Flexibility of thinking and problem solving are two interacting skills impacting academic and social functioning. Children who have difficulty with these also have trouble with “self-monitoring,” that is the ability to be aware of the correctness of your output to a given situation, question or problem.
Underneath, these skills is something that I refer to as the “Hmmm, let me think about it,” voice which emerges when questions are asked in which the answer is not readily apparent. “How many states are there in the United States,” does not usually produce the, “Let me think about it voice,” as the answer is factual. You either know the answer or you don’t.
Questions such as, “Why do you think ________,” require the problem solving voice to help reach a conclusion. It’s almost impossible to answer the question without activating, “Hmm, let me think about it.”
When a child struggles with this voice they have difficulty with tasks that involve higher order reasoning and inferencing. Here’s a great example from a young girl, I tested recently, Ashley, age 9..
On a reading comprehension screening utilizing a fill-in- the- blank format, Ashley was given the following item for her to insert one word in the blank:
“You can _______________ a boat out of a piece of wood.”
Regardless of whether you think this is a good item or not (I don’t love it), the statement does require a certain amount of reflection and flexibility of thinking to arrive at the answer of “make,” or “carve” inserted in the blank.
If you are too rapid in style (as was Ashley) and perhaps an inflexible problem-solver (as was Ashley) you will likely reach a wrong conclusion (as did Ashley).
Here’s the interaction that took place almost verbatim with Ashley:
Ashely read the line and quickly stated:
You can “row” a boat out of a piece of piece of wood.”
Even though the answer “row” made little sense, Ashley did not monitor her answer or attempt to self-correct. She thought it was just fine.
I pushed her a bit and encouraged her to offer a different response. In a sense my indirect pushing suggested to Ashley that she consider and problem solve with a different type of answer.
Without skipping a beat, Ashley answered, “You can “paddle” a boat out of a piece of wood,” for her alternative response. Again, no self- correction. No consideration. No, “Hmm, let me think about it,” in evidence.
The “problem solving voice,” involving reflecting and considering is a skill like many other skills. To some it comes somewhat naturally, to others they need to have it taught to them directly and practiced over time in order for the skills of problem solving, reflecting and self-monitoring to become more a part of the child’s skill repertoire.