Teaching Children to Think Instead of Teaching Them to Resist or Wait for Directions

© David Sponder, L.E.P., BCBA, RDI CC, Floortime C1
Executive Director, Sponderworks Children’s Services

This strategy is useful for any child because the focus is on teaching them to recognize when they have a problem and then to take responsibility without being asked or directed to do something.  This strategy is especially useful with children who are prone to engaging adults in power struggles, defiance or argument, as well as with children who depend too much on prompting or external motivation.

The strategy is basically this:

State the Problem, not the Solution

Let’s look at two ways of saying the same thing:

The Problem The Solution
There are toys all over the floor. Clean up the toys

It is evident that stating the solution is pretty much the same thing as giving a direction.

Both of the statements above are forms of “prompts” for action, although one is a prompt for the child to think and take responsibility, and the other is a prompt to comply.  When you state the solution, the child does not necessarily have to take any responsibility for recognizing the problem or for doing anything about it.  The child in other words, depends on you to do the thinking and to supply the memory [or more likely] the motivation.  When you state the problem, you not only create a moment, an opportunity and an expectation for the child to think and come up with a solution, you also put the responsibility for motivating follow-up action (implementing the solution, e.g. cleaning up the toys) where it belongs.

There are other benefits to stating the problem and not the solution.  One is that it takes power and “compliance” out of the equation.  Most people don’t want to be told what to do.  They want to do what they recognize needs to be done.  They want things to be their idea.

Boss 1: Finish your budgets by November 4th.
Boss 2:  In order for us to be paid, budgets need to be in by November 4th.

You don’t need to be hypersensitive to see that Boss 2 is more likely to have more productive employees than Boss 1.  Everyone wants to treated like an intelligent human being – or at least the opportunity to act like one.

This is especially true for children who are sensitive or preoccupied with control, fairness, and that tend to engage adults (or direction-givers in general) in power struggles.  For them, it isn’t so much about what needs to be done, it is about who gets to tell whom to do it.   This child may know the toys are all over the place and that people can trip over them and that yes, it is a problem.  This child may have even had plans to clean them up.  But as soon as someone else directed them to clean up it because an issue; a source of agitation; a demotivation and; an invitation to argue or defy.  For these children, it often doesn’t matter how nice and respectful you are when you ask them to do something.  When you request, “Please pick up the toys,” they hear, “I want you to pick up the toys for me.”  It really isn’t about you, but they make it about you.

Another good reason to state problems instead of solutions is that you teach children to recognize when there is a problem and whose responsibility it is to supply the motivation and the action.  When you give directions, prompt, bribe, coerce, cajole – you take the responsibility for your child’s action and motivation.

Well – things just wouldn’t get done!

Stating the problem and not the solution could initially take a little bit longer to get things done, and it should not be expected to work all of the time (below).  One reason that it will take longer is because you have to pause after you state the problem to create an obvious moment – one in which you create psychological expectation (Well?).   You may get no response or an unsatisfactory one,  but you can’t just let him or her go.  How well it works might depend on a few things.

  • Sometimes, he is just oblivious.  He’s simply left the responsibility for remembering up to you.  That’s when the technique works the best.  The child often feels good about figuring out what needs to be done and does it.

Scenario 1

Adult: “You left the gate open – go close it.”
Child:  “No I didn’t.”
Adult:  “Yes you did. Stop arguing with me and go close the gate before the dog gets out.”
Child:  “But I didn’t do it.  You always blame me.”

(Now, the dog is halfway down the road)

Scenario 2

Adult: “Oh, no.  The dog might get out.”
Child:  “The gate is open.  I’ll get it.”

In Scenario 2, the adult didn’t waste time or energy trying to assign blame and shame.  The child probably knows he left the gate open, but the way the adult put it in Scenario 1, he felt like he had to defend himself.

  • Sometimes, he doesn’t get it.  Here, you have to define the problem more clearly.


Child:  Playing video game
Adult: “Baseball Practice is in 10 minutes.”
Child:  “I know” (keeps playing)
Adult: (Still trying to state the problem and avoid giving a naked prompt or direction) “If you keep playing, you will be late”

You might expect that your child will argue and just keep playing.  This is a distinct possibility.  Here are two scenarios that can show how it can go.

Scenario 1

Child:  Playing video game
Adult: “Baseball Practice is in 10 minutes.”
Child:  “I know” (keeps playing)
Adult: “If you keep playing, you will be late”
Child:  “No I won’t.”

  • Sometimes, he doesn’t know what to do.  Here you have to help by showing some consideration, respect and empathy, and then giving choices.

Scenario 2

Child:  Playing video game
Adult: “Baseball Practice is in 10 minutes.”
Child:  “I know” (keeps playing)
Adult: “If you keep playing, you will be late”
Child:  “No I won’t.”
Adult: “I can see that you’re in the middle of your game, but if you keep playing you’ll be late.”

(Pauses and waits for voluntary problem-solving and action – but doesn’t get it).

Adult: “Where would be a good place to stop and save your level?”
Child:  “I have to slay the dragon or else I’ll die.”

Adult: “OK.  I have no idea how long that takes, but here’s your choices: If you don’t slay that dragon in 3 minutes – it’s 4:37 now, that means by 4:40 (makes sure she has the child’s attention and points to the clock – if you get no real attention or acknowledgement, then you are talking to the wind), then you are going to have to save your game where it is and start getting ready, or I will turn it off.”

Here, the adult gave a fair choice and different ways to solve the problem.  The adult may however have to follow through and turn off the game, which could get ugly.  It is absolutely necessary though to follow through in some way.  If turning the game off is unrealistic because the child’s reaction can be too severe, there are other consequences that would be appropriate:

  • Allow natural consequences to happen.  In this case, the child will be late for practice, and he is going to have to have to suffer the consequences from the Coach.  In this case, the adult would not want to make excuses for the child or allow the child to make excuses for himself.  He ended up being late because, despite warnings, he continued to play his video game.
  • Apply logical consequences.  Always wait for the right time.  Never do this when your child is upset, or while you’re both arguing.
  • Continue to state things as a problem…

Adult: “You know yesterday, you had a hard time leaving your video game to get ready on time.  This is a problem.  You got in trouble for it with your Coach.” (pauses and waits for the child to make a suggestion or contribution; further denial and argument remains a possibility for many children).


Child Denies Scenario

Child:  “No I didn’t.”

(Some children cannot face the shame or guilt of their own behavior.  This is a type of problem that is best dealt with in other ways – perhaps with professional help.  What doesn’t work with a child who can deny on such a level is to try to argue or coerce them into admitting things.)

Adult: “I don’t want you to be late tomorrow.  So what is going to be the plan?”

(This allows the child a way out, as well as an opportunity for the parent to help with solving the problem ahead of time – see “Assisted Problem Solving” techniques.  If the child continues to deny or has no suggestions, then the parent can give choices.)

Adult: “OK, it doesn’t look as if we’re getting anywhere here.  So I will give you your choices.  If the game is not off by 4:30 tomorrow, that means playing before practice is a problem.  In the future, you will not be allowed to play before practice.”

Child Doesn’t Get It Scenario

Child:  “I know.  Don’t worry.  I won’t be late tomorrow.”
Adult: “I don’t want you to get in trouble with the Coach again.  So what is going to be the plan?”
Child:  “I’ll make sure I’m done in time to get ready.”
Adult: “I’ve heard that before.  What is going to be different next time?”
Child:  “I’ll turn it off sooner.”
Adult: “Good so far.  But remember, if you aren’t ready by 10 minutes to 5, then you’ll be late.  If the game isn’t over by 4:40, we’ll have the same problem again.”
Child:  “I know.”
Adult:  “And the time isn’t the real problem.  You get very involved and it’s very hard for you to hear me warn you and you forget to look at the clock.  So I feel like I’m nagging you when it is your responsibility to be ready on time.

But the real problem is that it’s too hard to tell how long it’s gonna take before you can save your game.  Do you have any ideas?”  (Assist in problem solving).

In this scenario, the parent still states things as problems: 1) he gets involved; 2) the parent feels like she’s nagging, and; 3) it’s hard to quit a video game in the middle – the parent demonstrated understanding of that.

Situations where stating the Problem and not the Solution is Not Enough

When the Child Intends to Avoid Responsibility

Sometimes, the child doesn’t want to do the work or would simply do something else or let things remain other people’s responsibility.  Here’s what you can do:

  •  Try to use the ‘State the Problem, Not the Solution’ initially and give it a chance to work Offer to help.  Sometimes, the child is simply overwhelmed with the thought of cleaning up all by himself or doing what is expected.
  • Offer to split the responsibility (“OK, I’ll stand here by the hamper, and you throw me the clothes;”  “How about you start on that end and I’ll start on this end”)
  • Give choices.  If you can, offer 2 preferable alternatives and one reality alternative (e.g., “You can clean up the toys yourself, or, I can help you, or, if I have to clean them up, they will go in my room.”).

When the Child Hasn’t the Experience or the Skills to Solve the Problem

Children lack the life experience to plan for future problems or they don’t fully realize the potential consequences of their action or inaction.  If you’re lucky, you have a child that is wise enough to defer to your adult experience;  one who is grateful for your repeated demonstrations that you do things with his best interest foremost in your mind.  The following suggestions are for the rest of you.


Adult: “We’re going to be on the road for almost 5 hours.  I think you will get bored.” (states problem)
Child: “No I won’t.”
Adult:  (Slightly more directive) “You will need some things to do just in case, because we are not going to be able to stop.”
Child: “I’ll be fine”
At this point, the child seems to be insisting on being wrong.  This comes from youthful inexperience and wanting to be “in charge of himself.”

Parent Choices:

Persuade: If your child will listen to you, try to tell him the consequences of the choices he can make (e.g., if you don’t go to the bathroom now, we might not be able to stop for a long while).

Gently remind the child of past times when he became bored and it was a problem and what solutions worked and didn’t work.

Adult: “Well, the last time, you got really bored it was lucky that we brought along…” (pause; this is still an inoffensive “declarative” statement rather than a direction or “imperative;” wait to see if this encourages some thinking and problem solving)

Persuasion can easily lead to argument because the child is really interested in showing that he is able to “know better” and be “in charge of himself.”  Here it is important that you don’t adopt the child’s attitude of trying to be “right” and “win” the power struggle (no one wins).

There’s no guarantee this will work.  Don’t expect a guarantee – this is a teaching process that may not pay off until the next time.      

Prepare anyway.  If your child will not bring the things he needs, bring the things he needs surreptitiously, so when the problem inevitably comes up, you can “save him” in a way that hopefully will convince him to listen to you in the future.  At least you’ll have a concrete experience you can remind him of the next time.

Become More Directive: This “just do it” approach can work, but it invites further power struggle amongst child prone to it.  Sometimes, this is necessary, but the wise parent chooses which battle to enjoin.


When the Child is Overwhelmed, Panicky, or Getting Out of Control

When the child becomes anxious or panicky, thinking becomes diminished and behavior becomes more reactive.  At this point, it isn’t wise to continue to challenge thinking.  This is a better opportunity to demonstrate your helpfulness and trustworthiness.

Reassure, Calm, Soothe: Your main objective here is to help the child return to a calm state where you can use these techniques and challenge their thinking again.  Reassure him that together, you can solve the problem and things will be OK.

Start the Solution: Begin taking the actions necessary to solve the problem.  Invite the child to help you.  Help as much as you like, and then, as the child calms and cooperates, transfer more responsibility to the child.