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How to Teach Problem-solving

Many families with whom I work report their child struggles with problem-solving. Often, the child will find themselves in an unexpected situation and be unable to figure out what to do. A familiar story goes like this:


My child had a test in math and forgot to bring a pencil. Instead of asking for help he sat and stared at the test until the teacher asked if he needed help. My child reported no, he didn't need help, but the teacher saw that there was no progress on the test and asked my child where his pencil was. If the teacher had not deduced the problem and given my child a pencil, he would have failed the test.

Frustrated parents often ask me to teach problem-solving skills. I have discovered that teaching such skills to individuals with ASD is difficult. There are at least two challenges that I can see. First, children with developmental delays often have complex tasks mediated for them throughout their development. Parents and teachers may have discovered that the child is not going to "figure it out on their own," so they have selectively intervened to bridge skill gaps. This intervention is necessary and helpful for most developmentally delayed people, but a common side effect is the lack of exposure to reasonable challenges. By this, I mean that there are times when the child can and should figure it out but have not been allowed to because intervention supports were already in place and functioning. Because of communication challenges, it is sometimes impossible to determine when a child with a developmental delay can complete a challenge independently. As a result, many children lack the tenacity and the opportunity to do problem-solving activities.


Second, executive functioning deficits can make it difficult for many people with ASD to generalize skills from one experience to another. In short, a skill learned in one context is usually only good for that context and must be taught again or mechanically transferred to a new context. For this reason, teaching problem-solving skills in my office is virtually useless to children. Such skills rarely generalize to other settings.


The best strategy I have found for teaching problem-solving is for parents to gradually increase a child's freedom and responsibility and address problem-solving opportunities as they come up. The prime example I have of this is teaching a child with ASD to use public transportation, specifically, what to do when they get on the wrong bus (which everyone who has ever commuted by bus has done). How I teach this problem-solving skill is first to train a child to use the bus. Next, I instruct them to call a parent when they need help. With regular use of the bus, the child will get on the wrong bus and the parent can then coach them, when telephoned for help, to pull the cord, get off the bus, and cross the street. Usually, the solution is to take the bus in the other direction.


I have termed this strategy "direct instruction" for problem-solving skills. By this method, individuals develop scripts for many common solvable problems over time. Often, when presented with a novel problem, individuals can draw from a similar script and apply problem-solving to a situation if it is close enough to an existing script. This instruction method also benefits from real-time experience. In-the-moment training adds to the meaningfulness of the lesson.


Problem-solving is best taught by putting children into problem situations and guiding them in achieving a solution. Over time, collected experience increases, and children spontaneously solve more complex problems. This process can be slow and arduous, but the payoff is incredible as children achieve greater and greater independence.

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