How to Teach Problem-Solving Skills to Elementary Students

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How to Teach Problem-Solving Skills to Elementary Students

Great teachers are creative problem solvers. 

And helping your students become efficient problem solvers is one of the greatest skills you can teach them.

Young students who master problem-solving skills early in life are more likely to find academic, social, and emotional success in the long run. When children can creatively solve their own problems, they develop more confidence, persistence, and resilience – feeling more prepared for the challenges life will throw their way. 

So let’s dive into how you can teach problem-solving skills to your elementary students!

What are problem-solving skills?

Problem-solving skills are some of the most useful skills a student (or adult) can master!

These skills include being able to:

  • Identify the problem
  • Gather and analyze information about the problem
  • Brainstorm potential solutions
  • Evaluate the solutions
  • Choose and implement a solution
  • Reflect on their solution and learn from their choices

When students can successfully use these skills, they are equipped to handle a variety of challenges and situations. 

Being a savvy problem-solver helps students feel more confident and capable. The more your students can solve their own problems, the less time and energy you’ll have to spend solving their problems for them!

Start with instruction

Students are not automatically familiar with problem-solving skills, so they must be intentionally taught how to identify problems, analyze information, try different solutions, and reflect on their choices.

This works best when broken down into simple, focused steps. Trying to teach a class of first graders all the steps involved at once will lead to confusion, frustration, and overwhelm.

Instead, break each step into manageable chunks and teach them one at a time.

Model problem-solving skills in action

Once you’ve taught your students one component or specific problem-solving skill, practice it together so they can see what the skill looks and feels like in action.

If you’re working on identifying problems, have students act out different scenarios while the rest of the class puts on their “detective” hats and tries to figure out what the problem is.

This could look like having two students act out a conflict – like both wanting to play with the same toy – while the class works on identifying the problem they need to solve.

You can also model your own problem-solving skills in real-time as you use them throughout the day. If you realize you forgot to bring your packed lunch, you could tell your class – “Ms. M forgot her lunch today! That’s a problem. Can I solve it? Let me think of some possible solutions…”. 

The more your students interact with the skills you have explicitly taught them, the more confident they will be in using their skills in real life!

We love using our Peaceful Problem-Solving Slides to walk through different real-life scenarios and discuss what we would do if we were in that situation. Click here to check those out.

Scale problem-solving skills with guided practice

Start working on each skill in groups with you offering support and advice. As your students get more comfortable with the skill, step back and let them work on it as a group without your support.

You can also have students work in small groups or even individually to solve more complex problems as they develop and grow their skills. 

Give feedback and help students reflect

Honest feedback on how students are using their problem-solving skills will help them refine and improve their skills. 

Don’t be afraid to point out when brainstormed solutions are unhelpful or impossible or stepping in to offer support when students need it. 

Make sure you consistently reinforce the proper process and skill application, even if the solution or result isn’t feasible or “correct.” You want students to feel like they can confidently use their problem-solving skills without worrying about getting the solution exactly right.

In life, problems are often messy and rarely perfectly solved – so help your students embrace a growth mindset now and they will be better problem-solvers in the real world.


While students are building their problem-solving skills, they will generally be most productive and successful in a group.

Give students plenty of opportunities to work together – in pairs, in small groups, as a class – to solve real problems that pop up and invented problems you give them. Working in a group will also help them develop their communication skills, which are helpful when solving problems and in many other areas of life!

Make sure not to just let groups run wild. Students will need a lot of supervision, feedback, and support from you as they learn to work together. You can also help groups function more effectively by appointing different leaders and assigning roles in the group so everyone understands how to participate and help. 

Regularly use problem-solving in your classroom 

These skills can be applied in any number of ways! The more opportunities you give your students to use their problem-solving skills, the better they will be.

Look for other lessons and subject areas in your classroom where you can bring in problem-solving skills.

These skills easily integrate into:

  • Math lessons – solving equations or finding a missing piece of information
  • Reading stories – identifying the conflict in the plot and predicting how the characters will react or solve the problem in the story
  • Science experiments – making a hypothesis or prediction is a practical use of problem-solving skills
  • Classroom conflicts – when two or more students encounter an issue, help them use their problem-solving skills to solve it

Teaching problem-solving skills to elementary students

It may feel hard to teach problem-solving skills to young students, but when you break the skills down into individual actions and take the time to explicitly teach them, model them, use them in guided practice, give feedback on your students’ use of them, and integrate them into other subject areas – you’ll find your students become brilliant little problem solvers in no time!

What’s next? Download my Free SEL Curriculum Sample>>

Check out this FREE SAMPLER of my complete SEL Curriculum: Our Caring Community, to get an idea of what’s included, and how you can implement SEL mini-lessons and activities into your classroom with very little time or energy!

Included in this sampler are: 

  • 15 pages from the full curriculum
  • 4 activities from the full curriculum
  • 1 FULL sample lesson plan
  • 3 mini-posters
  • Color & black and white options for easy printing!

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