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(208) We Aren't Teaching Kids Actual Problem-Solving Skills (and what to do about it)

In this podcast episode, Sara Olsher and Danielle Bettmann discuss teaching kids problem-solving skills and helping kids manage overwhelm as protective factors that help children avoid mental health crises. A few points:

  • Teachers and school counselors also struggle with differentiating between a big deal and a little deal when addressing children's problems.
  • Imagining the problem as a piece of paper and throwing it in the trash can is not an effective problem-solving technique for children.
  • Executive function skills are necessary for effective problem solving, and assumptions that children already know how to do it can create confusion and frustration.
  • Children come to adults for help because they do not know what to do, so dismissing them is not helpful.
  • Teaching children alternatives, options, and how to handle problems themselves is essential for their long-term problem-solving skills.


Sara Olsher 0:00
Hello friends welcome back to the Raising Resilience podcast. My name is Sara Olsher. And I am here with Danielle Bettmann. We are with Mighty and Bright, and we are talking about the protective factors that will help your kids avoid a mental health crisis hopefully, and the Raising Resilience Program is all based on these protective factors. Today we are talking about problem solving and overwhelm. And I think this is a very cool skill to learn. Because this is something that was developed not only because it is a pain point for kids and parents, but this is something that teachers deal with. This is something that school counselors deal with. And as adults dealing with kids problems can be frustrating and repetitive. And there's, it's kind of convoluted, like confusing, because your kids can come to you and how do you know when is the time that an adult needs to step in? And how do you know when this is a time where they're tattling and need to be told to go deal with the problem themselves. And one of our board members in our early conversations about this was talking about how this is something that she deals with on a daily basis as a school counselor at an elementary school. And that it's really hard to try and explain to kids the difference between a big deal and a little deal.

And in our research talking to kids about what their experience was of having adults help them solve problems and some of the social emotional curriculums that are out there. And their solution for when something is bothering a kid. In my daughter's school, for example, they had the trash can tool where if something is bothering you, you're supposed to imagine that problem as a piece of paper, crumple it up and throw it in the trash can.

And when doing some research about this, how well do you think that this skill works, kids? They don't. Not surprisingly, that is totally unhelpful. Because if I am bothered as an adult by a problem, it doesn't just go away. Because I think to myself, this is a little deal. I'm still upset. And otherwise it wouldn't be a problem. And for kids, they feel the exact same way. And it feels really invalidating to be told this is not a big deal. Just ignore it. And so this month's tools and lessons are all about, like, how do we empower kids to solve their own problems, whether it is an in the moment problem, or a larger problem that makes them feel like really overwhelmed? How do you break that down. 

Danielle Bettmann 2:56
And this is something I'm trying to do with my kids. It's something that I talk to a lot of parents about, especially parents have struggled kids, because they are very sure of themselves, they know that this problem is a very big problem. And if they are not, if you don't agree, if you don't see it from their way, their lens, if you don't validate that experience for them, they feel like they have no choice. But to escalate their message for help in more louder, bigger ways, until they're satisfied that you get it and that you help them through it. So to be able to not diminish their needs, but be able to meet them where they're at, and then be able to provide solutions that set you both up for success. That's a big part of the positive discipline that I help families learn is the ways to collaboratively problem solve together and to be able to even help kids identify what a problem is or what the problem is in a particular situation outside of emotional reactions. And then help them learn the skill of brainstorming solutions and knowing what it looks like to have to pick something and try it and see what's going to happen as a result or be able to know how to initiate taking that step. And that's those a lot of executive function skills wrapped up into problem solving, that we don't give kids credit for needing to learn and that we kind of make assumptions that they know how to do just if they have the expressive language that makes us kind of think that that's built in. And so we begin to create a lot of confusion, miscommunication, frustration, especially for things like tattling where that's really a child coming to you saying I have a problem. I don't know how to solve and so for you to just go back and say like solve it yourself. They're they're basically saying, I don't know how that's why I came to you So can you please help me. And when we recognize that it doesn't mean that we need to not have boundaries, you know, for what tattling looks like, it's, there's just a teaching element that we're missing. So when we realize that we need to be addressing that teaching component of what to do alternatively, or instead, or how they can handle that themselves, or what that lose their options even are in that moment, that's going to be the thing that stays with them long term.

Sara Olsher 5:29
Absolutely, I think that is, they would not be coming to you if they knew what to do. And, and so I think maybe some of the issue when the kids come to you is like, maybe you didn't know what to do, either. And so then you're like, having this reaction of like, well go deal with it yourself, or forget about it. I don't know what to do. Like, I'm sorry, Jimmy keeps taking your truck. Like, no one's playing with the truck?

Danielle Bettmann 5:58
Oh, yeah. Yeah, we jumped to that. Because yeah, what else can we do? I don't know how to deal with this either. Clearly, you're showing this as a problem. But yeah, I'll just take the problem out of it. If it's the problems, the trucks in the truck has to go.

Sara Olsher 6:14
So our tools this month are a wheel of like helping kids solve in the moment problems like the truck situation. Yeah, like, here are some things that some choices that you have to help solve this problem that kids can reference, and, you know, make the decision about do we need to get rid of the truck entirely, can we share the truck, etc. And then the other tool that we have is a workbook called the alligator closest to the boat. And that workbook is based on the idea that we need to solve the most critical problem first, the most timely problem first, and this is a workbook I personally have used as an adult, because when you're feeling overwhelmed, and you don't know where to start, sometimes you have to dump all of it out of your brain first, in order to even identify what the problems are at all, because there's so much that's wrong. And or it feels like so much is wrong. It's not even necessarily accurate. It's just like, that's the feeling that you have. And so we're giving kids this tool that they can use to practice so that they get into a habit, or they really like understand this skill, of being able to break a big problem down, or all of these big feelings down into easily easy to solve chunks.

Danielle Bettmann 7:44
Mm hmm. Yeah. And that's, again, not as nice skill set we may have been given as kids or not something that we're skilled at yet, as adults. And so it's something that we have to build our toolkit, and it's again, a lifelong journey, of being able to really see things for what they are and know how to break through that overwhelm. And we just need structure, we need things that help us learn that thinking pattern, so that not only can we help sort through, what do we do with the truck, but we sort through, like, what do we do about this click at school or the teacher that's being really mean to you, or this other will like more complex issue? You know, like, what, which high school should we send you to, or you know, some others just like, it gets bigger and bigger and bigger. And so when we lay the foundation, and teach these skills alongside life went as it continues to move on into more and more complex things, then they're able to have some understanding and some perspective to go lean back on when things feel really confusing and hard and emotional. But that's not It's not simple. It really requires kind of, like, you know, labeling the alligators and putting a crown on one of them. Because without that, sometimes our brain just doesn't know what to do. It goes into, you know, complete burnout mode. And eventually, you know, we numb and we escape, and you know, all sorts of other alternatives.

Sara Olsher 9:15
Yeah, I just think with so many of these skills that we are teaching, when I look back on what my life could have been like, if I had known these things at a younger age, I think it would have saved me so much heart, heartache, and it would have helped me to solve so many problems that I didn't know how to solve, and instead impacted me in negative ways that then kind of snowballed on themselves. So finally, this is I just keep going back to the number of times that my daughter has come to me upset because she was at school and she was having a problem and that probably Mom was dismissed by either a totally overworked, overwhelmed, exhausted teacher, which was a whole different conversation I had to explain to my daughter, you know, when 35 kids are coming to you, after a pandemic complaining about, you know, all the kids, you don't have the time in the day, to be able to help every kid solve their problem, but to be dismissed by, you know, a school counselor saying, you know, this is not a big deal, when to her and her friends, it feels like a really big deal. It feels like, you know, the end of the world with their friendships, you know, I think it just has so much value that we as parents have way more impact on when we have that structure, when we have this, like, this is what I love so much about this program, is it we're giving you these skills, because these are problems that are going to come up. And when when we are able to kind of like preemptively teach these things in childhood, and use them on these lower risk problems, then when it gets to be a big deal, they have the skills that they can use, you know, you don't want them to be in middle school, and have no concept of how to deal with a problem. When you know, the stakes are really high and someone is pressuring them to do something that they don't want to do. Or, you know, these are these are the things that we want to prepare them for.

Danielle Bettmann 11:38
Right? And if we can do that and more low stakes ways, when things are more neutral, when brains are more online and listening and receptive, the better because then it's something that they'll be able to call upon.

Sara Olsher 11:53
Absolutely. Well, thank you, Danielle, for talking about this. And thank you listeners for being here. If you have any questions about helping kids problem solve, if you'd like to talk us to talk about this more, feel free to let us know you can ask us a question by visiting mighty and and clicking on the button that says ask a question and we will be here next time. Thank you