Teaching Children to Problem Solve

I have worked with many children in occupational therapy sessions who struggle with executive function skills.  One specific area that is almost always an issue is problem solving.  I have a favorite tool that I use to help both parents and therapists grasp what “problem solving” looks like and how to break it into concrete steps that are teachable:

Goal, Plan, Do, Check

Where this idea came from?  The credit for this idea goes to the work by Helene Polatajko, OT.  She is an OT that works as a research, educator, and clinician with children with developmental coordination disorder.  She developed the Cognitive Orientation to daily Occupational Performance model (CO-OP), which is a cognitive-based intervention approach to improving occupational performance.  Learn more about Helen Polatajko from The American Occupational Therapy Foundation.

Goal, plan, do, check example

Click to view larger image

What does Cognitive Orientation to daily Occupational Performance model (CO-OP) mean?  Well, there is an entire book on this subject, but here is a short summary:

  • Teaches children to use a global strategy of Goal-Plan-Do-Check.  In practice, this means to set a goal, make a plan, do the plan, then check if it worked.
    • Focuses on guiding children to find their own solutions to what they want to do.
    • It is about the process, not the result.  Helps to build initiation, organization, planning, self-monitoring, and self-correction.
    • The global strategy gives a structure for all tasks, then specific strategies can be used on specific tasks.
    • Guides them to find strategies that can then be generalized to other goals and problems.
  • Evidence-based approach that is based on motor learning, cognitive behavioral, and problem-solving theories.  Has been used and studied with children with developmental coordination disorder, cerebral palsy, attention disorders, autism spectrum disorder, and brain injuries.

How can I use this?  

  • Nearly all daily tasks and play activities in childhood have a goal, so using a strategy to teach children about identifying and achieving goals should fit naturally into daily routines and play.
    • It isn’t about doing a specific problem-solving task, but instead about applying a problem-solving and goal-oriented approach to all things.
    • This is a key part of building executive function skills- to learn more, see my previous posts.
  • Start using key words with a child during daily tasks.  “My goal is ____.””Let’s make a plan together.”  “Let’s get to work and try that plan.”  “Don’t forget to check your work.”
  • Make a visual to help both the adult and child follow this outline.  As it feels more comfortable, a white board or even just a sheet of paper can work.  For older children, verbal cues may be enough.
  • Start giving the child responsibility for one part of the process.  Maybe it is that they first need to come up with the goal (“What should we paint today?”).  Next might be having the child state the plan by writing down the steps of the task.  As children gain skills, the adult can provide less support.
  • Work up to having the child be responsible for the majority of the outline, with adult support mainly for checking work and generating new strategies as needed.
  • Ask a child to reflect on why the plan worked or didn’t work.  “What could you do differently?” “What strategy did you use?”
  • Video example of using these steps as verbal cues with a preschooler
  • I’ve included photos of real life examples below, click on each to see more details.

Interested in learning more about executive functioning:

5 Best Answers to Your Child’s Questions (that encourage executive functioning skills)

Now What?  What Parent, Teachers, and Therapists can do to Encourage Executive Function and Self-Regulation Skills in Everyday Life

Impulse Control: Home Activities and Game


Paige Hays is an occupational therapist who provides in-home, pediatric occupational therapy services in the south metro area of the Twin Cities, MN. She is a mother of 2 girls, avid DIYer, and a highly skilled and experienced OT. She specializes in working in pediatrics, with diverse expertise ranging from cognition and sensory issues to working with children with neuromuscular disabilities or complex medical needs.  www.paigehays.net