necessary skills. When a child comes to you asking for your help with a social problem, encourage them to think about it for five minutes before coming back to you. By that point, they might have already figured out possible solutions and ideas and might not even need you anymore.
If you are interested in helping your kids learn social problem solving skills right away, consider trying out these Social Problem Solving Task Cards. They highlight real social scenarios and situations that kids can discuss. The scenarios include a variety of locations, such as in classrooms, with family, with friends, at recess, and at lunch. This set is targeted for elementary-age learners.
Of course, older kids need social problem solving skills, too! If you work with older kids, you will love these Social Problem Solving Task Cards for Middle and High School Kids. These situations target age-appropriate issues that come up in classes, with friends, with family, in the hallway, in the cafeteria, and with online and texting.
Remember that teaching social problem skills does take a little bit of planning and effort, but it will be well worth the time! Kids will use these skills to help them make social decisions in their everyday lives now and in the future!