An easily overlooked but essential life skill is perseverance. It is defined by the Merriam Webster dictionary as: "Continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure, or opposition." While fostering this ability in a child may seem daunting, our guest blogger has provided her four favorite ways to tackle this subject.
"I need help!"
Parents and early childhood educators work to ingrain these three words into our children’s vocabulary. A child who says, “I need help,” when faced with a problem they are struggling to solve, is a child who is learning to overcome that impulse to throw the object, hit the friend in frustration, or simply fall into frustrated tears. “I need help” can be three very useful and powerful words.
But a child who defaults to these three words without trying to solve their problem on their own is missing out an essential life skill.
“Grit” has become a trendy buzzword when talking about raising and educating our children and was touched on in the ThinkFun blog post 5 Education Trends Your Child Wants to be a Part of. Perseverance in problem solving is an important part of grit. A child with grit will have the positive motivation to tackle problems using the tools they have, at any age. They will believe that they can figure it out.
So how do parents and early childhood educators foster perseverance in problem solving? It’s fairly straightforward: Don’t assume you know the correct answer and ask questions.
Adults everywhere assume they have the answer or solution to a child’s problem. And let’s be honest, that answer or solution will likely solve the problem. But is the adult’s solution the appropriate one for the child? The adult has years and years of life experiences in problem solving. Simply giving the child the solution robs them of the opportunity to engage in their own learning processes.
A child cries out to her parent, “She took my toy! I want it back!” Often an adult will enter the situation like this and solve the crisis by establishing a time frame to share, or to offer the other child another toy. The problem is solved, likely efficiently and effectively, but did that child whose toy was taken learn anything about solving this problem on her own? What happens next time she is faced with this situation? She knows if she asks an adult to help, her problem will be solved.
A child is staring at the ladder on the playground play scape. He shouts to his caregiver, “I need help, I want to go up!” That caregiver dutifully picks the child up under his arms and lifts him up onto the play scape. The caregiver will stand by as that child happily plays, and then helps him back down. Again, effective and efficient but that child didn’t face the physical task of learning how to climb a ladder, and enjoying the fruits of his labor when he reached the top.
Instead of assuming the role of the problem solver, assume the role of an advisor and pose questions to the child.
The goal of asking questions of a child who is having a problem is to guide them in the process while fostering perseverance in that process. The more they participate in their own problem solving, the more it becomes a part of them. Not only does it become a skill, it becomes a personality trait. They will learn to trust themselves and their ability to tackle anything that comes their way.
Situation: Two children are fighting over a toy.
Avoid: Telling the children to share the toy, or finding another toy to keep the peace.
Try this question: “I see that you are feeling frustrated. Can you tell me what is happening?”
Reason: This question validates the child’s emotions and also gives them an opportunity to verbalize their problem from their own perspective.
Follow-up: Restate the problem in the child’s words and ask, “So what do you think we can do to solve this problem?” Only offer your own idea if the children are unable to come up with their own. When the situation has been solved, restate and validate what happened. “You two had a problem, and you thought of a solution, and now your problem is solved. Good work. Let’s try that again next time.”
Situation: A child hands you his snack bag and says, “open please!”
Avoid: Taking the snack, opening it up, and returning it to the child.
Try this question: “I wonder how you could open it?”
Reason: This question encourages the child to look at the snack bag and think about how to get it open. It’s okay if they can’t do it right away, or if they rip it open and the snack goes everywhere! Asking this question and doing the follow-up will foster the all-important perseverance he needs to feel motivated to attempt things on his own.
Follow-up: If the child attempts the task and isn’t successful, show the child how you would open the snack and ask them to give it a try.
Situation: A child says, “I want to color!”
Avoid: Gathering paper and crayons and setting the child up in an area to color.
Try this question: “Okay, what do you need to color? Where might you find those things?”
Reason: This line of questioning forces the child to think of the steps she needs to take. It forces her to plan what she needs and where to find it.
Follow-up: Restate and validate what the child was able to do. “You wanted to color, so you got your crayons and some paper, and brought them to the counter. Now you know how to get what you need when you want to color.”
In any situation, avoid being the problem solver, try asking a question, and then follow-up with the child to validate what has happened.
All Work and No Play is No Fun
As with any learning experience for children, you can make it fun! Role reversal and pretend play are great strategies to empower a child to problem solve and persevere.
Try reversing the roles by asking the child what to do when faced with a problem. Adding silly voices or being overly dramatic will pull the child into the game. You can empower the child to be the helper and verbalize the problem solving process.
Situation: (In an overly dramatic silly voice) “Help! I can’t find my other shoe! I wonder what I can do to find it? Do you have any ideas?”
Reason: This play scenario empowers the child to think about what he or she might do, and to verbalize those ideas.
Follow-Up: Try adding some failed attempts to address perseverance. Can the child help the adult overcome frustration and provide encouragement to keep looking?
It’s also fun to engage in pretend play with a child setting up a predicament with toys and working together to solve the problem.
Situation: While playing Legos, use a minifigure and say in an overly dramatic sad voice) “Oh I am so cold!! I don’t have a house or any place warm! What can I do?”
Reason: This scenario empowers the child to think about what the Lego guy could do to solve his problem. Through the perspective of the toy, and the adult’s gentle guidance, encourage the child to help. You might be surprised what is created!
Follow-up: Create some bumps and small struggles along the way. The structure breaks or maybe a certain piece can’t be found. What can the adult and child do to persevere?
Fostering perseverance in problem solving with children can be slow, messy, and frustrating. It can also be rewarding, fun, and sometimes hilarious. It takes time and patience, but if parents and teachers put the onus of solving a problem onto the children, along with patient and loving guidance, those children will thrive in a world where perseverance and grit are necessary traits.
Sara Platt has BA in Sociology and a M.Ed. in Elementary Education. She taught kindergarten for Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, and currently teaches preschool in Alexandria, Virginia. Sara has two elementary aged sons and a Bassett Hound. She enjoys cooking, gardening, hiking, exploring restaurants, and reading.