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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Helping children make good choices

The final four steps in the problem-solving process involve being able to identify your choices, analyse the consequences of these choices before you act, then being able to make the best choice in the circumstances.

Life isn’t black and white

We have probably thought at some point in our lives how much easier things would be if there was a clear, black and white, right or wrong answer to a problem. But life is not like that. It is full of shades of grey.

There may be many different solutions to a problem, each with its own positives and negatives. And the best solution may differ according to the context you are in.

Problem-solver’s block (as opposed to writer’s block)

Problem solving involves a lot of what we call higher-order-thinking processes (Queensland government, 2004; Thomas, nd). That is, we have to be able to look at the situation and analyse it. We need to be able to predict how our actions may affect others or ourselves. We then need to make decisions about what consequences we can live with, and which ones we want to avoid.

These complex processes can become very difficult for some children. For example, most of us when under extreme stress or emotion just let ourselves go with what our body and feelings want us to do.

For example, when confronted with a live cockroach I am likely to utter a genteel (or not) scream and take flight to the nearest elevated surface. If I was reasonable, I would know that a cockroach cannot hurt me.

Alternately, when I was faced with a crisis when teaching I surprised myself with the ability to go through required steps to ensure the safety of those in my care… and when everyone had gone home, dissolved into uncontrollable tears.

In these situations I acted without thinking because the strength of the emotion interfered with the rational problem-solving process. The practiced, routine or natural response takes over.

In the same way, children living with anxiety disorders or depression may find it difficult to problem-solve as negative thoughts, tiredness and fluctuating emotions may make it hard to concentrate, organise their thoughts, and analyse the situation effectively (Crundwell & Killu, 2007).

So in the face of teasing or exams, they may become frozen or speechless or unable to work through the problem. Alternately, they may have a “melt-down” or demonstrate their emotion through verbal or physical aggression against others or themselves.

Taking things literally

For children with intellectual disabilities/developmental delays, the ability to use higher-order thinking skills is impaired. For the most part they will need to be taught, step-by-step, how to respond to difficult situations. The difficulty with this is that they may implement these steps rigidly, not adapting them to the required context (Raymond, 2004) .

For example, we met Jo in the previous post. Jo was taught to offer an exchange and take turns if a child has taken something of hers or something she wants. So at “fruit break”, when another child took the slice of orange that she wanted, she offered an apple in exchange. When this was refused, she suggested they “take turns” eating the orange. The difficulty with this is that, a school, there is a clear rule about not touching or sharing others’ food.

This is called a difficulty in adaptive behaviour, which is usually used as a key measure of intellectual or developmental delays.


As mentioned in previous posts, acting without thinking about consequences is a key characteristic of ADD or ADHD. For more on this, follow this link and also follow up the references to the Stop, Think, Do program by Lindy Petersen.

Think Good, Feel Good by Paul Stallard

This table could be a great tool to help children work through an issue. It comes from Chapter 12 in Stallard’s book. I would highly recommend that you access this book if your child is having difficulties with problem-solving due to confidence, anxiety or other issues.

You could adapt this table to help children with developmental delays in the problem-solving process. Using Boardmaker or other picture languages to complete this table, or creating social stories are some alternatives.


Crundwell, M.R., and Killu, K. (2007). Understanding AND Accommodating Students with Depression in the Classroom. Teaching Exceptional Children, 40(1), pg. 48

Queensland Government. (2004). Higher order thinking. Retrieved 28/08/2009 from:

Raymond, E.B. (2004). Learners with Mild Disabilities: A Characteristics Approach. New York: Pearson Education.

Stallard, P. (2002). Think Good- Feel Good. John Wiley & Sons: Australia

Thomas, A. (nd). Higher order thinking – it’s HOT! Retrieved 28/7/2009 from:


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