When children face a problem or are challenged, our immediate reaction is to fix the problem for them. We want to alleviate the pain and don’t want to see them struggle. For instance, if a child forgets their homework, the parent will drop it off at lunchtime. If a child does not remember the homework, the parent will check the classroom portal or email the teacher. If a child forgets a deadline, the parent will ask for an extension. A well-intentioned adult wants to provide relief and a solution; however, this type of rescue strips the opportunity away for the child to learn they can handle things, solve their own problems, experience natural and safe consequences, and causes them to feel a low sense of control. Fundamentally, the child does not get the opportunity to flex their frontal lobe, the thinking part of the brain, to learn to problem-solve or handle these and related situations.
We want to cultivate problem-solving skills with our students so they learn they can handle things independently, trust themselves, have confidence in their decisions, and think critically and creatively. We want to arm their coping skills and problem-solving toolbox. How do we do that?
As Ned Johnson and William Stixrud describe in their book What Do You Say? How to Talk with Kids to Build Motivation, Stress Tolerance, and a Happy Home, when people deal with a stressful situation, “saving yourself makes you brave going forward” (p. 51). The brain is remarkably malleable, and each experience triggers new neural connections, strengthens, or prunes connections (gradually fades the connections). When we practice a skill, the neurons in the brain fire together and strengthen. In this scenario, when a child undergoes a stressful situation and pulls through despite the hardship, they sculpt their brains to handle difficult situations. So that the next time the child experiences a similar stressful-inducing event, the brain is adept at managing it, responds with resilience, and trusts themselves.
Ned Johnson and William Stixrud explain that in order to recover from a stressful situation, people need to experience the peak... and the aftermath and feelings that come afterward- children are no different. If we swoop in and save them at the pinnacle of the event, their brain gets stuck at the height of the event, and they remember the most stressful part. Instead of learning how to handle stressful situations, the brain learns to avoid stress, children come running for “help,” their problem-solving skills are weakened, and they lose their sense of control. Enduring challenges strengthen the communication between the amygdala, the feelings part of the brain, and the prefrontal cortex, the thinking part of the brain- the strength in communication between the two is a measurement of resilience, the ability to cope with strong feelings and to return to a pre-crisis state.
I am certainly not encouraging adults to let children fend for themselves; offer your help and brainstorm solutions together. If your child is having difficulty making a decision (should I stay in AP Literature?), suggest listing out the pros and cons together. If they forgot an assignment, brainstorm possible solutions i.e., get to school early, ask a friend, role-play the discussion they can have with their teacher, etc. Entrust them to make a decision and learn from their experiences; communicate bravery. When we brainstorm solutions collaboratively and encourage them to make their own decisions, we communicate to them that they’re competent at handling their problems and that we trust them. By doing so in a supporting and nurturing way, they are more likely to ask for our help and suggestions the next time they need support. Allowing children to problem-solve and make their own decisions empowers them, builds stress tolerance, and fortifies their problem-solving skills.
Stixrud, William R., and Ned Johnson. What Do You Say?: How to Talk with Kids to Build Motivation, Stress Tolerance, and a Happy Home. Viking, an Imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, 2021.